June 6 is memorial day in Korea (현충일 hyeonchung-il 顯忠日) So I thought that today I would do an army-themed post. This morning the 61st ceremony was held at the National Cemetery in Dongjak, Seoul, to remember all the men and women who died for their country in military service. Mr Kim’s uncle died in the Korean War so this was always a sad day for his grandmother when she was alive.
Memories of military service seem to remain strong long after the service is over. Mr Kim can still barely look at a potato because he ‘had to eat soup with potato in EVERY DAY FOR 30 MONTHS‘ while he was in the army. So we don’t eat potato very often. He has other stories of hardship too and takes an interest in what’s going on in the military now. The other day he handed me an article from the Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper. He had this look of utter disbelief on his face. The article was about 헬리콥터 부모’hel-i-cop-to pu-mo’ helicopter parents. He shakes his head. ‘When I was in the army it was never like that ….
The term helicopter parent has been around in English for ages. I remember watching a Dr Phil show several years ago introducing the term to describe overprotective parents who hover over their children watching everything that they do. Well, now the expression is used in Korean too but here it’s being used by army personnel to describe the parents of the new recruits!
The article begins by telling us about the trials and tribulations of a sergeant major of a troop in Gangwon Province who complained that these days he’s afraid to even look at his phone. His troubles began after a batch of new recruits joined the army and he sent a text message to the parents just to say that they were all adjusting well to army life.
That was clearly the first mistake because after that, the parents made a group on kakaotalk and ‘invited’ him to join. (Well he couldn’t very well say no, could he?) So now he is constantly bombarded with questions from anxious parents asking stuff like,‘What’s for lunch / dinner today?’ Or, ‘Please make sure that my son isn’t getting bullied’. Or ‘Can you send me a picture of my son?’ He says that he gets so many messages on kakaotalk that he can’t concentrate on his work. He says he feels that he has suddenly acquired a lot of nitpicking superiors above him who are all giving orders at the same time.
It’s that last request for ‘a picture’ that really gets Mr Kim going. He looks up from the paper. ‘They want a what? he asks incredulously. A PHOTOGRAPH?’ I imagine the sergeant wandering around the barracks taking selfies with each soldier on his mobile phone before diligently sending each picture off to the family. That would certainly keep him busy!
Mr Kim says when he was in the army, cameras weren’t generally allowed but just before the seniors finished their service someone would buy one of those disposable cameras and go around and take pictures. Then the camera would have to be taken down to the village and the pictures developed…. yes, those were the days. Here are some pictures of Mr Kim in the army a long time ago before I knew him …
Back to the article. We go on to read about another long suffering sergeant major, in Chungcheong province this time, who said that he got a phone call from the mother of a 22 year old private advising him that her son had a sore leg but had been put on guard duty so she wanted him to be assigned to another task. Mr. Kim rolls his eyes. A duty where he doesn’t have to use his leg? This is the ARMY.
The Sergeant major assured the worried mother that her son was fine but he got an angry response. ‘Are you going to take responsibility if something happens to my son?’ she demanded. So in the end her son was given an administrative position. Yes, these soldiers might get called a ‘mummy’s boy’ (ma-ma bo-i 마마보이) during some friendly banter but other privates admit that they are envious when they see their peers given easier tasks thanks to their parents intervention. Some also admitted that they resent their own parents for not intervening for them too! I didn’t ask Mr Kim if his parents had ever called his superiors when he was doing military service. I have a feeling that the answer would be NO! Followed by a withering look in my direction.
picture: BBC news
Parents have legitimate concerns for their children’s wellbeing though. There have been many incidents over the years involving bullying and abuse in the army which have even led to suicide. In 2014 soldiers were jailed for causing the deaths of a young soldier. Plenty of accidents happen during drills too and recently a soldier who became mentally unstable started shooting indiscriminately at other soldiers during a training exercise.
2014 was a particularly notorious year for problems like this so in a bid to improve communication between commanders, rank-and-file soldiers and parents, the Korean army began to set up social network channels for each army unit. This was done partly to put worried parents’ minds at rest.
However, some parents seem to take the availability of information a bit too far. They go through Facebook or Kakaotalk to contact the army superiors directly. One group of fathers followed their sons on a 30km march by car. When the soldiers stopped for a break, the dads jumped out of the car with chicken and bread rolls and other snacks. It’s like a primary school picnic, Mr Kim said.
A spokesman for National Defence said that the superiors are drained by parents who want to follow their child’s every move. One said that it had become the ‘National Defence Kindergarden!’ Another lieutenant said that he thought it was a shame since the army is the place where men should learn to be independent and responsible but this can’t happen with so much parent interference.
Last year the army carried out a survey with 5000 army personnel in which 97% said that they felt safer with the SNS channel in operation. But less than 50% of the officers answered that they thought that it was worth doing. Many of these officers are probably a similar age to Mr Kim. So they did their national service when there was barely a mobile phone in sight never mind kakaotalk or any other social networking service.
In Mr Kim’s day soldiers had to serve 30 months in the army. And most communication was done by handwritten letter. These days mandator military service is down to 21 months which is considerably shorter. And whilst it can’t POSSIBLY be as terrible as it was in Mr Kim’s day, 😉 I’m sure military service is still not much fun.