Being born in Seoul, South Korea, growing up in Sydney, Australia, and attending a university in the United States, my identity has never been easy to pin down. After finishing my freshman year at Georgetown, I was notified by the South Korean Department of Defense that I had to fulfill a 21-month military service in order to keep my South Korean citizenship. I immediately accepted.
Needless to say, it was very tough in the beginning. I entered the army in late August and was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division on the western front of the Korean peninsula, right along the 38th parallel, where the border between South and North Korea is drawn. After enduring training exercises under cold-blooded drill sergeants for five weeks, I was recruited by a master sergeant from the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 1st Division. Battalions generally select soldiers with superior physical and intellectual capabilities because they carry out the most important missions in the military.
My battalion’s main mission is to maintain security around the Demilitarized Zone, which divides the Korean peninsula, and watch for possible enemy infiltration. It is where the world’s tensions between capitalism and communism come to a head. The region also has extreme temperatures, getting as cold as negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Some of our missions include scouting and patrolling possible routes in the DMZ that the North Koreans might take to infiltrate.
We do, however, also have fun, recreational drills, such as helicopter repels and search and kill drills. The most memorable exercise was the cold-acclimatization training in winter, in which we sat in a frozen pond for 15 minutes in 5-degree weather.
In the beginning, I hated the army. I didn’t know why I was serving for a country with which I didn’t even identify. The culture, the morals and ethics — they were all strange to me. But then I learned about Korea and its history, especially about the Korean War. Korea endured 36 years of brutal Japanese control. It lost its young men to the Japanese army as soldiers and laborers in the World War II frontlines and young women as sex slaves to the Japanese soldiers. Then, the Korean War tore the country apart, killing over 1 million people and destroying 90 percent of the country. U.S. General Douglas McArthur said it would take at least 100 years to rehabilitate this land.
But my forefathers didn’t believe this. They worked tirelessly to rebuild. And now, South Korea is among the top 20 most prosperous economies in the world, boasting more than $32,000 in GDP per capita, and leadership in industries like ship construction, I.T. and automobiles.
Yet South Korea could lose everything right now if it can’t defend itself. That’s why I answered my country’s call: to protect what my fathers and grandfathers built, to protect our loved ones from those who threaten our existence and to preserve democracy and freedom for the people who live in this country. Out here in the DMZ, I endure the freezing nights and scorching heat waves for those reasons.
More and more people try to get away with not serving in the military in South Korea these days, but I believe that if you are a citizen of a country, it is an obligation and an honor to protect the place where you and your people live. In doing this, you learn that the freedom you forego to serve is not given in vain. You learn that the things that you take for granted in everyday life — the air you breathe, the water you drink, your rights to travel, have free speech and vote — are things that are earned through sacrifice and devotion to your nation.
For those who are in the United States where military service is voluntary, I strongly recommend that you have a go at serving your country. Until then, you will never really understand the value of your country’s freedom, and how that freedom is earned, not given.
I have rediscovered my roots in South Korea and I am proud to be a Korean. I have eight more months left before I return to Georgetown, and I am making every minute of it worth the experience.
MICHAEL CHO took a leave of absence in 2011 following his freshman year in the McDonough School of Business.