Overcome with dread, Chun now knew what the first letter meant.
It was his draft notice for South Korea’s mandatory military service.
More than two decades previously, a family member — who, he’s still not sure — added his name to the family register then used in South Korea to determine citizenship, incorrectly listing his place of birth as Seoul. Twelve short months would go a long way toward shrinking the gaping hole in his bank account.
Like all able-bodied Korean men, Chun would be obligated to serve two years in the military. * * * Just months earlier, Chun could never have imagined such a bizarre set of circumstances. S., he had a typically American childhood; first in Chicago, where he cheered for the Bears in the NFL, and then, after his parents’ divorce, Seattle. It might also make him feel like less of a disappointment in the eyes of his hardworking single mom.
“It’s scary, and the same time it’s like, there’s no way this is true,” Chun says twelve years later, remembering the moment in 2003 that would seal his fate as an American citizen forcibly drafted into the South Korean military. Chun had only come to the country with the plan of teaching English for a year, a seemingly easy way of making a dent in his mounting credit card debt.
Chun couldn’t understand most of what was being said, but he caught one task: cutting hair. He raised his hand, stuttering out his rank and number in Korean. Unlike other squad leaders, who simply assumed a tough demeanor for the job, Lee seemed to take genuine pleasure in inflicting distress on young men used to home-cooked meals and overly attentive mothers. Eyes downcast, he would mutter his way through squad recitations, struggling to recognize every third word.
As a structure, it didn’t exude welcome, surrounded by high walls on all sides. This was especially so because of his clumsy, barely functional grasp of the Korean language.
At the entrance, oil barrels punctuated with rebar spikes stood guard along with yellow and black metal sawhorses. The tasks of military life — from cleaning the living quarters to shooting practice — were all directed and performed through a seemingly infinite number of strange words and confusing grammar constructions.
After he got his draft notice, Chun spent four months desperately trying to find a way out. Life in the Korean army would mean two years of drudgery and manual labor.
Finally, he seized on a last-ditch plan to escape service in South Korea: He joined the U. At least in the American army he would learn a skill that could lead to a career.