Young Chun is the author of the superb The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army. Although an American citizen born and raised in the United States, while teaching English in South Korea, he unexpectedly discovered he was a Korean citizen (by virtue of having been born to a Korean father). He was drafted into the army, an unwelcome surprise made worse by his inability to speak Korean. His two years in the military (2004–2006) included a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.
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What was the inspiration for your memoir? Was it people suggesting that you write a book about your experiences or was this something you always wanted to do?
I initially hadn’t planned on writing a memoir. My aspirations have been focused on novels since I first made the decision to pursue writing, which is slightly ironic because my first two books are not novels. Neither was it someone suggesting that I write about my experiences. Well, at least not directly. But it was inevitable that my first book would be a memoir.
When I was younger and more social, fresh out of the Army and ready to start over, I would meet new people through a friend, and my friends would always add that I had served in the Korean Army as an icebreaker, as if it were something I was proud of or something that defined who I am. I never volunteered the information. I never had to. And it still happens.
I’m not one for talking about myself, but I found myself in situations where I was hearing the same questions again and again, some insincere and others ignorant. Even the most well-intended questions borne of a sincere curiosity become bothersome after you’ve had to answer them repeatedly.
“How was it?”
“Was it really that bad?”
“Did you get sexually abused while you were there?”
It grew tiring very quickly, to a point where I wanted to carry around a card on which was written answers to all the frequently asked questions about my experience.
“It was bad.”
“Yes, it was really that bad.”
“No. I’ve heard that it happens, but it didn’t happen to me.”
Of course, there was too much to say for a 9 cm by 5 cm card. The idea for that card was the beginnings of the memoir. When people ask those questions, I usually use my go-to, “It’s a long story.” Now, if they persist, my new go-to is, “You can buy the book.” That way, I don’t have to waste time with people who don’t really want to know about the experience or ruin a perfectly good night of drinking by reflecting about the Army for those who do.
Why did you self-publish The Accidental Citizen-Soldier?
The memoir as it is today is actually my second completed manuscript detailing my experiences in the Korean Army. I completed the first manuscript a year or two prior and attempted to go the traditional publishing route by first querying scores of agents. There was some interest in the book, but it was minimal and petered out quickly. Faced with crushing rejection, I took a good look at the manuscript, realized I wouldn’t get anywhere without doing better, and threw away all four hundred edited pages to start anew.
I completely changed the format, the tone, and the style of the narrative and pounded out another four to five hundred pages, which I then edited down to the current three hundred or so pages. By the time the memoir became what it is now, I was drained. I wanted to polish it more, but I knew that there would never be an end to the edits and also wanted to move on and start working on the ideas for my novels. I decided to publish the memoir, but the process of querying agents is very time-consuming with no guarantee that the response would be any better with the new manuscript, which is why I decided to self-publish, telling myself that I would try to find a publisher again once I was ready to make my debut as a novelist.
Would you consider having a Korean-language edition published?
I tried having a Korean edition published a couple of years ago. A friend introduced me to a Korean poet and writer who was willing to translate the book if there was interest from publishers. Unfortunately, after a month or so, the poet informed me that there weren’t any publishers interested in putting a Korean edition of the memoir on the market and I haven’t heard from him since.
I’m not sure how hard the poet tried to convince the publishers of the value of the book on my behalf or why the publishers decided they weren’t interested. One narrative I’ve used to comfort myself was that the political situation at the time is to blame. At the time the poet was looking for publishers, the Park Geun-hye administration was cracking down on negative press and criticism of the government. Although I served in the Army long ago, I want to believe the publishers simply wanted to avoid any kind of trouble with the government.
Toward the end of your time in the army, you entered a translation competition run by a newspaper. How did you manage to win the second prize if your Korean was so bad (and you didn’t even finish the piece you were translating)?
In all honesty, my translation could not have been all that good, not enough to win a prize, as it was incomplete and unedited, and I assume a big part of the decision was the human interest aspect of my situation. They used me for good publicity for the institution of the military and country, and I used them for the prize money. Either that or they just felt really bad for me.
That being said, I don’t think the translation was horrible. Although I wasn’t able to speak Korean decently until just after I finished, my reading comprehension was pretty good. It was the way I learned Korean, by going through the books in our squad room cubby library with a dictionary in hand. As long as I could make out most of the sentence, I would fill in the blanks based on context. I’m sure there were some misinterpretations and the quality probably fell significantly toward the end of my translation as I was rushing through it, but I felt like at least the first several chapters were decent. If I hadn’t had confidence in those early chapters, I wouldn’t have bothered to submit it. It was only later that I realized I was supposed to have translated a short story rather than a full-length novel.
The Accidental Citizen-Soldier doesn’t read like a self-published book. Who helped with the editing, proofreading, and formatting?
There were several people who gave me much needed encouragement and feedback throughout the process of writing the memoir, and the person who contributed the most in helping me create a book I could be satisfied with publishing is my friend and former co-worker Daniel Jewitt. I have no formal training or education in writing, having not taken a writing class since high school, and Daniel provided me with very incisive feedback and guidance as my editor. The first manuscript was also edited by another friend and former co-worker, Diane Gardner-HoFatt, and some of the stories from that early draft are still intact in the memoir. The proofreading of the memoir was done by another friend and fellow blogger, Kevin Kim, whose vocabulary and knowledge of English grammar far exceeds my own.
I wondered if you might be exaggerating about the harshness of military service, so I did some online research and it made for pretty grim reading. How much have things improved since you did your military service?
One positive thing that is constant about the Army is that it is constantly evolving albeit at a snail’s pace. In that way, older guys will always be able to make light of the experiences of younger guys. Younger guys do seem softer and more immature, not as traumatized by their time as a soldier. It used to be that you’d go in a boy and come out a man—a scarred, reticent, pompous Korean man. The few relatives and friends that I’ve seen come back from the Army in recent years have come back pretty much the same bright-eyed, immature dreamers they were when they went in. I take it as a sign that conscript culture these days is getting better.
Of course, everything I know about the Army now is hearsay, but all the hearsay is positive. One thing I was particularly envious of is the fact that conscripts now sleep on bunk beds. The only time I didn’t sleep on the floor during those two years was when I was in Afghanistan, where I had a wooden board resting on an Army cot. Other things I’ve heard include shorter terms of service and much higher pay.
Not only was your military service a tough experience, but you were paid a pittance for it. How much are conscripts paid these pays?
I had to do some research to answer this question as I only had a general idea. My first paycheck as a private in boot camp was approximately 16,000 won (around 15 USD) and my final pay as a sergeant was something like 45,000 won. Today, privates in the Korean Army receive 163,000 won, around ten times what I was paid. Privates first class are paid 176,000 won, corporals 195,000 won, and sergeants 216,000 won. There are currently plans to further raise the pay for corporals to 259,000 won this year, with gradual increases to 700,000 won, half the amount of a living wage, by 2020.
Does South Korea offer alternative service to those who are not suited to military training?
There are numerous types of alternative service that are almost universally coveted. One of the most well-known of these is gongikgongmu(yo)won, public service personnel, which usually means that the young man will work a desk job at a local district office. Another is saneopgineungyowon, industrial technical personnel, which is less known but also entails working a desk job but at a company designated as bangwisaneop, a defense industry. Most of the people I know who did this kind of service worked at video game companies. How video game companies are essential to national defense is lost on me. Another type of service that is much less known is jeonmunyeonguyowon, professional research personnel, one that I am familiar with because I have had many students pursuing this track. It allows students working toward their doctorates in science or engineering to apply the time spent studying as military service. Young men who serve these types of military service must all go to boot camp and remain at the rank of private. During reserve trainings, you can easily tell who did alternative service (privates) and who did active-duty (sergeants) by their rank insignia.
There are preferences among types of active-duty service as well. Of these, the most coveted is probably serving as a KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the US Army), working and living on US military installations in Korea as support to US forces. KATUSAs enjoy a better quality of life and more lax conditions, with possibilities to carry cell phones and go out on more frequent passes as well as a good environment to improve their English abilities. Of the three branches of the military, it is also well-known that conditions in the Air Force are the most comfortable, but the downside is a longer term of service.
What is the current length of military service in South Korea? In Taiwan it used to be two years but it’s been reduced to four months.
The current length of military service here is 21 months for the Army, 23 months for the Navy, and 24 months for the Air Force. There was talk recently about the Moon administration further reducing the term of service to 18 months, but it was decided by the Ministry of National Defense that it is still too early for a reduction in manpower due to the current situation on the peninsula.
The term of service is steadily albeit slowly decreasing, from 36 months after the Korean War to 21 months, 65 years later. When I first arrived in Korea, it was 26 months and dropped to 24 months about three months before I was inducted into the Army.
Taiwan was planning to phase out conscription but they’ve put that plan on hold because they’ve not been able to attract enough recruits. Are there any proposals to scrap conscription in the ROK?
As far as I know, there are no plans for scrapping conscription. While the birthrate in Korea is alarmingly low, the lowest among OECD countries, the number of conscripts in the armed forces is still a sizable number. When I was a soldier, there were 690,000 conscripts. At present, it is still at around 610,000. The government is planning to reduce the number of active duty conscripts to 500,000, but whether they will actually follow through with the plan within the timeframe they have presented is yet to be seen.
One thing that is necessary in order for people to even consider phasing out conscription is a drastic change in social perceptions about serving in the military. Korean society is highly competitive while also hopelessly concerned with how they measure up to the people around them. People consider serving in the military as a conscript as a commendable activity but have a significantly different view of the military as a career.
You didn’t mention any martial arts training. Many Westerners associate South Korea with taekwondo (in fact, even here in Taiwan’s it’s the most popular martial art among the young). Are conscripts taught taekwondo?
Almost all conscripts are taught taekwondo and receive black belt certification. That being said, I didn’t mention any martial arts training in the book because members in my company were not given any training in taekwondo. As support for headquarters, we were expected to be on call at all hours to supply administrative support for ambitious officers who generally think that a massive quantity of highly polished reports will earn them a promotion. As a result, our company didn’t really have a concept of free time after normal work hours, which is why the members of my company rarely played soccer, something that almost all Korean men relate to their experiences in the military.
It was one thing among many that I felt I missed out on while in the Army. I enjoy martial arts but I never got a single taekwondo lesson while I was there. I also never got to throw an actual grenade or witness the force of a claymore going off because of the grenade range accident. And I never got to run through the rope course during ranger training because the members of my company were so awful at it we ran out of time.
When you shoot the breeze with Korean men, does the topic of military service come up a lot?
I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not keen on meeting new people, but on the off occasion I do, it invariably comes up. Once it does come up, the topic will dominate the conversation for a considerable amount of time, and even if I keep quiet, the attention will eventually turn to me, not out of a simple curiosity but rather to make themselves feel better by putting me down, as if not having served would make me less of a man.
“You’re American, right? So I bet you didn’t serve in the Army.”
I really should learn how to lie in order to avoid these conversations.
“Oh, where did you serve?”
When I reply Daegu, they always assume I served at the 50th Division. Again, I need to learn to just keep my mouth shut and nod instead of correcting them.
“Oh, so you served at a comfortable place.”
Again with the penis-measuring. If I’ve learned my lesson by that point, I’ll just nod and go back to drinking. If I’ve begun to despise the person, I’ll mention my deployment to Afghanistan to shut him up. The deployment wasn’t all that dangerous, but most people don’t know that. Unless they’ve read the book, that is.
Have there been any unexpected benefits to your military service?
It’s hard to say if there have been any unexpected benefits. At the very least, there hasn’t been anything obvious. There is a kind of bonus point system for people who have completed their military service and applying for jobs, but I have no interest in working in a Korean company, many of which have a culture that is very reminiscent of Army culture. There is the social aspect, but I don’t go out and meet new people much and would rather they not judge me based on something I really didn’t want to do. In terms of personal growth, I did become more stubborn in pursuing what I want in life, which really means that I will do whatever it takes to not be in a position where people are telling me what to do. I had enough of that in the Army.
However, there are certain things that I did gain through the experience. For one, I learned to speak Korean to an acceptable degree although it didn’t really kick in until just after I was discharged. Another is that I was able to spend a lot of time reading and writing toward the end of my service. And a final small benefit is that I now know how to “Ranger roll” my clothes (to fold almost any article of clothing into a small ball), which comes in handy when I’m traveling.
What did you do in the years after you came out of the military?
The week after I was discharged, I had to cancel my Korean citizenship by law, and I left Korea immediately afterward. I travelled around China for about a month and returned to the States, where I picked up odd jobs on a monthly basis, got my TESOL certification, helped plan my brother’s wedding, applied to graduate school, and took a trip to Southeast Asia with my other brother.
After a six month hiatus, I returned to Korea to go to graduate school. I chose to go to grad school because I didn’t have anything better to do and figured it would give me time to figure things out. While studying, I started teaching English part-time at my university, where I was offered a full-time position shortly after and have been working for the past 11 years. I typically teach in the mornings, write in the afternoons and evenings, and drink whenever I’m not teaching or writing.
What do you do for a living now?
Unfortunately, I only make a few bucks a month from book sales, which is not enough to pay the monthly fee for my checking account in the US let alone the rent and bills. I make ends meet by teaching English at the language institute at my university. I teach conversation, debate, and writing courses to college and graduate students although there hasn’t been much interest in writing classes lately. I also occasionally pick up translation and editing jobs for extra income. In the near future, I’m planning to publish a guidebook for EFL teachers and students in Korea based on the things I’ve picked up while working here.
What do you like to read in your free time?
I’ve been studying the Japanese language for the past couple of years so I’ve been reading Japanese novels in my free time as way to study and read at the same time. It does take me a long time to get through each book because I’m constantly looking up words, and in that sense, it reminds me of the time I was studying Korean in the Army.
I still do read books in English as it is necessary for writers to read, but I admit that I don’t read as much as I ought to. I don’t know much about contemporary authors, and most of what I read are novels that would be considered classics. It’s one of my quirks; I’d rather re-read a book I love than read something new.
What are some of your favourite books?
My favorite writers include Bukowski, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Steinbeck, and Salinger. My favorite Bukowski novel is probably Factotum, which was also the first book of his that I read, was given to me while I was in the Army, and was something that I read while writing the memoir as a reference for describing a supremely mundane work life. Other books that I enjoy and read again and again as a reference while writing the memoir include Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Heller’s Catch-22, and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. My favorite Steinbeck novel is Cannery Row.
Are you writing anything at the moment?
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m working on an English guidebook for EFL teachers and students in Korea, which I plan to publish in the near future. I’m hoping to finish the English version by the end of the month and plan to self-publish it on Amazon due to the small scale of the audience. The Korean version will take some more time but I also hope to find a publisher and have it completed by the end of the year.
I’m also working on two novels at the same time, with a first draft for one of them at about 50,000 words. The outline is completed, and all I need to do is sit down and power through the writing. The other is still in its initial stages, probably around 10,000 words, with a general idea of the plot, but the specifics need to be worked out. I also have the initial research done for another novel that I have yet to start writing.
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The Accidental Citizen-Soldier is self-published, but don’t be put off by that fact; it’s as good as anything you will see from a big publisher. The book is available from Amazon.com and other online retailers.
You can read my review of the book here.
For more information on Young Chun, you can visit his website.
Readers might also be interested in an interview with T.C. Locke, author of Barbarian at the Gate: From the American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army. Like Young Chun, Locke is an American who found himself unexpectedly called up for two years of compulsory military, but in this case for the ROC (Republic of China) army.