IMAGE OF KOREA Rite of passage at Nonsan Army Training Center

“Y our parents and siblings sleep tight, putting their trust in you!”
An outsized billboard backdrops long lines of young men with closecropped hair striding five deep forward, addressing them with its deeply emotional message. They look tense. But they are neither prisoners of war nor convicts toting their meager possessions in small shopping bags. They are candidates for military duty, young men who will give two years or more of their youthful prime in service to protect the national community, so “parents and siblings [can] sleep tight.” This scene is repeated every Monday and Thursday at the Army Training Center in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province, in the coastal western flank of the country. In addition to the billboard signs greeting the new recruits, there is a display of military equipment, weapons, combat uniforms, and other gear that they will be using once they enter the army.
In the Republic of Korea, every healthy young man over the age of 18 must go through this rite of passage. Induction day brings a curiously festive air when some 7,000 people gather in town: parents, other relatives, and girlfriends come to see off the 2,000 military candidates. When the admission ceremony is over and the families have left, the new recruits join their battalions, spend the next three days going through physical examinations and aptitude tests, and receive their military supplies. Then they begin five weeks of hard training.
Two weeks later, the parents are notified by phone which regiment their sons have been assigned to and the recruits’ civilian clothes are sent home with a letter. When the parents receive this parcel of clothing, their worries take hold. This signals the start of almost two years, sometimes longer, of military duty that could put their sons in harm’s way. But over the 60-some years since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, people have become accustomed to living with the threat of war; terrorist violence in faraway countries seems more frightening and immediate.
The Nonsan Army Training Center is one of the largest military training centers in the world. Covering a vast area 76 times the size of Sangam World Cup Stadium in Seoul, this huge complex has a resident population of new recruits, or trainee soldiers, and instructors that almost matches that of the nearby town of 16,500. It is currently responsible for the rigorous basic training of some 45 percent of the nation’s annual 125,000 army recruits, so far producing some 7.8 million new soldiers since it opened in 1951.
The lingering mystery is that a remarkable number of Korean males who manage to get exempted from this coming-of-age rite by failing the physical examination later presume themselves as leaders of society.

Kim Hwa-young Literary Critic; Member of the National Academy of Arts
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