‘Chemical gas and nuclear bunkers’: Life as a young South Korean doing military service

‘I don’t live my life worrying all the time’

Yes, everyone on this planet is terrified of nuclear annihilation. But there's a big difference between being scared of instant incineration living in the UK compared to living in South Korea, just over the border from the North where it could all kick off very soon.

An even more frightening reality for many young Koreans is having to run towards the chaos rather than putting as much distance as possible between yourself and Kim Jong-un's rogue state.

Military conscription is law in South Korea. For all males aged between 18 and 35.

This means that many young men are joining the army every day, faced with the possibility of heading into war at any moment.

ChangJun Eun is from Daegu, towards the south of the country, and is about to start his second year at The University of York. He is old enough to do military service, and is required by law to do it before he turns 30.

Min-Kyu Park and Hi-Joon Lee have already completed their military service and are now continuing with their studies in America.

Min-Kyu Park is 25 and from Seoul, he served for 21 months between 2013 and 2014. He would wake up at 6:30am every morning, complete a compulsory morning run before breakfast, and then spend the next 10 hours performing his role as a military truck driver, stopping only for meals and roll call in the evening before heading to bed around 10pm.

They would get some free time every day, where Min-Kyu and the other conscripted young soldiers would watch TV and work out, just the same as many other young guys do across the world. Dinner was different every day, but this didn't always make a difference to the quality of it.

Min-Kyu says that he although he does worry about war sometimes, "I don't live my life worrying all the time."

Ji-Hoon Lee completed his military service in January earlier this year. He is the first of the three to play down the severity of a situation that many would find unnerving: "Because of issues like studying and employment, I guess young people care about North Korea less than old people do."

Ji-Hoon is only 21 and was also in the army for 21 months. He was stationed with American soldiers and says that this meant his quality of life in the army was better than others. "It was such a new experience, however it was a bit peak that I had to spend my early 20s, which is the brightest part in my life, without freedom."

The hardest part of Ji-Hoon's day was getting up early and doing the compulsory morning run, push-ups and sit-ups. "Whether you felt good or not, you had to exercise every morning." It's weird that this is what sticks out for him when recalling what the worst parts were, rather than training in a nuclear bunker about what to do when the bombs start dropping.

When you take the lingering threat of war, and a nuclear war at that, out of the equation, these young Koreans sound like young people you'd find anywhere in the world, with complaints about early mornings and food they don't like.

However, when Min-Kyu starts speaking about the actual army training, things are put in perspective. The hardest part of the training, he says, was a couple of overnights where they had to stand in the same spot all night simulating an ambush. Effectively preparing for a real war, mimic-ing waiting on the border to enter North Korea.

Other training included the gas mask drill, where Min-Kyu had to go inside a building where chemical gas had been sprayed and then take off the gas mask and learn how to breathe properly in the actual situation.

Ji-Hoon broke his ankle during training and also witnessed someone being punished for bullying subordinates. For all of the similarities between young people regardless of geography, it's these anecdotes that put the reality of life as a young South Korean back into perspective.

ChangJun has just finished his second year at York, after arriving in the UK from South Korea nearly a year ago, and is yet to complete his military service. "When you turn 19, the 'Military Manpower Administration' sends a letter to your house saying that you have to have a medical test." Unless you are living abroad, injured or have a legitimate exemption, you have to take this medical test within a year. "But you must start your service before you're 30, otherwise you get in trouble."

He adds that most of the people who avoid joining the army are Jehovah's Witnesses, because of their beliefs, and so choose to take prison time instead.

Ji-Hoon adds that of course most young people would not voluntarily join the army, but that in the case of South Korea it is a reasonable demand for his government to make. He sees it as his duty, as a Korean citizen.

Min-Kyu says that "some people use illegal ways to avoid the army, and if they got found out, they will also be penalised and can be sent to jail."

He also says that he's heard rumours that it is usually the children of the elite who manage to avoid conscription – the very wealthy and those with political connections.

Imagining what life will be like when he eventually has to go off and join the army, leaving the halcyon days of British university life behind, ChangJun says that the most annoying aspect would be "the limitation of life. Like no internet and other free time. But the most worrying thing would of course be the possibility of being deployed."

However, when asked what they think the chances are that war will erupt on the Korean peninsula, all three don't think it's very likely.

Ji-Hoon also sees the continued escalation of threats as just further attempts to achieve economic and political goals on the part of North Korea.

It's reassuring that the worries that come up alongside the threat of nuclear war for these young Koreans are the same as ours. Whether we'll manage to pass our degree, if we'll ever get a job, and the maintenance of a good internet connection.

However, when they speak of how their families don't like sending them off to the army in the height of their youth, to live with restricted freedoms and the possibility of war, it feels miles away from what we regard as the normal process of growing up.

Some names have been changed on request of the interviewees