I immediately asked if anything was wrong, praying that there wasn’t as our new Fiji Embassy is still six weeks away from opening.
Fortunately the reason for all these ministers in training to be donning their military fatigues was because it was the day of their annual camp. In South Korea all men between the ages of 20 to 30 are required by the country’s constitution to perform military service for up to 24 months. While the Conscription Law, applies only to males although women can volunteer as officers or non-commissioned officers. Following the 2-year period the servicemen become territorial soldiers and are required to attend a 3-day camp every year, with the exception of university students, such as my dorm-mates, who only need to attend a day-long camp every year.
Later that morning I went for a walk up the mountain which is behind the Methodist Theological University. It was part of my “time out” of reflection and prayer as I was celebrating my birthday, which as I have shared previously in this column, is my New Year’s day of “personal stocktaking”.
As I stood on the summit of the mountain, I could see two rivers. The first was shimmering and flowing rapidly as the sun reflected off the roofs of hundreds of cars carrying their occupants in the busy Seoul streets. The second, the Han River, is the fourth longest river in the Korean peninsula. The Han River and its surrounding area played an important role in Korean history. These days, the river is no longer actively used for navigation, because its estuary is located at the borders of the two Koreas, barred for entrance by any civilian.
As I stood on the mountaintop reflecting on the past year of my life and pondering the future, the strains of the Korean national anthem rose up from a military base located next to Independence Park, less than a kilometre from my university, both located in Seodaemun District. From my vantage point I could see platoons of soldiers standing at attention, on parade.
I reflected on the fact that some of those soldiers may be my colleagues - theological students; Methodist pastors/ministers in the making. It was a reminder of the fragile peace this nation has known – a nation technically still at war with their own people, still wary of their brothers and sisters in the north.
The main reason for this compulsory military service is because South Korea is technically still at war with North Korea. The two countries have been involved in a number of skirmishes since the 1950-1953 war, which ended in an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty.
More recently, in April 2012, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Eun finished his first public a speech since ascending to power on the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, with 'Let us move forward to the final victory,' words associated with his grandfather Kim Il Sung's oft-stated desire to control South Korea as well as the North.
Young men of God stood in military fatigues, mindful of the call to serve, to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek but also painfully aware that they lived in a situation where they may be called at any time to defend their homes from invasion, to stand strong in the face of a repressive ideology that has disposed and disempowered its own people.
My friend Yong Seok Park, who is the coordinator of the international students residing at the university, shared with me the dilemma he finds himself in. On one hand as a Christian minister in training, he is strongly aware of the ethical and moral responses that Jesus would have him follow - loving enemies, turning the other cheek and advocating non-violent approaches to conflict resolution.
On the other hand, he faces a clear and present danger to his nation, his family, his own life and lives in a society that only seven decades ago overcame the shackles of oppressive dehumanising colonisation by another Asian country and still remembers a war which has kept the nation divided.
There is also, in more recent Korean history, the paradox of military dictatorship. For twenty six years until democratic elections in 1987, Korea was governed by a series of military dictatorships. This period was also marked by rapid development and economic growth. According to United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, South Korea joined is a member of the “trillion dollar club” of world economies.
However it was also a time of suspended civil right and often brutal suppression of dissent and widespread oppression. Today many Koreans I speak to who grew up during this time continue to struggle to weigh which was the more important for them – democracy or development. They remember their struggles but they now enjoy the benefits.
Today is Hynchoong, or Heroes Memorial Day in South Korea. It is a public holiday set aside to remember the martyrs who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom – for independence from Japan, liberation and resistance during the Korean War and perhaps even for democracy against the repressive regimes that ruled for nearly three decades.
Remembrance Day in Fiji, as in all former British Colonies is traditionally commemorated on the 11th day of the 11th month (11th November), with ceremonies usually at 11am in a parallel to the official end of World War I. We remember those who have given their lives in defence of the country or for the cause of freedom in other countries.
The phrase “we will remember them” is part of a poem to remember the fallen soldiers. Perhaps as we reflect on the lessons we can learn from our brothers and sisters on the western edge of the Pacific, we might want to think of all those who shed their blood, sweat and tears for our country - for development, for democracy, for progress, for prosperity, for peace, for Fiji.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” We will remember them.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”