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South Korea: Pulling Out Four Teeth to Evade Military Obligation

Pulling out one's own teeth is considered one of the most gruesome and painful acts one can do onto oneself. In South Korea, where military service is mandatory, an allegation that a Korean singer had pulled out at least four healthy teeth in order to avoid conscription has dominated the headlines for several weeks now.

Photo of MC Mong from his mini-homepage

MC Mong (Real name: Shin Dong-hyun) is a South Korean hip hop artist who is widely known as a funny guy resembling a monkey (as his nickname tells) after starring in numerous talk and variety shows. He was even about to start co-hosting his own show. He got arrested without detention, and the police is investigating him on charges of intentionally failing a physical test and dodging the draft by extracting at least four teeth. Shin is believed to have delayed enlistment five times on various excuses, including preparation for a civil service exam (which he did not show up) and an overseas trip.

In Korea, all able-bodied men are obliged to serve the military for about two years. Servicing in the army totally cut them off from the colorful, fast-changing society in their sweet twenties. It is not hard to understand that people want to dodge this huge sacrifice of their prime youth.

Celebrities, sportsmen and children of ruling elites are often the ones who take the greatest risk in evading the draft. Celebrities are caught attempting to shirk the duty for fear of losing fame while in uniform. Sportsmen hate to be dragged to the army during their prime time of physical strength. Kids of powerful politicians and businessmen always get the free pass, often with dubious excuses. Sometimes, the illegal act got revealed later in front of the whole nation during the candidate screening process when they try to run for government posts. In some cases, it marks the end of the candidate's political life when other corruption cases got additionally disclosed.

Meanwhile, for young male from ordinary households, options are limited. To dodge the military obligaton, a few of them would hurt themselves, like dislocating their shoulders, or get themselves huge ugly tattoos that used to belong to mobs (not to scare off the inspectors but to fail the test aesthetically). In extreme cases, some will even disguise themselves as mentally ill. Blogger Neobob named two taboos in the Korean society.

대한민국 사회에서 연예인이나 공인들이 범하면 않되는 범죄 중 최악은 바로 애국심과 병역 문제인듯 하다. 폭행이나 마약보다 더 무서운 듯…병역문제에 있어서는 그 어던 질타도 몇 년이 지나도 꼬리표처럼 따라다니게 된다. 결코 용서하기 힘든것이 바로 국민들의 애국심을 건드리거나 병역과 관련한 비리를 저지르는 것…연예인들 입장에서는 군대에 다녀오면 인기가 떨어지고, 잊혀져 간다는 사실이 두려워 남자 연예인들은 병역 면제를 받으려고 숱한 비리들을 저지르기도 했는데, 제발 그러지 않았으면 좋겠다.

Anti-patriotic (actions or diction) and military service-related ill behaviors are the worst crimes which celebrities and public figures should never be making. Those are even worse than physical violation and drug issues… In case of military service, the condemnation can follow the person (who committed fraud in relevant fields) for years like a scarlet letter. These two issues are inexcusable… Male entertainers, out of fear that their fame will fade and their names be forgotten, commit various illicit acts to get exempted from military duty. But I sincerely hope that they can stop the act.

It is a deja vu of the Steve Seungjun Yoo incident that happened in 2002. Steve Yoo was an extremely popular singer who was once loved by Korean people as a sincere, healthy-minded star, involving himself in good deeds and behaving unlike those typical rock stars. When it became impossible to evade the duty any further, Yoo broke his verbal promise he made over the television that he would fulfill his military duty, and instead became a naturalized US citizen. The Korean public was very shocked at the discontinuity of his action. The South Korean government took it as a serious crime of desertion, deporting him to the US and banning him from entering Korea permanently.

An image of a Korean army cap from Mindonna's blog

Blogger Mindonna recalled this Yoo incident and commented that even though Yoo was a great singer, and he loved his music, the public just does not want to see him anymore. The blogger reflected the frustration of ordinary people under inequality.

최근 MC 몽의 이빨 따위가 한반도의 초특급 관심을 받고 있다. 본인은 무죄를 주장하고 있다지만, 무죄로 밝혀져, 군대 면제를 받더라도, 사람들의 싸늘한 시선을 평생 따라 다닐 것이다….(유승준의 경우)국방부가 끝까지 용서하지 않음으로써 한국에서의 활동이 차단된다…내가 유승준이 싫은 건. 그의 도덕적인 문제 때문이 아니다. 그에 대한 나의 반감의 원천은 상당히 치졸하다. 나도 군대 갔다 왔는데, 네가 안가? 라는 지독히 유아적인 반감. 내가 힘든 거 하면 남도 당연히 해야 한다는 원초적인 반감이다…군대 때문에 고생한 건 나 한 명이지만, 나 때문에 가족들도 고생한다. 아들이 군대가면 그 아들의 어머니는 극도의 심리적인 불안감을 경험한다.

Such a (trivial) issue like MC Mong’s teeth is getting Korea's tremendous attention. Even if MC Mong got acquitted of the charge, as he claims now, the Korean public will ignore him for the rest of his life… (In the case of Steve Yoo) Korea's Defense Ministry had decided not to pardon him and suspended all of Yoo's future activity in Korea… The reason why I hate Yoo is not actually a moral issue. The hatred is based on this shallow feeling that ‘how come you don’t need to go to the army while I went through all that?’. This childish, basic feeling toward someone who evaded a hard task which I have to suffered is what had aroused my hostility toward him… It is not me alone who had suffered from the military duty, but my family also went through hard times seeing me there. When the son goes to the army, his mother is pushed to an emotionally unstable position.

It was not very hard to find Korean seniors saying to young male that ‘the army will make a true man out of you.’ But too many exceptions have triumphed the old saying. Blogger Mediamob, after posting a table from a news article which shows that numerous politicians have dodged the duty,  expressed his despair on the harsh reality.

어르신들이 결혼 전 꼭 물어보던 질문이 있다. “군대는 갔다왔나?” 이질문의 의미는 정신적으로나 육체적으로나 가족적으로나 이상이 없냐는 질문이다…(지금은) “군대 갔다오면 바보” “신의 아들” “서민들만 가는군대” 군대를 안 간다라는건 특권층이라는 대한민국의 국민 머리 속에 박힌 이상한 우월감 때문 아닐까.

Before marriage, (when a daughter introduces her groom-to-be to her parents) the elders (parents or elders in her family) have always asked this question; “Had he gone to the army?’. This question is to check whether the man has any mental, physical or family problem… (Now, there are sayings that) ‘Only idiots go to the army’, ‘Son of god’ (when calling someone who succeeded in evading duty), ‘Army is where only ordinary people go’. It is the weird perks (of being powerful people). And the notion that the privileged class do not need to go to the army has dominated Korean people’s minds.

As tiresome and sacrificial as the duty may be to the individual, military duty is necessary in South Korea where military tension with North Korea still exists. The government used to promote the military obligation as a sacred duty to the state. But the irony is that for sportsmen who achieved great results that boosted the national image, the government gave them exemption from military duty, the greatest present that can ever be presented, as blogger Choshark pointed out.

스포츠로 국제적 성과를 얻었을 때, 그 보상으로 항상 꺼내는 말이 바로 병역면제이다…한국은 국방의 의무를 신성한 의무로 규정한다…(군입대를)자신의 삶을 더욱 풍성히 할 기회라 말한다…신성한 의무라 말하면서도 이를 면제해주는 것을 최상의 혜택으로 보고 있으며, 생산적인 공간이라 말하면서도 군대 2년을 흔히들 ‘썩는다'고 표현을 한다. 혼란스럽기 그지 없다…이제는 무조건 신성한 의무니 자발적 입대라는 입바른 소리만 하지 말고, ‘실제로’ 가볼만한 공간으로 군대를 바꾸어 보는 것은 어떨까 싶다.

When the sportman (or team) accomplishes a stunning result in international competitions, exemption from military service is always brought up as a compensation… Korea defines the military service as a sacred duty (to the state) … and people say that the military experience is the opportunity for the individual to make one’s life an abundant life… But while the duty is named as sacred, the exemption from it is the most cherished gift the government can endow. The duty is defined as a productive time spent, but people (in their casual conversation) call the two years in the army as ‘the time that got rusted away’. It is extremely confusing… I wish the government can stop making holier-than-thou terms like ‘the sacred duty’ and ‘voluntary enlisting’, but instead try to make the military service really worth experiencing.

What makes people truly angry would be the feeling of inequality. It is perhaps the perfect time to extend the investigation from the individual celebrity to the whole nation.

2 comments

  • […] All able-bodied men are entitled to two-years of military duty in South Korea. Celebrities who feared to be forgotten after two years of total respite from the fast-changing show business, often made illicit, extreme moves to dodge the duty. MC Mong (real name: Shin Dong-hyun) was one of the cases. Shin is South Korea’s one of famous and busiest singer starring in numerous talk shows and variety shows. It took less than several days to drag Shin from the top to the endless pitfall as the police arrested him for military fraud cases. The police accused him of pulling his own teeth, at least four healthy ones just to exempt from the military obligation and a nationwide criticism was thrown on him. Several months later, Park Hae-jin, a well known actor, was summoned for disguising himself as having a mental illness to evade the duty.(Read More) […]

  • Dee

    What makes someone being a “Son of God”? is it because they are rich so they can exempt from military duty?

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