Had something a little bit troubling happen the other day at work. I had a KATUSA soldier tell me he hated Americans. For you all that don’t know what a KATUSA is; KATUSA stands for Korean Augmentee to the United States Army. They are ROK Army soldiers that serve inside regular US Army units here in Korea.
Having served in Korea before my impression of KATUSAs is very positive. In general they are really smart young men (women cannot be a KATUSA), usually very hard working, and motivated. However, this time around in Korea this is the third time I have talked to a KATUSA who told me he disliked Americans and I have talked to other KATUSAs who disliked being KATUSAs. Each time one of these incidents happen I probe deeper and ask plenty of questions to determine the thought process of what is going on. What I find out is really rather interesting.
The KATUSAs that did not like Americans disliked the soldiers because of cultural differences mainly. Soldiers play loud music, party in the rooms to much at night, to many girls come over to hang out, and I even had a KATUSA tell me he did not like having to take orders from female NCOs he feels he is more competent then. I tried to turn situations like this around and ask them if they would raise these complaints if Koreans were doing the same things because I am sure there are plenty of Koreans that play loud music and party. Mostly no to all of them. I then ask them why they wanted to be a KATUSA. Most of the replies were to avoid regular ROK Army service and to learn English.
I tell them that when they applied to become a KATUSA they should of realized that they were going to have to adapt to American culture and American ways of doing things since they would be serving in the American army. If they were not willing to make that committment they should not have applied. If they want everyone to act like a Korean they should of joined the ROK Army. The ROK Army is always hiring. Also the primary job of a KATUSA should be to help US soldiers better understand Korea and foster friendship between the two countries not to come here to avoid the regular ROK Army or to learn English. That is coming here for the wrong reasons.
Look at the perspective of things from a soldier. Most soldiers here are very young 18-21 and this is their first time away from home with no support base around them. Most likely they came here against their will to serve their one year tour. Plus many people are here for year away from their families which further complicates things. Then you have them all crammed into old, over crowded barracks on top of one another plus many of them are experiencing alcohol for the first time. Then outside the gate you have a bunch of sleazy run down bars filled with ladies of the night trying to shake you down for money. So naturally soldiers first impression of Korea is not to positive.
This is where KATUSAs can make a big difference. I have seen some really outstanding KATUSAs that take soldiers out on trips regualarly, show them how to use the subway and buses, conduct home stays with their families, take them out to eat at Korean restuarants, teach weekly Korean classes, and setup volunteer work for soldiers with local schools and orphanages. This is what I saw alot of the last time I was in Korea and I have seen a lot of these activities this time too.
However, I have seen more KATUSAs this time around who are more negative about being KATUSAs. What I am finding out is that I really think the 2002 incident when the two girls were killed has really effected their opinion of Americans with the current crop of KATUSAs. I actually had a KATUSA tell me he believed that the soldiers involved in the incident intentionally ran the girls down and that the Army covered it all up. He had a wild conspiracy theory and when I asked where he heard it from he said the internet of course.
Americans aren’t the only ones hated. I had other KATUSAs tell me they hate Korea because of the mandatory military service requirement mostly and a variety of other reasons and look forward to completing their services so they could go to college in a different country and hopefully find a job there so they do not have to come back. This is a common problem I have seen just talking to Koreans not in the military. I have talked about this before, “the small, weak country” sydrome that causes Koreans to talk down Korea. Koreans need to realize there are plenty of things to proud of in Korea and not to worry so much about what others think but that is a whole other post altogether.
The life of a KATUSA is really pretty easy compared to the regular ROK Army. They get payed about only $40 dollars a month so they don’t make anything. However, many of the KATUSA’s families are already wealthy to begin with. To become a KATUSA you need to receive high scores on an English proficiency test and then you are entered into a lottery. If you meet the mark on the test you pretty much have a 1 in 3 chance of becoming a KATUSA. To receive high marks on the test wealthy families can afford expensive English tutors while a regular middle class family cannot afford such an advantage. Thus the reason why there are so many wealthy KATUSAs. A really nice benefit of a KATUSA is the time off they receive. They get all US and ROK holidays off plus still have their yearly leave. Then to top things off it is much easier to receive a pass to go home in the US Army then it is in the ROK Army. Than compared to the ROK Army you have much better living and working conditions. You may have to worry about loud rap music but you don’t have to worry about being beaten by a ROK NCO.
As living standards improve here in Korea and the government continues to take the appeasement approach with North Korea I really think the Korean government is really going to find it harder to keep the mandatory military service feasable especially when now even KATUSAs are complaining about it. The more I probe into it I find the KATUSAs I have had issues with are not anti-American but are more disgruntled about just being in the Army all together and are just venting about it. Then you look at all the draft dodging already going on in the newspapers and you can understand why they are frustrated. I think it will only get worse as time goes on. Talking to older Koreans they told me that when they did their mandatory service it was a badge of honor and something you did to prove you passed from boyhood to manhood. It is definitely not looked at that way now. Now it is a burden to be avoided.
I really see no way the Koreans can make an all volunteer army large enough to defend the country from the North Koreans even if they wanted to do away with the mandatory service. They would have to really increase the amount of money they spend on the military to offer college and monetary benefits just like the US Army does to get people to enlist. I think over the next decade the mandatory service requirement will become a bigger issue. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Overall the KATUSA soldiers continue to be great soldiers and a force multiplier for the US military but it looks like I am beginning to see some cracks in it just like the ROK-US relations continue to show cracks. Fortunately all the problems between the US and Korea are easily mendable with good diplomacy and understanding even at the KATUSA and US soldier level. Every time I have had an issue with a KATUSA, I explain things to them from the US soldier perspective and then they begin to understand and come around. I’m sure the same thing can be done for overall relations in Korea. The last thing you want to do is scream and yell. That just gets people defensive and will not solve anything. This is definitely a technique some politicians can learn from.