By ERICA RAWLES ——
CLAREMONT, Calif. – Jay Chung sat at the desk of the control center, juggling two phones at the military base in Paju, South Korea, as four North Korean soldiers in wetsuits advanced toward South Korea from the river that marks the border.
The night before, an unmarked SUV drove by a past invasion point, one that North Koreans used to enter into South Korea decades before. Chung’s job was to study the screen that monitored that point and report any suspicious activity.
“It was stressful and busy – we never knew what move they were going to make. I had to report everything,” recalled Chung.
Chung quickly announced the observation report aloud to everyone in the center and made calls to the Regiment and Division Intelligence Departments while struggling to manage both phones. As soon as he put down one phone, it would start ringing again.
On an eventful day when North Korea intended to provoke their its neighbors, Chung said he would get 500 or more phone calls in one six-hour shift. The North Korean soldiers in the water swam all the way to the border, but did not cross into South Korea – it appeared to be an invasion drill, testing South Korea’s reaction.
After his freshman year at Claremont McKenna College, Chung’s studies were interrupted by his home country’s compulsory military service.
Every South Korean male between 20 to 30 years old must join the military for up to two years. Conscription is nearly impossible to avoid, but can be excused for a serious mental or physical condition; however, not having served in the military can lead to difficulties finding a job.
As Chung, now a sophomore explained, national service is seen as a rite of passage, and an excuse to evade joining the armed forces jeopardizes one’s integrity.
Chung confessed that it was easy to feel trapped in the military. “You can’t do much to release the stress,” he said in an interview. “The rules are really strict and it’s tiring. It’s hard to do the petty things when you don’t want to be there and your friends here are having fun and you feel behind.”
He is not the only soldier to be overwhelmed by the stress. Around 774 South Korean soldiers have committed suicide in the past 10 years and there have been a number of deaths due to abuse, according to the U.K. Independent newspaper.
Chung never contemplated taking his life, and was able to derive some positives despite the difficulties he faced during his two years of service. Not only did he feel healthier from adhering to a regular daily schedule, but grew more appreciative of time, finding himself more motivated to study and work harder in college.
Chung adjusts to being back at school and balances spending time with the friends he left after his freshman year who are now seniors, with making new friends among fellow sophomores.
Still, explaining the past two years to his friends and peers at CMC can be difficult. “It’s hard to explain my experience to people in Claremont because almost no one experienced anything like it,” he said. “And on top of that, culture and language make it harder for me to describe it in a way people can visualize.”
(Wrtten by Erica Rawles; Sept. 26, 2016)