South Korean soldiers on edge as mourning continues for Kim Jong-il


A South Korean sentry watches over the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in this photo from 2005. (Photo by Johannes Barre via Wikimedia Commons.)

As Kim Jong-un's succession to the leadership of North Korea continues, many in South Korea are worried about what that will mean for them.

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Service in South Korea’s military starts with a buzz cut. Lee Kwang-min’s barbershop is right outside an army post in Seoul. Soldiers drop in for their regulation shave. But Lee said it’s not just a haircut for new soldiers, it’s a rite of passage.

“It’s kind of becoming a man,” he said with a laugh. “New life is coming.”

Soon Kim Min-jun will sit in the barber’s chair. Kim was informed this week that his mandatory military service will begin in February.

He had hoped this day would never come.

“When I was very young, I thought when I become 20 years old, which is the age you have to complete the duty of military, I thought our nation would be unified with North Korea. So it doesn’t really matter to me, I thought. That’s what I thought when I was 10 years old," he said.

That didn’t happen. In fact, relations between the Koreas are probably worse now than they were a decade ago. North Korea’s military is twice the size of the South’s. It also has a nuclear weapons program.

On Thursday, North Korea said that Kim Jong-un was now the supreme leader of the party, people and military — a title previoulsy reserved for his father. Some South Koreans are concerned about the age and inexperience of North Korea’s new leader.

“In the young times, in the young ages, you can be aggressive, take risks, adventures, so what I was worrying about is that he’s young he wants to do something, he wants to show something, so he could accidentally do something," said Kim Min-jun’s friend, Choi Chanyong

Like launch an attack on South Korean soil, Choi said. That’s not a far-fetched scenario. Last year, the North bombarded Yeonpyeong Island. Two South Korean marines and two civilians died in the attack.

While Kim accepts the necessity of military service, he’s not looking forward to it.

“Very personally, I don’t like it,” he said. “But thinking about the country, yeah there are no options, no other options. I’ll have to accept it”

For now, he just wants to enjoy his last two months of freedom before he gets that buzz cut.