“Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox
It’s been a while since I last wrote something here… recapping the events that have led to where I am today takes an effort and I can barely offer a fraction of everything that has happened since I left home to head off for my military training in May. Where to begin? After six weeks of boot camp at the Korea Army Training Center in the middle of effing nowhere (also known as “Nonsan City”), I failed to pass the the translation exam (English-Korean/Korean-English, German-Korean, French-Korean), rather pathetically thanks to my handicapped Korean skills. My idea of serving as an Army interpreter was axed then and there and my fate was thrown back… into the hands of a machine. For in the lack of further certification of your individual capabilities, it is a computer that goes through a random selection process for where and in what capacity you will ultimately be placed to suffer for the duration of your military service. And the number crunching machine – this unthinking, unfeeling, ignorant modern day Oracle that gets to decide over the course of my future – came up with an answer that I did not expect. Rather than being placed in service with the regular Army as is the case for most conscripts, the computer decided to place me with the Combat Police – the very entity in regards to which I had harboured the most ambivalent of feelings. From an ideological point of view, I was opposed to the idea of Combat or Riot Police in general and felt that their very presence was indicative of serious societal and political problems. On the other hand, I felt sorry for the young men who were drafted to serve in this position in the name of “securing national interests”. Indeed, the issue is a serious matter and not without controversy in Korea, as service in the armed forces includes the drafting of conscripts into the National Police Agency. Don’t like it? You can complain all you want, the practice is manifested in law which in turn is grounded in the constitution. I felt a mixed sense of anger and pity about this situation. And when my number had been called, the Oracle had spoken: enough posturing and theorising from the comfort of my arm chair, I was to feel it for myself. It seemed like the cruellest of jokes. The ones that haunt your memory long after they are told because, besides being so undeniably and painfully true, you are the punchline. What were the words of that famous poem? “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”
After boot camp, my fellow Combat Police conscripts and I headed to the National Police Academy to receive further police education and training (of which the final week was at a different place). My immediate future was left uncertain yet again, as even within the Combat Police there existed a multitude of positions with tasks and duties of varying nature. The hardest path to tread lied in store for the Riot Police, the guys who go out to demonstrations to face the (violent) mob in full protective gear. Most of the conscripts are drafted into one of these riot control companies. For this reason, we all received basic Riot Police training. Sure, the previous weeks of Army boot camp spent crawling in mud under barbed wire and running uphill while avoiding live ammunition fire and explosive charges were challenging. But this was something else altogether. The thermometer reported a sweltering 32 degrees Celsius in the shade, while we ran around wearing a helmet and thick body armour over our uniforms, carrying heavy anti-riot shields and batons while practising formations and blocking tactics. And I did not mention the relays with the 20kg sandbags on your shoulder or the PT exercises and all the running. Hell, the god damn running. Your body just kept up because everyone else was doing it too, but in your head you screamed bloody murder. Some people collapsed on the spot. I still don’t know how I managed to stay on my feet.
How much of a relief then to hear that I had been chosen to serve with the Combat Police at a busy Police HQ Station in Seoul… this meant no worries about getting injured at angry demonstrations for me, at least. So what is it that I do? I am part of the so-called Fast Strike Team. Our primary duty: In the event of a terrorist attack, a bomb threat, a murder, robbery or violent crime, the Police Station Situation Room may decide to dispatch our team. As soon as we receive the call, we stop whatever it is that we were doing (this includes, at night, sleeping) rush to put on our bullet proof vests and helmets, get our handcuffs and walkie-talkies and run out with our assault rifles. We must not take more than five minutes after receiving the call to being in fully equipped and prepared status, ready for deployment. Police officers in Korea are usually not armed with guns. Although everyone is trained in their use, only a comparatively small number of detectives, special units, and SWAT teams regularly carry firearms. Because we are Combat Police, we carry firearms, too. I have been out on a dispatch twice so far since I arrived a month ago at Yeungdeungpo Police Headquarters – both times at night. Once we headed out because of a purported bomb threat, and most recently because of a murder. Three men had reportedly killed a school boy, further circumstances were unclear. However, we were called back to base before we reached the crime scene. I did not get to see the aftermath of the grisly crime. This I do not regret. Because it will happen sooner or later, whether I wish for it or not.
Sometimes, we train for terrorist attack scenarios in heavily crowded subway stations, with a suitcase as a fake bomb and “Police Line: Do Not Cross” warnings all around. We stand there guarding the perimeter with our heavy guns and anti-terror gear. It looks pretty impressive. So impressive, in fact, that there’s a big fat sign that reads “Training Exercise” as not to alarm passers-by. When we are not out training (or at a crime scene), our main job is to guard the main gate of the Police Station (which is a bloody huge, two building, six floor complex and home to nearly 900 employees) and intercept and guide incoming cars and pedestrians. Doesn’t sound like much work but it is. Because we have to memorise lists and lists of cars and number plates and know their owners. You don’t stop the car of the Superintendent of the Drug Investigation Team and ask on what business he is visiting. No, you recognise his car, greet him with a formal military salute and raise the barrier gate for him to pass. While on main gate duty, our uniforms are also tailored to fit the role, they bear decorative little gold chains for our police whistles and these silly dangly bits of cloth that look gratuitous and serve no real purpose. In short, we look a bit like Nazis in these slightly over the top uniforms. But whatever. The hardest thing about this job is that the station operates 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days an year… which also means that we are on duty 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days an year. We do this by rotating in shifts. It can get tiresome. And boring (especially at night).
So here I am… at a place I could have never imagined being a few weeks ago… as a member of the Fast Strike Team of the Combat Police Division at the Police Security Department at Youngdeungpo Police Headquarter Station. I am the one who so vehemently opposed the compulsory drafting of conscripts into the National Police not many moons ago. I am the one who wrote about the plight of Riot Police and how perverted of a system it is that I am living under which requires their very presence in the first place. And look where I am now. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. One Big Fat Joke of which I am the punchline. But hell, I’m trying to laugh, because who wants to cry alone?