When Min Yeop Kim graduates from Oklahoma State University in four years with a degree in biosystems and agriculture engineering, he will return to South Korea to serve nearly two years in the military.
About 120,000 South Korean men ages 18 to 30 join the military each year, as the country's constitution requires. If a South Korean avoided his service, he would spend up to three years in jail, according to the nation’s Military Service Act.
College students account for about 73 percent of the men who join the South Korean military each year, according to the Korean Military Manpower Administration.
The first problem those students face is deciding when to start their military service. Most South Korean companies require college graduates to finish their military service before they apply for work, but the older a job candidate is, the more likely the company is to reject him. Therefore, when South Korean college students start their military service, it influences their academic and professional careers.
Eighty-seven South Korean students, 33 of whom are male undergraduates, are on OSU's campus this fall, according to the OSU student profile. The university doesn’t keep count of how many leave during their education to serve in the military.
This is Taeyeon Kim's first semester back at OSU after serving 21 months as a South Korean marine. The marketing sophomore left in 2014 after his freshman-year.
Taeyeon was one of those who left the school for the military. He said he didn’t worry about his college education being delayed. But, he was worried during those two years about forgetting what he had learned at OSU, he said in Korean during a recent interview.
Taeyeon said he started suffering depression about a year into his military service.
“I think experiencing military was not bad," Taeyeon said. "However, I had a feeling of loss when I saw my friends who were achieving their degree or awards and traveling somewhere. So, that’s why people have a dream when they were in the military. They want to achieve something meaningful.”
A 2015 study of South Korean soldiers found during these soldiers' service, they are 2.5 times more likely to experience depression than other South Koreans. Major reasons for their depression include stress, violence, lower self-esteem, conflict with higher ranks and their length of service.
Every Korean soldier ends his mandatory service as a sergeant, for which he is paid the equivalent of $2,380 per year, according to South Korean Ministry of National Defense. In contrast, a U.S. Army sergeant is paid about $27,000 per year, according to the U.S. Army website.
When OSU professor Chanjin Chung served in the South Korean military about 30 years ago, he was paid about $43 per year. Like Taeyeon, he said he was uncertain of his future.
“Personally, I worried a lot," Chung said. "I was uncertain of my career after the service. Life doesn’t go as planned. I didn’t think about getting a job. I wanted to stay at the school for work.”
However, he said his military experience helped him think seriously about relationships with people and about his life.
“As people think their reality toward life, I could think realistic about my dream and what I’m going to do,” said Chung, graduate coordinator for agricultural economics.
Unlike Chung, who served on South Korean military bases, Ryechan Lee served with U.S. forces in South Korea from 2014 to 2016. The South Korean government allows men to replace their military service by working as police officers, firefighters or as members of the U.S. Army if they pass required tests. The Military Manpower Administration randomly draws from a pool of candidates who passed the test.
Lee selected the U.S. Army for his service.
“I had to go to the military," Lee said. "I wanted to keep my English skill, and I thought I could pass the required test. Personally, I joined the military after junior year. And I was disappointed because I was just interested (in school).”
He said he wanted to push back his service after passing the test, but he couldn’t. The Military Manpower Administration doesn’t allow students who pass the test for the U.S. Army to postpone their service. After Lee's service, he worked a year in South Korea to earn money for his tuition.
Since he's been back at OSU, Lee said he has noticed improvements in his study habits.
"I think I have a returning student’s passion," Lee said. "I think I study seriously and more responsibly."
A South Korean university professor's study found serving in the military motivated students to complete their college degrees. The students might feel anxious or nervous about their futures while serving, but their attitudes toward life change for the better, the study showed.
They grow up while serving in the military.
Sun Young Kim said she wanted to know why students returning from the military achieved good grades in her classes.
“I wanted to know their motivation and its causes,” the assistant professor at Kyungnam University said in an email interview.
In her study, returning students tended to be more responsible and wanted to earn scholarships to demonstrate their motivation, but they struggled to link what they had studied before the military to what they were learning afterward.
“Even if returning students are highly motivated, we should know they also need help to adapt to college life again,” Sun Young said.
Her research concluded more programs are needed to support returning students.
Taeyeon said he is earning better grades this semester than before his military service.
“My grade is actually improved so far,” Taeyeon said. “Whenever I want to procrastinate, now I’m patient and keep studying.”
In a society where older people are more respected, he said he also learned to respect younger people regardless of their rank.
Unlike Taeyeon, Min Yeop doesn’t want to interrupt his college education for nearly two years. So, Min Yeop decided to delay his service until after he graduates from OSU.
He is planning to go to graduate school at OSU.
Min Yeop said he expects his military service to be a growing-up experience. Friends said it was for them, he said.
“I will probably grow up, too,” Min Yeop said.