Volunteers flock to bolster S Korean military

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Seoul

Image caption,
South Korea's military aims to double the number of women in its ranks

In South Korea, like anywhere, the military loves a bit of tradition - and the military band is no exception.

In the main hall of Seoul's Sookmyung University, they stand with buttons as shiny as their instruments and play a welcome march for the army's newest recruits.

At the front of the hall one of those new recruits, Hyun-jin, sits stiffly facing the podium, her navy skirt and cap immaculate, her knees tight together.

Only a flick of black eyeliner at the corner of each eye gives a hint of her personality.

As the band finishes, Hyun-hin and 29 other women, identical in their navy uniforms and shiny-heeled shoes, stand and salute.

These are the first female students in South Korea to be allowed on to their college's officer training programme - part of the military's aim to double the number of women in its ranks.

'More vigilant'

Only men do military service here, so these recruits are all here voluntarily.

A few years of military service is a good way to impress future employers, as well as defending the country.

But since Hyun-jin and her friends signed up, the threat of conflict on the Korean peninsula has become much more real.

North Korea shelled a South Korean island last month, killing four people including two civilians.

"Before the attack," says Hyun-jin, "I always thought of North Koreans as our brothers but now I've become a lot more alert about the threat they pose.

"As a woman - and now as a member of the military - I feel I need to be a lot more vigilant."

The attack on Yeongpyeong island presented South Koreans with pictures they hadn't seen for half a century - civilians attacked and killed by their Northern neighbours; houses destroyed; people running from their homes.

The military says applications for its elite marine units have spiralled since the attacks.

But the army in general suffered a blow to its image: hampered by equipment failures, labelled weak and slow to respond.

Many here believe the army needs to get much tougher.

Defiant defectors

In the artificial light of a meeting room in downtown Seoul, the self-styled People's Liberation Army has gathered to discuss the military threat from the North.

Image caption,
Many North Korean defectors are calling for a pre-emptive strike against their former homeland

All of those here - men and women - are defectors who escaped North Korea and are living in the South.

There is plenty of military experience, and they are so keen to fight their former homeland they have already bought their own uniforms and cap badges.

There is just one problem: they are banned from serving with the South Korean army because they are North Korean.

Kim Sung-min served in the North Korean army for 15 years, a propaganda specialist trained to obey every order given by his autocratic leader, Kim Jong-il.

Now he's rooting for the other side.

"When I was living in the North I thought that Kim Jong-il was great, just like everyone else. I thought that the North Korean style of communism was the most superior.

"If I hadn't listened to radio from the outside world that is how I would still be thinking," he says.

Mr Kim says the South Korean army has gone soft over the past few years and needs to toughen up.

That hawkish attitude is widespread here; many here are calling not just for a stronger response against their former homeland, but a pre-emptive strike.

But South Korea isn't ready to let former enemy soldiers into its army.

So Mr Kim and his colleagues spend their time giving presentations on the North's military capabilities, and holding occasional protests on the streets of Seoul.

Instead it will be Hyun-Jin and her colleagues who will share the task of defending those streets.