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Conscription haunts throughout generations

I was sad a few weeks ago to learn that a close friend of mine would be leaving to return to his native South Korea after he received a letter in the mail from the government. I won’t state my friend’s name here given the subject matter, but the long and short of it is that my friend is going to be a soldier, due to his nation’s law that all men aged 18-35 must complete two years of mandatory military service for his country.

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By Alexei Summers (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: May 9, 2012

In the past months I have been living in Baker House residence on the UFV Abbotsford campus. I’m proud to say I’ve gotten to know many of the residents, and have become friends with them. They are good, friendly people from a variety of countries around the world, making the building the cultural amalgam hotspot of UFV.

People come and people go from Baker House. Nothing remains constant from semester to semester. I was sad a few weeks ago to learn that a close friend of mine would be leaving to return to his native South Korea after he received a letter in the mail from the government. I won’t state my friend’s name here given the subject matter, but the long and short of it is that my friend is going to be a soldier, due to his nation’s law that all men aged 18-35 must complete two years of mandatory military service for his country.

This is not the first person whom I’ve known who has been drafted. He is the second. Although I did not know him personally, the first was my grandfather, Anthony Romaine, a Ukrainian immigrant who came to this country before the Second World War. He changed the family name (formerly Romanchuk) because he did not want anyone to know he was from Russia. He was ashamed of his Ukrainian roots, and when he got the draft he was more than happy to go off to fight for his new country to prove he wasn’t a red. They sent him to Normandy first, where he jumped out of a plane and a parachute allowed him to land safely. He survived the Normandy invasions, was recruited into Special Ops, and then sent to Italy to deal with the invading forces there. No one in my family to this day knows what he did in Italy. He was sworn to secrecy. All we know is that he was shot, took some shrapnel to the back, and was sent home. He lived through it all.

My grandfather was a hard worker. As a child he had rheumatic fever which left him with a weak heart condition. He tried to tell the army that his heart was affected so that they could place him somewhere that the condition would not be aggravated. They did not listen to him, and sent him into the thick of it.

A week ago I was at Abbotsford Recreation Centre with some friends, and we were sitting in the hot tub when I suddenly realized that I was soaking in the very spot where my grandfather dropped dead in 1965. My family owned that parcel of land back then, and he dropped dead in the field when his heart finally gave way – literally exploding. The inhalation of fumes and gunpowder, all the strain and smoking, all the vigorous labour he had done for his country in the war finally caught up to him and killed him 20 years later.

His last words were, “There is something very grave about today.”

I write often on North Korea for this publication; North Korea and South Korea are constantly having skirmishes that often end in fatalities. The two nations are technically at war, although there is a ceasefire that’s been in effect since 1953. The DMZ (demilitarized zone) is the border between the two Koreas. It is the most heavily mined area in the world, and both armies constantly patrol it. Small battles often break out. People are killed. So it goes. In the words of the American Civil War General, General William Tecumseh Sherman, “War is hell.”

I know the danger the North represents to the South, and because of that I fear for my friend. The last time I saw him was a week ago. He was frazzled beyond belief, his nerves jangled and shot. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” he remarked. The fear has been obviously weighing heavy on him.

I’m worried. I’m worried for his safety. Two years is a long time, and a lot can happen. If he had to go patrol the DMZ, or even have to sail in one of the battle cruisers along the maritime border, it would be very dangerous work.

There is not much he or I can do about it. South Korea does not take kindly to draft dodgers. To dodge the draft is to sign a social death sentence and bring dishonour to one’s family, and my friend is an honourable man. I have tried to tell him that he can apply for citizenship here in Canada, and having been here for five years, he could easily obtain resident status. He just shakes his head; it’s only a two year service period. He will do what is expected of him. He will go back to his homeland and answer the call.

To me, conscription is archaic. Most countries have done away with mandatory service, and yet they do fine with just their volunteer forces. There is no war to be fought, so why deprive young men (and women, in some cases) of two years of their lives? The wars are over now. The guns have fallen silent.

All the same, my friend will be getting on a plane tomorrow that will take him home, and everything that word stands for – for better or for worse.

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