from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #9: Itaewon and Support Groups

with 8 comments

I hate Itaewon. I really do. Its one redeeming quality is the proliferation of ethnic restaurants and food-trucks in the area, but I’m not a connoisseur of “fine dining.” The other week, I had McDonald’s five or six times, Burger King twice, and KFC twice. I don’t eat breakfast—unless it’s the meal after dinner when the sun is breaking on the end of a long night—and so you can do the math. The two relatively healthy (i.e., non-fast food) meals I had were only because I was with friends. 

Itaewon is the armpit of Seoul. Every time I return home from Itaewon, I want to take a shower, another rarity for me. It makes me feel dirty. If I’m in Itaewon past dinner, I value your friendship or I want to get in your pants. 

I was in Itaewon last week for Children’s Day. I wasn’t trying to get into anyone’s pants, haven’t really tried to for a very long time. I had begrudgingly made the trek to spend time with friends, two of which I have known since the whole business with the army began seven years ago, and to catch a movie in the theater, yet another rarity for me. 

The line at 3 Alley was insanely long because it was Wing Night and there were a lot of us. There was one newcomer in our group, a church friend of Diane’s, and he, too, was a survivor of the Korean Army, but unlike me, he was very positive about his experience. My first thought: we’re not going to get along. 

I won’t bore you with the conversation—mostly because I was drinking and don’t remember much of it—but in a nutshell, practically every question I asked was repeated in disbelief and my friends were laughing at my face contorted in perplexity. 

In the end, I discovered that his case was not like mine at all; I still have yet to find another person who knows my pain. He was born in Korea but traveled the world with his missionary parents. He knew he would have to go to the army his entire life, he could speak Korean, and I assume he had the belief that there is a divine plan for his life to sustain him. Needless to say, I lost interest in the conversation and turned my focus back to my beer. 

If anyone out there knows a case like mine—a foreign-born Korean who grew up outside of Korea and, unbeknownst to him, had dual citizenship and made a fateful trip to Korea only to be thrown in the Korean Army—send me a message. I don’t need a support group and am fine being the only one I know who has had this particular experience—I’m kind of banking on that right now—but people are always telling me that my case is not that rare and if there are others out there, I need to eliminate them. There can only be one.


Written by Young

May 9, 2010 at 8:07 pm

8 Responses

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  1. This has happened to someone else. (the thread on the third page goes into May 2010).

    He also has a blog at

    He is still in the army but currently on leave.

    Anon Moose

    May 10, 2010 at 9:57 am

    • I checked out the above link but his first entry explains the differences between our cases.

      Thanks for the heads up.


      May 10, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  2. There is someone else who claimed to be an American-born who also ended up in the Korean army (see ) but I know nothing about this person.

    Anon Moose

    May 11, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    • This guy’s case does sound very similar to mine. I guess I need to sign up for Dave’s ESL Cafe so I can contact this person.

      Again, thanks for looking.


      May 12, 2010 at 9:00 am

  3. I almost was in your situation actually but got out due to a technicality. I came to Korea in 2000 and everything went fine for the two weeks I was here. Then I came again in 2001, with an F4 visa that I didn’t use. (Basically my Dad got it for me thinking it was permanent residency and that I’d be free to come and go as I please forever with it. He didn’t realize that it was a single entry visa and one needed to register with immigration and renew it every 2 years. As my plans at the time weren’t to live in Korea, I simply didn’t register with immigration and left within 30 days.)

    Entering the country was no problem. Leaving the country was. I guess the immigration officer found it rather suspicious that someone who went to the trouble to get free permanent residency Visa wouldn’t leave the country so quickly, when there are so many foreigners who would have killed for my F-4 visa but weren’t eligible because they either didn’t have Korean blood, or they came from a country in which Whites aren’t the majority. (this particular visa was BRAND NEW at the time).

    At the airport, the immigration officer asked me why I was leaving so quickly. I just told him I was going home. He asked why I didn’t register with immigration. I told him I only planned to come for a short visit. He called someone else. The other person took me to another room.

    Then they started asking me how I got the visa, how my parents met, etc. I explained that my father thought it would be a good idea to get the visa without knowing its limitations.

    They asked if my father was an American citizen, to which I replied Yes.

    They asked then, when did he naturalize? I didn’t actually know this at the time, but I knew it was sometime after my older brother was born and before I was born, so I said it was sometime between 19XX and 19XX (a 3 year gap). They asked my father’s name and hometown.

    I told them, not knowing what this could possibly have to do with anything.

    Then one guy left the room. The other guy continued chatting with me about what I did in Korea during the trip.

    When the other guy came back, he told me the date that my father naturalized 2 months before I was born. At the time I thought I was dealing with the KCIA or something, but actually I realize now that it’s probably very easy to get information like this simply by calling the Gu-Office or whatever.

    Anyway they started telling me about my military service obligation…

    WAIT A MINUTE, I said, you just told me that my father was an American when I was born. Therefore I was NEVER a Korean citizen.

    The reply was that in Korea, life begins 1 year before you are born, this is why babies are already 1 when they are born. Now, I’ve heard of the life begins at conception theory, and I can understand that argument, but life begins 3 months before conception? Before even the very sperm and egg that made you were in existence?

    Anyway I began to sweat. I kept telling them that I’ve never been a Korean citizen, I’m not listed on anyone’s Jokpo, and I just came to visit some relatives.

    Finally one of them said something to the other one, and they opened the door. He informed me that as a visibly half-Korean, I wasn’t allowed to participate in military service anyway.

    I went home.

    Thinking that this meant I had dual Korean and American citizenship, I thought it might be advantageous to get a Korean passport in the U.S. They told me that as a holder of the F-4, I’d renounced my Korean citizenship.

    Somehow this isn’t making sense, as if that were true then why did the people at the airport come after me?

    In your story I guess it is possible that whoever caught you was just having a bad day and decided to bend the normal interpretation of the law….

    The Seoul Searcher

    May 14, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    • Seoul Searcher,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. The absurdity of your dealings with the government is something I am all too familiar with. I actually came to Korea on a tourist visa and only found out I had dual citizenship when I went to immigration to apply for an F-4.

      When I went to immigration to apply for my F-4, they told me that I couldn’t get a visa because Korean citizens didn’t need them. It is really strange that they bothered you when the existence of a visa meant that you either did not have Korean citizenship or had already renounced it.

      I am listed on my father’s hojeok (he naturalized two years after I was born), but whoever reported my birth (I don’t know who because everyone denies responsibility) gave a false birthplace. According to the register, I was born in a small suburb of Seoul, Gwangmyeong, a place I have never been to or even heard of. (I was born in Illinois.)

      I spent a great deal of time trying to figure a way out of the service, but everything was a dead end. And unfortunately for me, my eyes are too small and my cheeks too big to be mistaken for anything but a Korean. Damn.


      May 14, 2010 at 9:02 pm

  4. Hey,

    I stumbled upon your blog in search of a better understanding because my boyfriend is now currently serving the army in Korea against his wishes. Although he wasn’t born in Korea (moved to the US when he was 2) his father has citizenship. He has been made to join the military too and he is beyond loathing. When you speak about alcoholism you sound just like him… He also despises 계급 and 말투 and anything hierarchy related. I’ve been trying to understand his situation and I feel lost at times because I don’t know what to tell him? At any rate I’m hoping that you’re blog can give me some direction (I am aware that empathy can only go so far). I haven’t read the rest of your blog yet but I hope life is working out the way you want it.



    April 28, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    • Hi, SB,

      I’m sorry to hear about your boyfriend. You’re right, empathy can only go so far, but it’s really all you can give. That and the knowledge that there’s someone out there who’s thinking of him. Getting letters or having a good phone conversation can make a soldier’s day. Because in the Army, it often feels like life is passing you by and that you’ve been erased from the face of the earth.

      I’m not sure what kind of person your boyfriend is, but for me, I don’t like talking about the Army unless I’m ready to talk about it. But when I do want to talk about it, all I really need is for someone to listen. So talk to him about other things and if he wants to talk about the Army, just lend him a sympathetic ear.

      I’ve heard that the Army has changed for the better since I finished my service, but the frustration will always be the same. Depending on his conditions, it’s hard to develop relationships with anyone because of the hierarchical system.

      I can’t say much more unless I know more about his situation. If you would like to talk about this more, send me an e-mail, I’m also curious about his situation and what happened.
      Thanks for the comment and well wishes.



      April 29, 2011 at 1:23 pm

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