When they turn 18, almost all South Korean men receive a letter informing them to prepare for a stint in the military.
A year later, they undergo a physical test to prove they are capable of serving, and at 20, they are able to enlist in the army, air force, navy, or Marines.
Before the age of 28, those eligible for active duty are required to serve up to a year and nine months depending on which branch they are assigned.
A trip to the barber for a shaved head, the last night out on the town with close friends, and a heartfelt farewell with tearful parents before it’s time for the infamous boot camp – it’s a time in a young man’s life that is a popular subject in film and music.
Few of these, however, have left a mark on the South Korean psyche like the recent Netflix original series D.P., which has maintained its number one perch on the platform since its release in the East Asian nation last month.
The series is about two members of the military police tasked with pursuing and capturing deserters.
Created by Kim Bo-tong, a webtoon writer who wanted to “fight the oblivious notion that the military is better now”, D.P. has reopened a sensitive debate in South Korea about whether a culture of bullying and harassment still exists within the service.
In the first of six episodes, new recruits are casually slapped in the face, boots are thrown at their heads, and a senior comrade attempts to spit into the mouth of a new recruit just because he “doesn’t like how he looks”.
The series has been lauded on social media by South Koreans for its accuracy, while others say military service has become too easy nowadays.
To the former soldiers who spoke to This Week in Asia, it is a vivid reminder of their harsh experiences.
Han, a 28-year-old engineer who asked to be known by a pseudonym, still remembers when he first met a senior comrade at an Air Force base ten years ago.
“He gave me a manual to memorise, and he would later scold me for not following his directions exactly,” said the former soldier, who was one of the three cooks at his base. “He hit me in the stomach, kicked me, slapped me and threw vegetables at me.”
Han would cry every night but did not report his case to any officers. “The mood in the military was that I had to withstand hardships just like everybody else,” he said. “I eventually told an officer that my job was too hard, but I only got a pat on the back.”
After his discharge, Han was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Memories of my time in the Air Force made me act passively around people who had authoritative personalities at my workplace,” he said. “Additionally, I couldn’t share my feelings or open up about my hardships to anyone, but dealt with the pain all by myself.”
It took five years after being discharged before he could bring himself to see a psychiatrist. Han has finally moved on, but his two years in the military still feel like a “waste of time”.
‘We can’t say that the problems are solved’
D.P. looks to draw a picture of life in the armed forces around 2014 when two tragic cases cast a spotlight on the unsavoury elements of South Korean military culture.
In April that year, Private First Class Yoon Seung-joo died after being physically assaulted by his senior comrades.
Investigations – which saw four soldiers later jailed – found that Yoon was forced to lick spit off the floor and was denied food and sleep, among other abuses.
Just two months later, a sergeant surnamed Yim killed five fellow conscripts and wounded seven others before fleeing his guard post. He was sentenced to death a year later, though his lawyers said he had been persistently bullied and ostracised by fellow soldiers.
Reports such as these are on the mind of 21-year-old Hwang Su-bin, who entered boot camp on Monday.
“I’ve already worked for a company and have experience as a college student, but the military has a completely different social structure that worries me a lot,” said the advertising major, who has enlisted as a driver in the Air Force.
He has heard plenty of tales about the military from his friends and from older students at school. While his parents, who work for the United States Armed Forces in South Korea, have not hidden their happiness about their son becoming a soldier, Hwang is a bit less certain.
“Everyone has been telling me to come back healthy and have been comforting me, but I can’t stop worrying,” he says. “I just feel like something bad may happen to me just like it did to one of the soldiers who appeared in the news.”
Criticism of this culture has grown so loud following D.P. ‘s release that the defence ministry has publicly attempted to quell it.
“We have allowed the use of cellphones after work hours in military bases to ensure an environment that has no space for malignant cases to be in hiding,” ministry deputy spokesperson Moon Hong-sik said at a press conference on Monday (Sept 6), referring to a decision that was made last year. “We have made continuous strides to reform military life.
A military insider told Yonhap News that the environment had changed from when D.P. was set, pointing out that soldiers today could use mobile phones to report mistreatment. Some commenters on social media said there was a lot of exaggeration on the show, and that the military had cracked down on bullying.
Said Kim Hyung-nam, the director of the Center for Military Human Rights Korea: “It’s true that cases of malicious assaults and cruel treatments have significantly decreased since 2014, but we can’t say that the problems are solved.”
The non-governmental organisation has seen an uptick in counselling sessions for soldiers, from 551 in 2015 to 1,710 last year. Kim explains that this increase is partly due to the rising size and presence of his centre in recent years, as well as soldiers becoming more aware of human rights.
He adds that within the military, only certain bases have counselling centres with expert psychiatrists.
In D.P., one soldier runs away from his assigned base after being abused for his snoring – apart from beating him, other conscripts put a gas mask over his face and filled it with water.
Although the perpetrators were punished for their actions, they were merely assigned to different bases so the case would not receive further scrutiny. It’s another plot point that hits close to home.
“The fundamental problem of the military is that it’s a closed organisation that pressures its victims to keep quiet,” Kim said.
In May, an Air Force officer committed suicide in her husband’s house after being repeatedly sexually harassed by multiple male colleagues. Internal investigations found that those responsible had threatened the officer to keep her from reporting them, while higher-ranked officers did not take appropriate measures after finding out what had happened. Furore over the case saw then Air Force chief of staff Lee Seong-yong resign in June.
“If you want to be promoted and go higher in the military, you can’t have any cases blowing up in your base,” said Lee, a former army officer who served for seven years and also asked to be quoted under a pseudonym. “That’s why soldiers who are lower ranked cannot say anything even if they are struggling.”
He has few fond memories of his time in the military, mainly due to his direct superior.
“Working [from the early morning] until 11pm was normal for us because our commanding officer wanted to look good to his higher-ups,” he said. “Also, three of my previous five battalion commanders were punished for foul play involving verbal abuse and impersonal acts towards officers and soldiers.”
Lee said the biggest problem was that an inflexible mindset was part of military culture. For example, he points to how South Korean soldiers cannot set foot outside their bases apart from their assigned days off, because the policy on soldier breaks has not fundamentally changed since the Korean war 70 years ago.
“The military only changes when a big case makes national headlines,” he said.
To many, this is another nail D.P. has hit squarely on the head. A widely shared scene from the show looks to provide a riposte to those claiming the military has changed for the better.
“Do you know what is written on our canteens?” asks one character, a deserter who has been physically and mentally abused by his senior comrades. “It says ‘1953’. They are from the Korean war. [In the military], even the canteens don’t even change.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.