Years ago while attending university in Texas, I befriended a Korean exchange student. We discussed his future plans after finishing college, and I was surprised to hear him say that he could not return back to Korea. The reason for this was even more surprising to me. If he returned to Korea, he would immediately be required to fulfill his two year-long mandatory military service. While he clearly abhorred the idea of this forced military duty, I didn't press for his precise reasons for objecting. He was sacrificing quite a lot with this decision: risking becoming an illegal resident in the United States, a criminal in South Korea, and of course losing the ability to visit his friends, family, and country of origin. Even though I was struck by the suffering and seeming injustice of his situation, I remained largely ignorant about South Korea and the conscription service until moving here years later.
Once I arrived in Korea I found among my circle of friends, artists, musicians, and activists who were openly opposed to militarism in general and forced military service specifically. Not wanting to become martyrs for a political struggle, many of this individuals sought myriad, sometimes extreme, ways to avoid going to the military besides going to prison. Witnessing the effect of this social institution on my friends, I was shocked by how dramatically it altered their lives, their goals, their bodies, and their minds, as well as the profound effect it had on those close to them.
Every year, people like my friend in Texas, Korean-born students and workers around the world face the decision to return to Korea to fulfill their military duty or avoid it by staying abroad. Some enlist proudly and enthusiastically, whereas the majority do so begrudgingly, bowing to the overwhelming pressure of government, culture, family, and friends. Very few Korean men seem willing to risk the state punishment, the social ostracism, and other consequences affecting almost every aspect of one's life that accompany the refusal to join the military. It truly makes me wonder when people refer to conscientious objectors as "cowards", who is showing real courage and principles when the military calls?