Young South Koreans hit the beach in mock Marine Corps boot camp

By Daewoung Kim

POHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Hundreds of South Korean students braved freezing winter temperatures this week to test themselves against the rigors of Marine Corps boot camp.

First started in 1997, the week-long camp aims to challenge participants with its physical activities, but also inspire potential recruits for South Korea’s massive military.

Nearly 600,000 South Korean troops are stationed around the country, aimed largely at deterring North Korea across the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the two countries.

Dressed in combat uniforms, the mix of young men and women clambered aboard armored amphibious vehicles on Tuesday in a mock beach invasion that included smoke bombs.

More demanding activities included carrying heavy rubber boats along the beach, running through obstacle courses and learning to march.

“I was surprised because the training was more challenging than I’d thought, but I made it,” Moon Eun-ji, an 18-year-old high school student who wants to become a Marine.

Kim Tae-un, a physical education teacher, said he brought his students to the camp to help them develop mental strength.

“Although it is very difficult, we are having a good time by relying on each other, helping each other and communicating,” he said.

Faced with a declining number of eligible young men, South Korea’s military is planning to shrink the number of active duty troops from almost 600,000 to 500,000 by 2025, while spending billions of dollars on new weapons to modernize the force, according to the Ministry of Defence.

South Korea is one the few countries in the world that has compulsory conscription for all able-bodied men, but that has come under increasing scrutiny, with the Supreme Court allowing for conscientious objection for the first time in 2018.

The government also announced that the commitment would be shortened. By this summer, new Marine Corps conscripts, for example, will be facing 18 months of service instead of 21.

(Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha and Minwoo Park; writing by Josh Smith; editing by Nick Macfie)