Mandatory military service is seen as a rite of passage for young Korean males. With few exceptions, nearly half of the South Korean population undergoes military conscription. During military training, servicemen are required to attend two-hour sessions of psychological education, or jeongshin gyoyuk, on a weekly basis. Such education, however, has detrimental effects on integrating North Koreans into South Korean society.
Psychological education entails anti-North Korea, anti-Communist rhetoric. For example, one topic of the videos shown during jeongshin gyoyuk is how communist spies caused the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, which is meant to be a forewarning of what could happen if North Korean spies were to go unnoticed. Psychological education also includes propaganda that lauds President Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee and denounces North Korean leadership. A soldier who served in the Defense Security Command, a branch responsible for catching North Korean spies, said he was taught chants such as, “We will beat down those devilish red people” in military education. Another soldier who served as a sergeant in the ROK army recounts psychological education always stressing North Korea as the enemy. The sole focus of military education is to highlight North Korea’s flaws and atrocities.
Lessons from psychological education are targeted at Kim Jong Un’s regime; however, when North Koreans are mentioned, they are always portrayed as suffering from starvation, a lack of political freedom, and food. These qualities are mentioned not to send a message that North Koreans need help but to further purport the ineffectiveness of the North Korean regime. Bi-annual speeches and lectures that feature defectors reinforce this message. According to a former Republic of Korea (ROK) Army soldier who served in a ROK-US joint unit, the ROK military pays defectors to exaggerate and lie about their pasts. The Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) officers, whose work seeks to influence people in a way that is favorable to military outcomes, also edit what defectors say in their lectures. Thus, the South Korean government is exploiting defectors’ narratives to advance their own military agenda.
Psychological education counteracts unification policy by portraying North Korea as inferior
Jeongshin gyoyuk undermines not only Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, but also Park Geun-hye’s Unification Bonanza. One of the three tenants of Unification Bonanza is integration. The integration agenda includes jointly developed educational programs and cultural exchange between the two Koreas. Park Geun-hye cites the recovery of a common identity as justification for the integration agenda. Psychological education counteracts unification policy by portraying North Korea as inferior. The South Korean government should focus more on improving the quality of life of defectors than commodifying their stories for political reasons.
If the Park Geun-hye administration wishes to push forward the Unification Bonanza agenda, it must first look inwards toward military education. First, the ROK military should think critically about how they represent North Korean through psychological education. If South Korea continues to vilify North Korea in the eyes of nearly 50 percent of the South Korean population, the prospects for effective defector integration will be greatly hindered. Defector integration is imperative for successful unification. Second, the ROK military should stop creating an environment that motivates defectors to sell and lie about their stories. These speeches reinforce the stereotypes of defectors as helpless individuals who only survive because of the paternalistic generosity of the South Korean government.
The South Korean government should find alternatives to jeongshin gyoyuk so that it does not counteract unification policy. Possibilities include eliminating psychological education altogether. One former soldier in the ROK army cited his weekly sessions as redundant and a large waste of time during his military service. Another option is to align psychological education with the tenants outlined in “Unification Bonanza.” Weekly sessions can focus upon military operations contributing to the tenants of “humanity, integration, and co-prosperity.” By doing so, psychological education could still highlight the oppression and atrocities committed by the current regime without dehumanizing the North Korean people. Updating jeongshin gyoyuk content is another possibility. Since weekly sessions still regularly reference President Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, whose administrations ended more than 50 and 30 years ago, respectively, education is outdated. Jeongshin gyoyuk should instead reference the current administration’s policies and viewpoints.
It is one thing to motivate soldiers through the education of atrocities such as egregious human rights violations in North Korea. However, if education goes as far as to encourage defectors to lie about their stories and portray North Koreans as “devilish,” this is a detriment to South Korea and any prospects of unification. The South Korean government should find alternatives to jeongshin gyoyuk so that it does not counteract unification policy and dehumanize defectors.
Featured image: Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense
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