While most students see entering their 20s as starting a new chapter of life, for many male South Koreans, it stands for something that is arguably more intimidating- the military.
South Korean law dictates that all men must fulfill the country’s mandatory military service once they reach the age of 20. This is a concern for many male South Korean students who wish to advance their education, including some international students from South Korea at HKU.
Presently, South Korean students take up more than 1.4% of international students at the university. Among them, 45% of them are male who are either waiting to serve in the military or have already done so in the past.
“It is a waste of my youth,” said Ju Won Park (20), a first-year Social Sciences student who will begin his military service this August, and is preparing for a 2-year leave from his education. Park mentions that the less than HK$1,000 average monthly compensation for South Korean soldiers is another frustrating part of the mandatory service. “The perception South Korean citizens have on soldiers is ‘sympathy’,” he said.
Since the Korean War began in 1950, the relations between North and South Korea have remained hostile to this day. The two countries are technically still at war because no peace treaty has been signed. Under this premise, South Korean men are required to apply for military service within 6 years once reaching the age of 20. The service period in the military ranges from 21 to 24 months depending on the military branch they select.
While it is mandatory for all men to apply for military service, there is no guarantee that they will be accepted by the branch they choose. Depending on the army’s decision, an applicant may be rejected and deferred to the following year. This creates an obstacle for South Korean male students who wish to advance their education, as they cannot freely enroll in summer courses for extra credits or apply for internships.
On top of this, students at HKU have to graduate within 6 years according to the university’s policy. A standard 4-year academic program along with 2 years of military service means there are fewer opportunities for these students. Going on exchange programs or taking a semester off for internships become difficult since they may lead to complications in meeting the overall credit requirement for graduation.
“I am a little dissatisfied with the policy of HKU. As long as we bring proof of our military service of almost 2 years [to the administration], I believe HKU should give us an exemption on the policy of ‘graduating within 6 years’,” said Park.
“Personally, spending 2 years of my one and only youth in the military and watching my colleagues studying, graduating and doing internships makes me feel dismal and empty,” said Gyu Myeong Lim (22), a second-year Accounting and Finance student who was discharged from the army this January.
“It is stressful to follow the class schedule in an inflexible manner since there is no time to rest after being discharged from the army [and having to] follow the 6-year graduation policy,” said Lim. He entered HKU in the 2012~2013 academic year and left to fulfill his term at the army after finishing the first semester of his second year. Now in 2016, he is still officially in his second year.
As unaccommodating as the current system of arrangement may be, some South Korean students do appreciate the benefits of fulfilling a term at the military.
“The 2 years was indeed a long period of time, but I surely learned lessons,” said Wonjong Lee (22), a third-year BBA student who was discharged in April last year. “While I was serving in the army, I learned to be more realistic. The 2 years taught me who I was, what I was good at and how I could improve,” said Lee. “To give an advice to prospective soldiers, I recommend [South Korean] guys to go as early as possible,” he added.
As the end of the second semester draws closer, so does the beginning of military service for some prospective South Korean soldiers who are currently studying at the university. The value of this inevitable period will depend on how these students choose to spend it.