A furor erupted this week in Korea over a single letter. Haphazardly written by a female high school student in Seoul to a male soldier, it appeared to be on a piece of paper ripped from a notebook with no regard for proper language.
More scandalous to many readers has been the content: "Life to come will certainly offer many trials, so how could you call yourself a man if you can't deal with this [military service]? I am about to become a high school senior and feel fucked, but I still have to participate in events like this, so you, too, should give it all."
A photo of the letter, presumably shared by the wounded recipient, spread widely through online communities before being picked up by the media and criticized for lacking effort and sincerity.
Korea mandates nearly two-year compulsory military service for all men, with only some exceptions. And it's an old custom for students to write to conscripted soldiers. In the best scenario the letters are meant to express gratitude and comfort those undertaking the service. For that is the name of this genre of writing: wimun pyeonji 위문편지, meaning 'consolation letters'.
The question is whether such a practice should have a place in Korea today.
If the name for these letters recalls the infamous institution of comfort women—a wartime system of sexual slavery run by Japan—it's no coincidence.
The word for comfort in "comfort women" is wian 위안, meaning to "console and bring peace", whereas wimun stands for "consoling [someone] by visiting or inquiring after well-being".
But the slight difference in wording aside, they both have their roots in Japan's colonial rule of Korea before 1945.
According to this very good summary by the national broadcaster KBS citing academic literature, children were increasingly mobilized to write to soldiers following the intensification of Japan's war efforts in 1937. Women sent packages containing letters, pictures and goods to the front line also in the name of comforting the troops.
Korea retained this letter-writing custom even after Japan surrendered in 1945. The rhetoric of national security ran strong in the South following the Korean War, and the military takeover of the government in 1961, lasting until 1987, conferred a special position in society on the armed forces and perpetuated the notion that soldiers were sacrificing themselves for the country and therefore deserved extra encouragement from grateful citizens.
Many Koreans over 40 irrespective of gender can probably recall having to write these letters at some point in their lives (I did it myself in elementary school).
Consolation letters have been on the out since Korea adopted a democratic constitution and military dictatorship formally ended in 1987. But it appears at least a small number of schools continue the practice, and Jinmyeong Girls' High School in Seoul, attended by the writer of the offending text, has been one of them.
One might call this letter an unfortunate exception, to be blamed on a teenager who doesn't know any better, but astute Korean netizens have located another letter from the same school, this time telling a soldier not to "pick up a soap"—understood as an insult because the phrase jokingly refers to being sexually assaulted.
The ensuing debate has been predictably charged.
Male-dominated online communities are enraged that young women (or girls given her age) seem to be insulting the military and men who have to serve in it. The students' identities have reportedly been traced and published for cyberbullying, prompting the Seoul city education commissioner to appeal for a stop.
Women question why students—particularly girls—are being put in positions of having to write to adult male soldiers in the first place, with some critics offering anecdotes about soldiers misunderstanding the teenagers' intention and seeking them out as objects of romantic affection.
Although some men argue that it isn't only young women who are called on to write consolation letters, the custom is inherently gendered and female senders have always been preferred by the military. This 1992 article from the conservative national daily Chosun Ilbo lamenting the disappearing practice is telling:
"Soldiers would laugh at misspelled letters by tiny elementary school students, and their hearts would flutter at the pretty script of a female high school student revealing considerable hints at full womanhood."
"Consolation letters have become so rare these days that should one by a female high school student be found, higher-ranking soldiers are said to wage a battle to claim it."
"'In the past consolation letters occasionally facilitated brother- or sister-like relationships or even romance with female high school students that ended in marriage.'"
Even to this day, many men hold on to the belief that male conscripts deserve comfort and attention from women in exchange for service to the nation. 'Consolation tours' (wimun gongyeon 위문공연)—musical performances on military bases—are another form of such compensation; while not all performers are female, K-pop girl groups are in demand on the circuit.
What one sees as a duty to console appears as sexualization and objectification to others in contemporary Korea. The conflict between the genders is acute, and prevalence of sex crime (mainly by men against women) has been in focus since 2018. The continuation of consolation letters, founded on the idea that civilians (teenage girls among them) must comfort grown male soldiers, could only prove controversial once made public.
It's in fact been made known that the school instructed the students not to share any personal details citing potential serious harm. A petition to the presidential office (currently signed by more than 130,000 people) calls for a ban on the practice, asserting that the school knew the dangers of putting female students in contact with male soldiers:
"I think you understand very well how inappropriate it is for under-age female students to write consolation letters to male adults against will."
Still, the circumstance of how the letters got written in the first place isn't yet clear. Some students claim they wrote the letters under duress and used the chance to mock soldiers in an act of rebellion. Others say letter-writing was a requirement for receiving extracurricular service points, and that the participants did it willingly.
Whatever the facts are, neither argument looks good 100 percent. Men who defend the consolation letter tradition don't think enough about its history or implication. Those who rally around the students appear willing to gloss over the fact that insulting others regardless of the main motivation doesn't exactly telegraph decent character; an apology by the students is definitely in order.
But in a deeply divided Korea, truth is never be in the middle. There can only be two extreme realities, each appealing to one side.
Cover: the picture of a letter by a Jinmyeong Girls' High School student telling a soldier to "not pick up a soap" has made the rounds on numerous online discussion forums (source: namu.wiki)