Young Chun looked at the letter dumbly. It was all in highly formal Korean, a language he barely understood. But there was no mistaking the second sheet of paper contained in the envelope that had arrived at his apartment that morning. It was a notice from the Department of Justice, written in both English and Korean. The young American, offspring of naturalized Korean immigrants, was barred from leaving South Korea.
Overcome with dread, Chun now knew what the first letter meant. It was his draft notice for South Korea’s mandatory military service.
“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.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 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.
Unbeknownst to him, Chun was a dual Korean citizen. 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. Like all able-bodied Korean men, Chun would be obligated to serve two years in the military.
Now, he was trapped.
Just months earlier, Chun could never have imagined such a bizarre set of circumstances. Born in the U.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. He didn’t speak more than a few words of Korean. He didn’t even like Korean food.
“I basically grew up on McDonald’s,” he says.
It was as an American that Chun was drawn to the idea of teaching English for a year in South Korea. Twelve short months would go a long way toward shrinking the gaping hole in his bank account. It might also make him feel like less of a disappointment in the eyes of his hardworking single mom.
“What else was there for a guy stuck in a dead-end job, slowly being crushed under the weight of credit card debt and school loans, but to run away to a foreign country to teach young, impressionable children?” says the soft-spoken Chun, now 36. It was only when Chun went to apply for a visa open to ethnic Korean foreigners that he discovered he was a South Korean citizen.
In the end, Chun became a victim of a collision between unforgiving bureaucracy and the meddling of an unknown family member thousands of miles away. He also suspects he was a casualty of bad timing: The year he arrived in South Korea, a famous Korean-American pop star caused a national scandal by renouncing his Korean citizenship to avoid military service. When Chun took a plane in 2002, he was unknowingly traveling to a country furious over the perceived entitlement of privileged Korean-Americans.
After he got his draft notice, Chun spent four months desperately trying to find a way out. Finally, he seized on a last-ditch plan to escape service in South Korea: He joined the U.S. Army. Life in the Korean army would mean two years of drudgery and manual labor. At least in the American army he would learn a skill that could lead to a career. At least there he would be able to speak the language. At least then he would get to come home.
“I was almost certain I would be able to leave Korea,” says Chun. “Up until that point, I had just been studying, looking at references to go to the U.S. Army. I got my orders, I got my ID card.”
His planned escape took him to a small, nondescript airport an hour’s drive from Seoul. Along with other newly-minted American soldiers, he waited anxiously to board the plane that would take him home. As they formed up to board the plane, the long line of enlistees slowed to a crawl. He rounded a corner, and finally saw why: immigration inspection.
“I kind of knew right away that it meant doom, you know?”
There was nothing to do but return to Seoul and end his brief career as an American soldier. Two days later, he would become a grunt all over again in a world he couldn’t hope to understand.
Chun’s military base was located deep in the South Korean countryside. As a structure, it didn’t exude welcome, surrounded by high walls on all sides. At the entrance, oil barrels punctuated with rebar spikes stood guard along with yellow and black metal sawhorses.
A day after arriving, the squad leader listed out chores for the fresh recruits to choose from. Chun couldn’t understand most of what was being said, but he caught one task: cutting hair. This was something he could do.
He raised his hand, stuttering out his rank and number in Korean.
“What the fuck? Who are you?” barked Squad Leader Lee, according to Chun’s memoir, The Accidental Citizen-Soldier.
Squad Leader Lee was the bane of all new recruits. 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.
“Are you retarded?” Chun remembers him saying. Chun again spluttered a rank and number. “Oh, it’s you. The American bastard. You can’t cut hair. You’ll make everyone look like Yankees.”
In the strict hierarchy of the monocultural South Korean army, Chun was an oddity and an aberration. He presence had been conspicuous from the moment he arrived.
This was especially so because of his clumsy, barely functional grasp of the Korean language. 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. Chun’s survival strategy would be to avoid standing out. Eyes downcast, he would mutter his way through squad recitations, struggling to recognize every third word. When performing drills, he’d watch his colleagues’ movements, repeating them a second too late. Anything to avoid the scornful gaze of Squad Leader Lee. Of course, avoiding Lee was impossible. He was everywhere, all the time.
About a fortnight into training, Lee stormed into the squad room looking even more pissed off than usual. He yelled for the recruits to assume the position for a static pushup. Chun scrambed up, and Lee left the room, leaving the recruits behind to hold their position.
“Let your knees touch the floor,” Chun quotes him in his memoir, “and you’re gonna die.”
After a few minutes, Chun’s body was on fire. At intervals, Lee reappeared to ensure compliance with his order before darting out of the room again. After more than ten minutes of agony, Lee returned again, this time to stay. He ordered everyone up. It was time to learn about guard duty — a task for which one unlucky recruit was denied sleep so he could watch a doorway in the middle of the night, at a barracks in the middle of the empty Korean countryside.
Lee had only just begun to bark instructions when a superior officer appeared in the doorway and told him to follow.
Chun suddenly became acutely aware that his squad leader wasn’t at the top of the food chain. He had his own sharks to avoid.
The recruits waited in silence. By the time Lee came back, he was more agitated than ever. Clearly, he hadn’t had the best of time with his superior. For that, the recruits would have to pay. He barked out the command to run sprints.
Chun and the rest sprinted one way and then another, dropping on their backs, rolling left and then right, crouching and then getting up again, their aching bodies burning from the sudden movement. His appetite for sadism sated, Squad Leader Lee exited the room unceremoniously, leaving Chun and the other recruits tired and spent.
As he caught his breath, Chun realized that, even by the unforgiving standards of the Korean military, he hadn’t brought this punishment upon himself. Being there was out of his control, but so was the environment inside. He and the other unfortunates were just a tool for Squad Leader Lee to relieve his stress. He probably had his own frustrations.
“I think part of it was just his personality,” says Chun. But part, too, was probably Lee’s contempt for his own station in life, he says.
The abuse was tough, but the sheer drudgery of military life was worse. When Chun wasn’t tired from shoveling snow, night watch duty or six a.m. starts, he was bored. The same drills, followed the same pointless chores, followed by the same bland food: white rice, kimchi, and a wretched type of cutlet made out of indeterminate fish.
Then, after six months, Chun was offered an unlikely escape.
Acting on the advice of a superior, he took an exam to become an interpreter with Korean troops deployed in Afghanistan. The position meant a real wage and a release from the grinding schedule of drills, snow-shoveling and ass-kissing that had filled the previous six months in Korea.
“It’s almost felt like I was finished with the army,” he says. “It’s sort of a strange thing to say right before going to Afghanistan but just being able to escape that place made a huge difference to me in terms of my outlook.”
Chun did terribly on the test, but was somehow still accepted. He suspects his superiors chose the American as the obvious candidate for a job that required English.
Chun was about to run happily into a war zone.
As soon as he landed at Bagram Airfield, in the heart of Afghanistan, Chun was called for by his superior officer, a broad-faced Korean named Kang. Chun followed him into a jeep, which took off for the Korean compound, where Chun was given a rifle and a kevlar vest. Chun felt a lurch in his stomach, suddenly realizing how close he was to the front lines. They got back in the jeep and drove.
“All of a sudden there are fields of broken-down, bombed-out buildings,” says Chun, “and along the road there’s this barbed wire with little signs of mines.”
Before long, they passed through the first checkpoint to the world outside. At the second gate, a U.S. soldier warned Kang against leaving.
Kang didn’t seem to understand.
Chun began imagining news reports of his mutilated corpose being discovered days later in a shadowy alleyway.
“I’m thinking, ‘how far is it from here to the base?’” says Chun. “Can I run? Can I get out of here? Am I going to be found the next day, a bloody mess?”
Outside the base, their jeep followed a scooter being driven by a local. After a few minutes, the scooter stopped behind a parked sedan in a crowded market square, then sped off. Chun could feel the suspicious stares of locals going about their daily business. He still had no idea what they were doing outside of the base. He fingered the plates of his kevlar vest, wondering how he could escape if something went horribly wrong. His gun wasn’t even loaded.
Four large, angry-looking men got out of the sedan. They approached the jeep, one of them making their way to the window to speak to their driver, also a local.
Chun couldn’t understand what was being said, but he knew the man sounded angry. By now Kang’s face had turned pale. He seemed as scared as Chun. Kang nodded and they turned around back toward the base. Chun wouldn’t be making grisly headlines after all.
Chun’s first taste of Afghanistan left him in a cold sweat, but it couldn’t have prepared for him for his first experience with an “Amber Alert.”
This is what the loudspeakers screamed whenever the base came under rocket attack. The first time it happened, it caught Chun unaware. The second time, he wrote letters home to his family in case he never made it back.
“You don’t know what’s happening, you just know that a base in the middle of Afghanistan is under attack, so you scramble as fast as you can to the bunker,” he says.
In time, Chun learned that the actual risk of death or injury was small. The rockets would explode with considerable force, but were basically glorified fireworks, launched in the general direction of the infidels with only minimal accuracy. They rarely made their target and posed the greatest danger to anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the shrapnel blast.
Despite the potentially lethal environment just outside the compound walls, life in Afghanistan was more comfortable for Chun overall.
“First of all, the American Army knows how to take care of the welfare of the soldiers,” says Chun. “Of course, it’s a very stressful environment. They realize that soldiers are human beings.”
For the first time in a long while, Chun looked forward to eating.
“There was Burger King, there was pizza, Thai food,” he remembers.
There was also Internet access, unheard of in the Korean army, where recruits were forbidden from even having a cellphone. There were places to watch movies. The gym was modern and full of state-of-the-art equipment, unlike the run-down trailer Chun was used to in Korea.
Constantly shifted between different units, he had few opportunities to form close relationships. In the U.S., Chun had often struggled to belong. In Korea, he fit in even less. But in the nowhereland of Afghanistan, he pledged no allegiances.
“An officer said, ‘You’re almost Korean,’” recalls Chun. “Another officier said, ‘You’re almost American.’”
Toward the end of his time at Bagram, Chun had a realization: He wasn’t fully part of any place, and he was comfortable that way.
Young Chun was just Young Chun.
After six months in Afghanistan, Chun returned to Korea for his final ten months of service. Things were easier the second time around. Chun found that many of his biggest tormentors had left. He also had acquired a newfound assertiveness that didn’t settle so easily for being pushed around.
A decade after completing his mandatory military service, Chun still lives in Seoul, the capital of the country that took two years of his youth in a case of bureaucratic misadventure. He makes his living teaching English at a university, a role that allows him the time to pursue his passion of writing.
Earlier this year, he self-published a memoir about his experiences in the Korean military. He feels no bitterness toward Korea over his ordeal. Yet Chun doesn’t feel a special connection to the country, either. He has no plans to leave, but is happy that he could do so “tomorrow” if the need arose.
The accidental soldier doesn’t need to choose a home.