The photo of the army meal barely resembled one: a heap of white rice, dried seaweed, and some indeterminate processed meat. A spoon and wrapper filled out the tray’s remaining compartments.
It had appeared on February 25, 2020, in a South Korean Facebook group wryly titled “The Alternate Military Complaints Department,” where young recruits would vent anonymously over the grueling experience of mandatory service. The photo was in keeping with other mundane grievances on the page — complaints about a lack of hot showers, rude speech from superiors.
A few days later, on a chilly February day in Seoul, Kim Joo-won, the Facebook group’s administrator, answered the door to find himself face-to-face with a stern-looking stranger. The man abruptly introduced himself as a military investigator.
“Who took that photo of the lousy lunch?” he demanded to know. This was no witch hunt, he added; they only wanted to investigate the conditions of the unit. Kim was unnerved.
In April, a similar photo appeared on the Facebook page: a yawning expanse of rice, some limp fermented vegetables, a mound of pickles. This time, it picked up shares by the tens, spilling into the hundreds. Social media began to light up with outrage, an anger that would soon be blared from mainstream news headlines and by broadcast anchors, criticizing the conditions undergone by young men during their notoriously strict mandatory service.
For young South Korean males, a military term has typically meant spending over two years cut off from the outside world, confined to dingy barracks, absorbed in a hierarchy whose intensity of infighting is likened to Lord of the Flies. They are allowed only minimal contact with the outside world.
But over the next year, Kim’s image would trigger a chain of events that would see the South Korean military undertake a raft of reforms, eventually cascading into a presidential apology and an ongoing inquiry into military culture.
The biggest question, for many, was why these changes had taken so long. In fact, what provided the catalyst was a dangerous weapon, only recently made available to rank-and-file soldiers: smartphones.
For the past two years, young soldiers have been able to communicate with their families and hold down relationships outside of their barracks. Data show that access has led to better mental health and fewer reported incidents of violence.
More importantly, for the first time, the ability for the grueling experience of young soldiers to quickly reach the light of the internet — from the mundane, like uninspired rations, to the dire, like instances of sexual abuse — is beginning to erode the military’s decades-old customs of hierarchy, and its expectations for the quiet endurance of abuse and discomfort.
The change, enacted in 2019 by President Moon Jae-in, was seen as a long time coming. Detractors in the conservative opposition say the smartphone policy has taken soldiers’ focus off their duties, and will erode South Korea’s readiness to defend itself against North Korea. Opponents of the left-leaning Moon administration also allege that the government is really seeking to boost its waning appeal among young men, a key voting demographic. Presidential elections loom in 2022.
Kim is reserved about his role, but he and some South Korean media have compared the shift to a “military #MeToo” moment. What appeared to be a clear-cut policy change has, in fact, unlocked the ability for a silenced group to be heard online; that, in turn, has shone attention on systemic problems that are typically buried when recruits return to civilian life.
“Just like #MeToo, people in the military who were unable to solve fundamental problems are speaking out,” Kim told Rest of World.
South Korea’s mandatory military service requirement, in place since 1957, ostensibly acts as a deterrent to their neighbor, nuclear-armed North Korea. For rank-and-file soldiers, a typical day of service begins at 6:30 a.m., when they’re jarred awake by a trumpet-heavy tune that blares over a public address system, followed by a morning roll call and breakfast. The rest of the day involves hours of military training, physical exercises like outdoor distance running, and tasks like cleaning soldiers’ quarters.
Soldiers near the bottom of the pecking order face scrutiny from their commanding officers and higher-ranking soldiers, who are empowered to make life difficult for anyone a step below them. That can take the form of verbal needling, forcing underlings to do humiliating or unnecessary work, or physical beatings — all in the name of toughening up recruits. All the while, cadets are expected to adhere to Korean customs of deference and politeness.
The toxicity is no secret. In 2014, a soldier was beaten to death by higher-ranking soldiers after weeks of bullying. That same year, a soldier posted near the tense border with North Korea killed five colleagues in a shooting spree. Authorities said the soldier had experienced difficulties adapting to military life.
Kim started his Facebook page knowing how ingrained these practices were, and how reluctant military authorities were to change them. The title of his page, Yukgoonhooryeonso Daeshin Jeonhaeduribnida (육군훈련소 대신 전해드립니다), is tongue-in-cheek: an effusively polite pledge to accept soldiers’ complaints, with the name shortened to “Yukdaejeon” for ordinary use. Kim said the Yukdaejeon is a last resort for soldiers who witness abuses or breaches of protocol, and distrust the military’s willingness and ability to set things right internally.
“Yukdaejeon … makes it possible for them to tell the world about the unfair treatment they’ve received. I see that as the reason the group exists and as the hope that it brings,” Kim told Rest of World.
Over the years, a range of abuses have been reported in South Korea’s military, from beatings to sexual assault to bullying. Consensual sexual contact between LGBTQI soldiers is banned under military law, and gay soldiers have been outed and prosecuted by military authorities.
While all of those cases rightfully made headlines, none managed to trigger a backlash the way the image of the lunch did, said Cho Kyu-suk, a coordinator at the Military Human Rights Center, a civic group that advocates for soldiers’ rights. While malpractice can feel abstract, anybody can relate to the disappointment of a meager meal.
In South Korea, “soldiers are usually viewed as a vulnerable group because their rights are restricted,” said Cho. “That photo reminded everyone of how miserable military service can be.”
The image wasn’t supposed to have leaked, since photography by rank-and-file soldiers remains banned on military bases, even if smartphones are permitted. The image breached the rules because it was sent from quarantine, where a recruit was awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test before resuming duty after vacation. The soldier had heard of Kim’s budding Facebook project, sharing anonymous tips of malpractice in the military.
While complaints groups are common in Korea, their effect rarely travels unless the news is picked up by mainstream media. Since the furor, Kim said he has received a growing volume of tips and complaints from soldiers, leading him to register the group as a nonprofit in May. In recent months, he has fielded complaints from soldiers witnessing violations of Covid-19 protocols and others verbally abused by superiors. One was from a soldier who said he was ordered to drive someone to school.
Speaking to Rest of World, Kim was unsympathetic to the discomfort of the military institution under scrutiny. If they want to avoid being embarrassed by having their dirty laundry aired in public, they should address soldiers’ concerns before they make the news, he suggested.
Even supporters acknowledge that the mobile phone policy is not a panacea for deep-running and serious issues of violence and sexual harassment. But by bringing scrutiny on the military institution, it has encouraged swifter action.
In June, a female Air Force officer died by suicide. The officer said she was sexually assaulted by a colleague after a group dinner months earlier, and that she was pressured by fellow officers to drop the case. The government response was unusually harsh; President Moon ordered the formation of a taskforce to overhaul military culture, which reports this month. The chief officer of the Air Force resigned.
The original meal controversy, which ignited in April, was still going strong by June 6, South Korea’s Memorial Day. Under pressure to respond, President Moon addressed both incidents during his speech to the nation. Appearing at Seoul National Cemetery, where many of the military’s most lionized figures are laid to rest, Moon said, “It is regretful that substandard meals to our military personnel were provided. It is also regretful that malicious acts still exist within our military community, resulting in an unjust death.”
“I believe that our military possesses the ability to change and innovate on their own in ways that will meet the people’s expectations.”
In this case, it was true. The military pledged to overhaul its rations system, increasing the budget for soldiers’ meals by nearly 20% to $9.01 (10,500 South Korean won) per meal. In July, to encourage higher food quality and more competition, the Defense Ministry announced that it would hire 47 nutritionists and open the bidding for food contracts, instead of relying on a few long-time suppliers.
Soldiers are near-unanimous in their view that access to their phones and the internet, however limited, has eased the stress and isolation of military service. While stuck in their barracks, at least they can now phone their parents, text with their friends, follow events on social media, and play video games.
The ban on phones was lifted halfway through Jang Ho-kyeong’s service. Importantly, he told Rest of World, smartphone access gave them control over their time.
While career military officers have always had phone privileges, rank-and-file officers have not. The latter are still restricted to using their phones in the evenings, and prohibited from taking any photos or bringing their phones into high-security zones — but, they say, their time is now more clearly delineated.
“Before the phones came along, ‘free time’ wasn’t really free for the lower ranks,” said Jang, a 26-year-old jobseeker who finished his service in June 2020. “A lot of higher-ranking soldiers would use free hours to teach lower-ranking soldiers the ropes, so to speak, and that lent itself to a lot of injustices.”
He continued: “Young men often tend to be tactless, and in an environment that prioritizes rank over anything else, there’s even less reason to be mindful of your lower ranks’ time.”
A decline in reported instances of violence has followed the 2019 decision. Government data shows that in 2020, 42 deaths by suicide occurred in the military, down from 62 the previous year and 56 in 2018. Last year, the overall number of violations of military law totaled 5,493, down from 6,066 in 2019 — a drop that observers have attributed to the stress-easing effect of smartphone access.
The view from higher up is more critical, however, and inflected by tradition. Almost all men will have gone through the shared experience of military training. Some remark that by reducing the intensity of the moment, it dilutes the bonds formed between young men in that environment.
Access can also be unpredictable. Last year, a soldier was found to be involved in a group that used the messaging app Telegram to trade images of sexually abused minors. In a statement, the Ministry of National Defense told Rest of World that authorities strictly manage soldiers’ mobile phone use to prevent any illegal activity, such as accessing pornography or gambling.
Some see outside contact as compromising the hierarchy and order that underpin the military, since young soldiers are free to critique and reject the lessons that their superiors want to impose.
“The levels of discipline have suffered. The commanders all know that if they try to restrict access, or do anything the soldiers don’t want, they can expose it on the internet and the government will react,” said Park Hwee-Rhak, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Experts say that at the root of many of the military’s problems is a lack of external oversight. Lee Seon-sin, a law professor at Agricultural Cooperative University, has argued that military courts should be abolished. “Under the current system, military investigators and courts can be influenced by military commanders,” he said, which results in people looking out for their own.
Yet, if anything, the ability for soldiers to communicate with groups like Yukdaejeon underscores that, if institutions refuse to change, recruits have acquired the ability to apply pressure in other ways.
In early July, Yukdaejeon posted four photos. One photo showed chunks of beef topped with green onion, served with bread rolls and coleslaw in a stainless steel tray. Another featured Korean cold noodle soup alongside golden fried dumplings.
All meals included some kind of meat protein, ample rice portions, and fresh vegetables. Yukdaejeon identified the meals as having been served in a naval unit, while taking credit for the glaring contrast with the original photo of the miserable meal, posted months earlier, that had set off the controversy.
“We are posting these because we wanted to boast,” the accompanying text read.
Kim is attempting to balance his unexpected public profile with concerns over his privacy. He declined to answer more involved questions from Rest of World, saying he would, in principle, keep personal views to himself. Kim refused to offer his own take on why the photo of the lunch resonated so broadly, or what changes he expects to occur inside the military in the coming years.
His next goal, he said, is to gain permission for soldiers to use their phone at all hours. In early July, he was invited to advise the main opposition party on how to create a safer, healthier military culture. That party recently elected the youngest party leader in South Korean history, 36-year-old Lee Jun-seok, in a move interpreted as bolstering its youth credentials ahead of next year’s elections.
While troops welcome the momentum toward a more humane military, the mobile phone policy has had at least one unintended outcome.
Jang said that, alongside greater freedom with how the young recruits spent their free time, it means that many now spend it alone. Instead of participating in group activities like soccer games, more soldiers retreat into the glow of their personal devices.
“Everyone is now occupied with their phones,” Jang said, “for better or for worse.”