South Korean teens get a taste of boot camp

The rain pelting down on him in gray bullets, the teenager in tortoiseshell glasses stands in a muddy field and takes his punishment, well, like a boy.

Teeth clenched, lenses steamed, water streaming down his face, he looks ready to cry. His sneaker comes off in the muck and he reaches down to pick it up, losing step with the 70 other youths performing drills in rigid military formation.

“Are you feeling cold?” the drill instructor yells.

“No!” the boys respond.

“Are you sure you’re not cold?”

“No, not at all!”

“Well, you sure look cold, let me make you sweat.”

Their hair stringy, eyes downcast, they drag themselves zombie-like in pursuit of their instructor, the boy in the glasses last of all.

It’s the summer camp from hell.

The Blue Dragon Marine Corps Training Camp is the brainchild of Park Kyung-hoon, a rock-hard 52-year-old former drill sergeant who sees the younger generation as a sorry lot: physically fragile, undisciplined and weak-minded, hunched over their computers playing video games, talking trash to their overworked parents.

But the moms and dads aren’t blameless. They grew up during the lean years after the Korean War, and many overcompensate with their children, giving them everything they didn’t have.


Finally, after years of such pampering, some parents realize that their young need more discipline to become better students and more conscientious adults.

So they’re sent to Park’s little shop of horrors.

“These days, kids don’t know difficulty,” says Park, a stocky man weighing almost 225 pounds. “Everything is convenient: hot water, refrigerators full of food. What they lack is a sense of caring for each other, starting with their own parents.”

Unlike similar camps in the United States, where such tough treatment is usually reserved for youths with drug problems or those in trouble with the law, South Korea’s kiddie boot camps are a rod not spared from the average child.

Park’s is one of numerous camps that have sprung up in South Korea in the last decade. They are not monitored by the government, but Park says his venture, opened in 1997, has been free of major accidents.

The camp, on a lonely stretch of beach and grass on Daebu Island, about 50 miles from Seoul, attracts 15,000 students, age 7 to 19, each year. They live in military-style barracks, training in fields or along the beach regardless of the weather. At times boys and girls train separately, at others they are together, all wearing green fatigues, which give them the appearance of huffing and puffing little soldiers.

The camp, which has no official affiliation with the military, is run by veterans of the marines’ special operations force. For the wide-eyed cadets, this might as well be the U.S. Marine Corps’ Parris Island training base, a place where they are awakened before dawn for another day of pain.

Some spend as little as three days here. But there’s also a 14-day regimen, for nearly $1,000, that attracts the hard-luck cases: wallflowers and schoolyard bullies, kids addicted to the Internet and those who know no boundaries with parents or anyone else.

The cadets, 70% of them boys, show up on a bus, many duped by their parents into thinking that they’re heading for a beach break.

Then reality hits.

In Park’s eyes, they’re a bunch of slackers, soft clay to be thrust into the hot furnace of physical exercise. One-third are obese, he says.

Most groan about the rules: no cellphones, no computers and no calls home. Not to mention hard exercises, dawn to dusk. Drill instructors barking orders, the kids slither along barbed-wire obstacle courses, jump from towers, run with tires dragging behind them, carry boats over their heads and wallow in the mud.

“It’s hard on your body if you’re not used to it,” says 15-year-old Gina Yu, a Korean Canadian who is in Seoul for the summer. “When you don’t listen, or don’t answer loud enough or fool around, you pay the price. I fainted on the first day when we were doing squat-thrusts.”

She’s miffed at her parents. “I’m frustrated they didn’t warn me. They said I was going someplace to get fit. They didn’t say it was a boot camp.”

The 12 former marines who make up Park’s staff aren’t afraid to get into a kid’s face. In the crowded mess hall, they run cadets through a drill before allowing them to dig into their lunch of rice gruel, kimchi and fruit.

“I will become the strongest and coolest kid!” the boys yell, repeating the camp’s mantra. “I thankfully eat this meal!”

One 11-year-old says he was sent to Blue Dragon after he got a bad grade on an important test. Another broke a window in the family’s apartment. “I threw a marble at the couch,” 13-year-old Andre Courchene says. “But I hit the window instead.”

As another boy uses halting English to describe his knee injury, Park hovers nearby like a press agent.

“Speak Korean!” he commands. “Don’t use your clumsy English!”

Sitting alone before his metal mess tray, David Peck says he doesn’t know why his parents dispatched him and his sister here. “I think this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says.

David’s father, a former ROTC officer, says a bit of pain is good for kids. “I know they didn’t want to go,” Peck Song-ho says. “But you can’t let kids do only what they want to do.”

Some cadets decide they can’t take it anymore. They go over the wall.

Park tells of five 12- and 13-year-old boys who made a break one night after lights out. Dressed in their military fatigues, they ran up some hills and hit the highway.

“Nobody would stop for them,” Park says gleefully as a group of cadets hurries past his office in the rain on another grueling exercise. “They thought they were North Korean spies.”

The boys were later found huddled at a sauna near their hometown and their parents sent them back to camp. Each year, a few cadets demand to go home. Park typically responds by calling their parents for permission. Most tell him no.

Some children buckle under the physical pressure. That’s when Park goes from drill sergeant to camp counselor.

“I explain to them that there are going to be a lot tougher times in life,” he says. I say, ‘Enjoy your childhood, but use it as an opportunity to build character. Embrace the pain.’ ”

He’s talking about the much-dreaded gas mask drill: Cadets sit inside a room filled with red-pepper mist and remove their masks long enough to sing the South Korean national anthem. One kid was so traumatized that he threatened to call the police.

“It was terrible,” says Kim Mi-jin, 17. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. My face was scratchy. All I could do was cry.”

But after thinking about it, Kim says she’s glad she did it. “I think I’m learning to be more confident. I realize life isn’t all about me.”

Park has seen transformations in other kids.

“They get bolder. Even their voices change,” he says. “On the first day, I might hear 10 voices out of group of 200. By the last, I can hear every last one of them. It’s a thundering chorus.”

Back in the cafeteria, one cadet ignores an order by a drill sergeant who resorts to a familiar training tool: pain.

“Because of you,” he tells the boy, his fellow cadets in earshot, “another gas mask drill is coming up.”

Their shoulders stooped, the youngsters follow him out of the cafeteria.


Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.


More photos from the camp and previous Column One articles are available online.