Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 5
Wait for each other, or split up? It’s a dilemma as old as the military itself. In its modern Korean form, young couples have to decide if they will stay together for his 21-24 months of compulsory military service, with family members and friends competing for his few days of leave. And if they do stay together, lonely and miserable? She’ll worry that he’ll come back a patriarch, and/or have visited prostitutes; he’ll worry that she’ll sleep with his friends, and will wait in dread for a Dear John text.
To counter conscripts’ isolation, one measure developed by the military in 2015 was the provision of shared mobile phones. But they have limited functionality, and the Korean military still stands out for conscripts’ very limited ability to get in touch with people off-base, offering nothing like the level of contact most young couples would be used to. Physical visits are impractical too, most conscripts being sent to the DMZ, and/or far away from their hometowns or any other urban centers.
Which makes the following KT commercial so poignant:
For non-Korean speakers: both his mom and his girlfriend think the unknown number is just spam, so they hang-up when he calls. With the “olleh Love of Country Plan” though, now his girlfriend can see exactly who it is…only to hang up on him anyway because she’s on a date.
Never fear however, for she happily answers him the next time round. Perhaps the date didn’t go so well?
(Chrome users: Is this showing as grey in your browsers too, or just for me? The video is definitely there!)
I was confused by the phone plan at first, which seemed to offer no more than a glorified caller-ID. Pause the video to read the fine print though, and you can see it also offers 200 minutes of free calls and 200MB of data per month, provided the conscript obtains a “Love of Country Card” first. With that, it explains, he can call from KT phones on bases, from public phones, and even do video calls on a smartphone, and his nearest and dearest will be informed it’s him too. (Presumably, he would have to input a special number on the card first, like with old-style international phone cards.) And good for them.
(Note: The commercials are from early-2015, before the military started providing nerfed mobile phones to conscripts; I don’t know if this service is still available sorry.)
(Update: Thanks to Eames (@Eames29), who tells me it is:)
But the commercials got me thinking. I suddenly realized, I see military couples so rarely in Korean pop culture, and military girlfriends even less so. I wondered, is there a shared bond there in the collective Korean female psyche so to speak, that isn’t getting the attention it deserves? Or, with 250,000 men conscripted every year, and probably tens of thousands of them deciding to soldier on with their girlfriends, are military girlfriends’ experiences as diverse as the women themselves? Is it just me that has been overlooking them in Korean pop culture? Or, is it that, being so normalized and unremarkable, no one thinks to give them any attention at all?
I’d wager the latter. Despite their ubiquity, my Korean wife and friends can’t think of any specific terms for “military girlfriend” or “military couple,” and can’t think of any movies or dramas that focus on them either.* I myself can only think of one movie: the slightly old but still very watchable and relatable Crazy Waiting (기다리다 미쳐), a.k.a. The Longest 24 Months or Going Crazy Waiting, an intertwined story about four military couples, but which stresses the girlfriends’ perspectives (I’ll write a review in a later post in this series):
Yet our ignorance hardly settles the matter. One purpose of this post then, is just to throw all those questions out there, and to ask readers to share their own pop culture suggestions. As well as their own experiences of being in military relationships, and/or of people they know.
The second is to stress the importance of simply asking those questions at all.
Don’t just take my word for it though. Read some excerpts from “Militarizing Women’s Lives” by Cynthia Enloe, a short essay in The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics, ed. by Nancy Holmstrom (2002), which I just finished yesterday. And which has left me with such a buzz, I could quote from it all night:
One needs to take seriously the complicated militarized experiences of women as prostitutes, rape victims, mothers, wives, nurses, and feminist activists in order to make full sense of what happens when women are permitted in limited numbers to soldier in still-militarized militaries. To invest one’s curiosity solely in women as soldiers is to treat the militarization of so many other women as normal.
This focus is relevant to Korea too. Where, as I wrote in Part 1…
[The current economy] is so terrible…that even women are showing interest in the limited—but growing—number of positions open to them, despite the extreme discrimination and harassment they face once inside.
…but I’ve yet to see much media attention on present-day military prostitutes (as opposed to comfort women for Japan and then for the USFK), let alone military mothers, wives, and girlfriends.
Continuing with Enloe:
If we adopt the mainstream media’s fascination with women-as-soldiers, and thus devote only meager attention and thought to all other militarized women, we will, by our own very inattention, I think, perpetuate militarized officials’ capacity to manipulate many women’s hopes and fears and skills. Any militarized government’s manipulative capacity has relied on most people not being interested in military wives; on most people holding as “trivial” the mixed feelings of military girlfriends; on most people turning military mothers, wartime rape victims, and military prostitutes into either abstract nationalist icons or objects of shame and exclusion. Inattention is a political act.
(Ironic image source, left: Ilbe)
…Women who serve militaries’ needs differently usually do not see themselves as bound together by their shared womanhood or even by their shared militarization. In fact, some militarized women will see their own respectability, income, or career chances thrown into jeopardy by the actions of other militarized women. Mothers of soldier-sons, for instance, do not have any automatic political affinity with women soldiers. A woman who is a military wife may go to considerable lengths to not ask about the women who work in the discos around his base. Feminists working to help women soldiers overcome the institutional barriers of sexual harassment and homophobia inside the military may not give much thought at all to women as militarized mothers, wives, and prostitutes.
…Military officials and their civilian supporters go to great lengths in order to ensure that each of these groups of women feels special and separate.
(p. 294, emphases in original; bold emphases mine)
Next, a rallying cry for this series, condensing thousands of my own words:
…militaries and their supporters in both government and the general public have needed not only women, flesh and blood creatures. They have also needed ideas, especially ideas about femininity. Just as important to the maintenance of military life as has been the ideology of manliness, just as important as parades, alliances, and weaponry, have been certain feminized ideas—”the fallen woman,” “patriotic motherhood,” “marital fidelity,” “racial purity,” “national sacrifice,” and sexualized “respectability.” Sometimes militaries even have needed a very particular version of the idea “liberated woman.”
And finally, in the strange event that you’re not yet having a braingasm yourself, and aren’t emailing me begging me to use my photo-to-pdf app on the five-page essay:
Precisely because the U.S. Military has become so physically and ideologically influential in today’s  post-Cold-War world, we do need, I think, to pay special heed to American manipulation of ideas about women and to the appeal that those militarized ideas have for so many women. In the late-1990s the American armed forces provided not only traveling trainers, but their own formulas for AIDs prevention and peacekeeping…Each one of these international training programs is providing a site for the export of American ideas about what should be expected of a man, what should be expected of a woman—not just of a woman in uniform, but a woman in a soldier’s home and a woman in a militarized off-base disco.
(p. 296; bold emphases mine)
And if that’s the case for the U.S. military overseas, why not for the Korean military in its own country? An institution that affects a far greater proportion of both men and women than the U.S. military ever will of U.S. citizens?
Please send me your thoughts. And, has anyone else seen Crazy Waiting BTW? Let’s (re)watch it in the next two weeks for my review! :D
(“Couple in Ewha on their last date before he left for military service, in September, 2007,” by feetmanseoul; used with permission.)
*Update) With thanks to Bunny Bones who commented on the blog’s Facebook page, there is a word for military girlfriends: “고무신/곰신” (go-mu-shin/gom-shin), which literally means “wearing rubber shoes,” but comes from the expression “고무신 거꾸로 신다,” (go-mu-shin goh-gguro shin-da), or “wearing rubber shoes the wrong way.” There’s also a term for military girlfriends whose boyfriends have finally returned: “꽃신” (ggot-shin), literally “wearing flowers.”
The first term did ring a bell for my wife (I’ve yet to ask my friends), but not “wearing flowers.” That’s probably because, Bunny Bones explained, it’s from 규찌툰 (Gyuzzi-toon), a now defunct but still very much available webtoon about a military couple.
Now I sense that, outside of rare mainstream film and TV portrayals, there may be a whole wealth of alternative pop-culture representations of military couples and girlfriends out there. And if so, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong about their invisibility!