Book describes life in Korean Army Young Chun, a Korean-American who had grown up in Seattle and Chicago

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    Book describes life in Korean Army Young Chun, a Korean-American who had grown up in Seattle and Chicago

    In 2002 Young Chun, a Korean-American who had grown up in Seattle and Chicago, came to Korea to teach English. He planned to stay for only a year, but as he neared the end of his teaching contract, the Korean government told him he must complete his mandatory military service or face prison. Chun was born in America, holds an American passport, and at the time, spoke almost no Korean, having spent almost his entire life in America. The Korean government insisted, so he went.

    “The Accidental Citizen-Soldier,” Chun’s memoir of his two years in the Korean Army was released last year, and is available at Kyobo Books in Gwanghwamun and as a Kindle ebook.

    “I still don’t really believe in luck,” Chun told me in a cafe near Seoul National University, where he now teaches English. But it was outright misfortune, at least in part, that landed him in the Korean Army, along with a hefty series of bizarre coincidences and other inexplicable events.

    On a routine visit to Korean Immigration in mid-2002, he was surprised to be told that he was a Korean citizen. Although he had only spent two years in Korea in total — at an elementary school for foreign students — somebody had added his name to the “hojeok,” the patriarchal Korean family registry system that was eventually abolished by the government in 2008. The register listed his birthplace as a Seoul suburb he had never visited, rather than his real birthplace in Champaign, Ill.

    Chun assembled a stack of documents showing he had spent the vast majority of his life to that point — 22 years — in America. He was told that the family register showed he had been living in Korea since 1988.

    Chun went back to work at his hagwon, still largely unaware that his dubious status as a Korean citizen meant he was eligible for mandatory military service. He knew the draft existed, but as a non-Korean-speaking American citizen, with neither parent holding a Korean passport, he assumed the law would not apply to him.

    During a visit home to Seattle in late 2002, he visited the Korean consulate and attempted to revoke his newly-discovered Korean citizenship, but was told it was impossible because he had passed the age limit where such a decision could be made. The consulate suggested he apply for an exemption from military service, and he obliged, filling out the form and flying back to Seoul a few days later to finish the remaining months of his hagwon contract, intending to leave Korea immediately afterwards.

    He now believes it was this request for exemption that alerted the Korean government to his presence in the country.

    Two weeks after returning to Seoul, he received a set of draft papers in the mail, and a Notice of Suspension of Departure that meant he was legally unable to leave Korea. His calls to various officials fell on deaf ears. Even the U.S. embassy to Korea was unable to help.

    In a state of what he now describes as total desperation, Chun tried another means of escape: through a work contact, he arranged to meet with a recruiter at the U.S. Army base in Yongsan. If he had to be a soldier, he reasoned, he would rather be an American soldier. The Korean-American recruiter told him the Korean government’s travel ban would have no effect since Chun would be leaving the country for training in the United States with orders and a military ID, not a passport. Chun agreed and was sworn into the U.S. Army, fully aware of the high probability he would be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan after training. Escape — of a sort — seemed guaranteed.

    But his name was flagged in a government database and he was not permitted to board a plane leaving the Osan Air Base. He was forced to remain in Korea, having spent only one day as an American soldier.

    “The Accidental Citizen-Soldier” tells the story of Chun’s time in the Korean army. In basic training, he was often subjected to sleep deprivation, punitive physical exercise and the constant humiliation of being a non-Korean speaker.

    He took part in live-fire exercises, including deliberate exposure to CS gas, despite understanding very little of the language being spoken around him.

    Despite the subject matter, the book has a lighthearted tone: instead of complaining incessantly, Chun finds plenty to laugh at, describing the absurdity of the situations he finds himself in. But after basic training, what frustrated him more was the culture and social mores of the army.

    He says that much of Korean work and office culture, often bemoaned as highly inefficient and too focused on the intricacies of hierarchy, derives directly from the work culture of the army.

    The Army has changed too, Chun says. His monthly wage for much of his time in the army was around 30,000 won a month, a rate which he says has increased dramatically — 170,000 won for a private, and more than 200,000 won for a sergeant.

    “I’ve heard it’s easier now,” he says, citing the accounts of students in his classes who had recently completed their services.

    While in the army, Chun won a Korea Times-organized award for his translation of a Korean novel, Cho Chang-in’s “The Lighthouse-Keeper.”

    He has lived in Seoul for the last 10 years, and says he has no plans to leave. Still an American passport holder, he is settled and happy, in a way he says he wouldn’t be in America. Not such bad luck after all? “Maybe,” he says, laughing, “it’s just about perspective.”

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