Next month, Huntington University’s senior class will graduate and enter a new world of opportunities and freedoms. But SangJin Woo, president of HU’s Student Government Association, has one major requirement to check off before he can enter that world.
By Michael Lehman, Editor-in-Chief
It’s 10:50 a.m. on a snowy Wednesday morning at Huntington University. A thick sheet of Indiana snow has buried all of campus’s sidewalks. As classes end, hordes of shivering students flood out of buildings and mark the white canvas with hundreds of new, unique footprints.
Because it’s Wednesday, more than two dozen of these students shuffle into Richlyn Library. They head upstairs and file into a warm, isolated conference room, where they shed coats, hats and backpacks and seat themselves around a rectangular formation of tables. As they wait, the students, who vary by major and year, chat idly with each other and steal each other’s nametags. Soon, “Molly Mitchell, Senior Class Rep” becomes “Josh Wilson, Miller Hall Rep” and “Josh Wilson, Miller Hall Rep” becomes “SangJin Woo, President of the Student Government Association (SGA).”
The real SangJin Woo works diligently on his laptop in a central location in the room. When the clock strikes 11, he smiles up at the other students and announces, “Okay! I’d like to call the February 26th meeting to order!”
The student representatives quiet down and give the president their undivided attention. Some of them have gotten to know Woo very well over the past few years. Many would say he’s something of a public figure on campus. The senior psychology major and theological studies minor played the keyboard in Joyful Noise for two years. He also served three years on the multicultural affairs council (MAC), two years on Alpha Chi and one year on the international student council (ISC). And just last fall, he was named homecoming king alongside homecoming queen Joelle Beals.
After devotions and the passing of the minutes, Woo opens the SGA meeting with an icebreaker question: What’s a nickname people have used for you? Woo goes first. He says he used to be called “Snorlax,” which is the name of a Pokémon who’s almost always sleeping. Apparently, Woo’s friends in high school gave him the name because he “would always fall asleep” during mealtimes and other occasions.
Woo’s story gets most of the room laughing. It was a fun fact that most, if not all of them, didn’t know about their president.
But there’s something else about Woo that many HU students might not realize. After he graduates in May, Woo will be required by law to serve in the South Korean military for at least a year and a half. This is due to a policy known as conscription, which requires all male citizens ages 18 to 28 to complete compulsory military service. Woo says he’s optimistic about what he can learn from the experience but uncertain about having to serve. Sometimes, he says, he wonders if the whole thing isn’t as safe as he thinks it will be.
“If you just go as a general soldier, it’s 18 months,” Woo says, “but if you go as an officer, it’s double the amount, which is three and a half [years], or 36 months.”
As he sits in the SGA office in lower Livingston, he explains the conscription process with the same matter-of-fact tone one might use when describing how to tie shoelaces. Woo, 22, says it’s a part of his adult life that he always knew was coming. After all, his father did it. His is older brother Sangeun, a 2017 HU graduate, did it, too — and is entering his third year of service as a translator officer in the navy.
“It didn’t really hit me that hard until, like, this year,” Woo says.
In 2016, he followed in his brother’s footsteps when he made the decision to attend HU. Four years later, Woo will follow his brother’s lead once again as he attempts to secure a job as a translator officer in the military, which will bind him to three and a half years of service. If Woo gets the position, he most likely will not see combat.
“Probs not,” he says. “I’ll be more involved with operation tactics because it’ll be between the Korean army and American army, so I’ll be doing a lot of, like, translating between those two generals rather than just, like, holding a gun.”
During the Korean War, South Korea implemented the policy in 1948 to guarantee a constant flow of able bodies through its military, which it used to protect itself from North Korea, a nation it’s still at war with today. The military, which is officially called the Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces, continues to rely on the conscription process today.
And given the circumstances, it might have to. Mitchell Lerner, director of the Institute for Korean Studies at Ohio State University and author of The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy, says the ROK army is actually shrinking.
“This is the result of a number of factors, but foremost among them is the nation’s declining birth rate,” Lerner said in an email interview. “South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, which is creating a shortage of manpower reserves for the military. Some economic problems have also driven younger men from the country in search of jobs.”
Not Woo. Although he was born in Incheon, South Korea, Woo moved to Malang, Indonesia when he was “9 or 10” and lived there as a missionary kid until coming to HU. It doesn’t matter that he spent half his life out of his home country. As a South Korean citizen, he will still have to fulfill his military requirement. There are few exceptions to the conscription law, though.
“If you are physically ill, then you can’t go,” Woo says. “If you’re the only source of income in your family, then you are prevented from going. There have been some cases where Korean men got married to American women so they can get citizenship from here and not go. So there are a few ways.”
Woo himself never viewed military service as a “choice.” Serving, he says, can fill individuals and families with a sense of shame. Lerner notes that although some young South Korean males do avoid military service, the South Korean military’s shrinking ranks might not be that big of a concern.
“The ROK army has a reputation for being pretty tough, so many people avoid it if it all possible, especially those who have dual-citizenship,” he says. “Still, in the modern era of warfare, with a greater emphasis on technology and cyber warfare, the loss of manpower may not be as serious a matter as it would have been during the Cold War era.”
Because he chose to attend HU for four years overseas, Woo says he’s starting his military service much later than his friends back home.
“All of my friends are actually out of the military or will be out of the military,” he says. “Because it’s usually a very common thing for guys to finish a year in college and then go serve in the army. But I’m taking the opposite way of finishing my bachelor’s degree and then going into the military.”
Woo won’t be going to the three-month boot camp straight out of graduation, though. He’ll have six months to prepare for everything. March 2021 is the earliest he can start his military service. If he receives the translator officer position he wants, his service will conclude in September 2024 or later. From there, he plans to return to the United States so he can go to graduate school and potentially become an educational psychologist who works in school settings.
When he discusses his military requirement, he talks as if it’s not that interesting or noteworthy.
“I don’t know how many people actually know about it, so it’s kind of an interesting fact?”
He says this like it’s a question — smiling, and there’s a bit of a humorous edge to his voice.
He follows up by saying: “I am nervous, but I’m also feeling optimistic I’ll be able to learn something that lots of people might not be able to learn.”