Anger at North Korea’s killing of civilians in an artillery barrage last month has spurred applications to join South Korea’s Marine Corps.
Almost 3,500 men are competing for 977 openings in the elite corps this month, a 37 percent increase on December last year, according to figures from the Military Manpower Administration. There were about 2,800 applicants for November’s monthly intake.
Two civilians and two marines were killed on Nov. 23 when North Korea fired on the Yeonpyeong fishing community and military outpost in the first shelling of South Korean soil since the 1950-1953 war. Recruiters feared the attack and the sinking of the warship Cheonan might discourage young men.
"If there’s war, I’ll fight. And I’d feel more proud as a marine," Ko Chang Ho, an athletic 20-year-old college student with a spiky haircut, said on Dec. 17 as he waited to take a physical test of sit-ups and push-ups at a Military Manpower office in Seoul. "I realized our first enemy is North Korea, and it made me reflect on how lazy and weak we’ve been."
South Korean men are required to complete 21 months’ military service before they turn 35. The nation’s Marine Corps, which only takes volunteers, took part in General Douglas MacArthur’s Incheon landing during the Korea War and fought in Vietnam, sometimes alongside U.S. marines and Navy SEALS, according to its website and Park Kyung Up from the Central Marine Memorial Hall in Seoul.
"The older generation tends to think of the young as weak, but the number of applications this month shows that this is wrong," said Kwak Yu Suk, a Seoul-based spokesman for Military Manpower. "The way we see it, young bloods are acting on their passion after seeing two marines die."
South Koreans are in a "bellicose mood" after the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, said Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, in an interview on Bloomberg Television Dec. 20.
Eighty percent of 1,000 South Koreans surveyed by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies said the nation’s response to the Nov. 23 attack should have been stronger, with 40 percent calling for military retaliation in case of further provocation.
The Cabinet yesterday canceled a plan to cut the length of compulsory military service from 21 to 18 months, said an official at the Ministry of Defense who declined to be named, citing government policy.
South Korea sent jet fighters and warships to patrol its disputed western sea border this week when marines repeated the same live-fire artillery practice on Yeonpyeong that sparked the North’s Nov. 23 shelling. While North Korea held its fire this time, it warned that further provocation could prompt it to "blow up the bases of the U.S. and South Korean puppet warmongers."
President Lee Myung Bak’s administration, which came to power in 2008 and reversed the decade-old "Sunshine Policy" of engaging with the regime of Kim Jong Il, this month approved an increase of about 6 percent in the defense budget for next year. The government has cited the Nov. 23 shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan, which claimed the lives of 46 sailors, among the reasons for bolstering its defenses.
While one in four South Koreans polled by the Hankook Ilbo newspaper in May said they didn’t trust the findings of a multinational panel that concluded a torpedo fired from a North Korean mini-submarine sank the ship, the shelling of Yeonpyeong struck a chord with Ko and other marine applicants.
"Killing civilians is wrong, even during times of war, so I feel more hostility toward North Korea now," said Kim Su Bin, a soft spoken first-year college student who will defer his plans to become a preschool teacher if he makes it into the marines. "It’s scary, but I’ve decided to join and I’ll do my best."
Kim, 19, who talked as he watched a Marine Corp.’s promotional video on Dec. 17, said even the risk of being deployed to Yeonpyeong wouldn’t deter him.
"It’s a very positive change, showing how young people love their country," President Lee said today during a briefing with the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, according to a statement on his website.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a Nov. 24 dispatch the island is located "deep inside our territorial waters." Any civilian casualties on Yeonpyeong were "very regrettable," KCNA said on Nov. 27, while accusing South Korea of deploying its citizens as a "human shield."
Kim and Ko weren’t born in 1987 when North Korean agents were accused of bombing a South Korean airliner that killed all 155 people. In July 2008 a South Korean woman was shot dead by North Korean troops at the Mount Geumgang resort after she allegedly strayed into a military zone during a beach stroll.
The reaction of the nation’s youth to the recent attacks by North Korea is "straightforward and emotional," said Paik Hak Soon, director of inter-Korean relations at the Sejong Institute, based in Seongnam, South Korea.
"They feel a sense of military provocation more directly than ever," Paik said in a telephone interview yesterday.
South Korea’s Marine Corps, which recruits about 12,000 men annually, was created in 1949 to specialize in amphibious landings, according to its website and Kwak. Successful candidates must be between 159 centimeters (63 inches) and 195 centimeters tall, and 50 push-ups and 58 sit-ups in a minute will earn a high physical rating, according to the website.
Kim Jin Won, a 19-year-old high school graduate who had planned to join the army, said he changed his mind after the shelling of Yeonpyeong.
"Previously, I just wanted to get military service over with as quickly as possible, and I thought about ways to get out of it," Kim said. After watching the shelling of Yeonpyeong, "I wanted to contribute something to my country no matter how minor it is."