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Citizen, soldier: South Korean students transition from military life

Yoel Kim had one mission: search the Demilitarized Zone for land mines. He and his comrades searched the ground intently. His eyes were so focused that he didn’t notice he wandered too far—into North Korea.

His heart began to race when he realized his mistake; he stood on a land untouched by most of the world. He ran a few steps back to his home country, unnoticed by anyone.

Kim, a sophomore at ORU, completed his military service at the Joint Security Area (JSA), the portion of the Korean DMZ where North and South Koreans literally face each other. He served as a sniper to protect tourists.

All South Korean men must serve in the military, an act known as conscription, mandated by the Constitution of the Republic of Korea.

Many Korean students have completed their service while some plan to serve within the next few years.

“The war is not finished,” said sophomore Min Woo Joo. “We’re taking a rest. During the creation of North and South Korea, we signed a document [armistice].”

The Korean War ended in an armistice, which stopped combat between the two nations. To this day, the war hasn’t reached a formal finish but rather a ceasefire. The armistice was signed in a village named Panmunjom that now sits near the JSA where Kim was stationed.

Joo plans to serve in the military within the next two years. He was scheduled to start his service in April but postponed it to attend college in the U.S., studying business administration.

“Before I came to the U.S., I thought [conscription] was a dumb thing,” Joo said. “I really didn’t want to go.”

He says he found more appreciation for his country after coming to America. He realized why he had to serve. Living in the states made him miss his home.

“By sacrificing our soldier’s freedom, we protect other people’s freedom,” Joo said.

Conscripts serve anywhere from 21 to 36 months. South Korea has one of the longest service periods in the world. Most of Joo’s friends have already started their service, ranking as sergeants or second privates.

“Some people might think ‘Ah, I wasted two years.’ But I actually believe you can learn something from the military service,” Joo said.

When Kim served in the army, he had to stand for 10 hours each day, monitoring the Panmunjon.

“Before I served in the army, I did not have a future for my life,” Kim said. “During my military services, I could think about my future. When I stood guard at the Joint Security Area, I had time to look at myself. I also was able to solidify my faith. There were many hard times in the military service such as punishment, physical difficulty and so on. I depended on God through prayer.”

Kim had to pass extensive tests on his mental health, physical stamina and family life to serve in the JSA. JSA soldiers must also be “more handsome” because the Panmunjon attracts many tourists, Kim said.

“I don’t think people know soldiers’ sacrifice,” Kim said. “Although soldiers earn only $130 per month, they dedicate [their] lives to protect their country and nations. I want that people know our effort.”

Most of the world has never made contact with North Korea. Kim felt proud to serve in the JSA where he stood in close proximity with North Koreans. He felt he was protecting his homeland directly.

Tensions run high between North and South Korea both politically and socially, but Joo’s family shares a close history with North Korea.

“My family received the gospel by the North Korean Christians,” he said.

During the Korean War, Joo’s grandmother and great-grandmother met a North Korean woman on a grassy field. His grandmother gave the hungry woman some food.

“The woman thanked my family,” Joo said. “She started talking about heaven. And then my grandmother and mother heard the gospel and accepted Jesus.”

Kim said North Korean soldiers looked strong, which intimidated him at first. Even though they technically oppose each other, both Kim and Joo said they don’t perceive the North Koreans as the enemy.

“People ask me about North Korea a lot, whether or not I hate them,” Joo said. “To tell you the truth, Korea is Korea. It became divided by ideology. I really love North Koreans.”

Joo believes North Koreans are victims of the government, subject to poverty and oppression. One day, he hopes to become a missionary and bring the gospel to North Korea—just like North Korea brought the gospel to his family.

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