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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — “Free Hug” signs are popping up around Seoul, and no, they’re not just poorly translated advertisements.

In Hongdae, Insadong and other trendy neighborhoods, South Koreans are picking up on an Internet-fueled global trend: offering free hugs to strangers.

At first, South Koreans didn’t know what to make of the people, mostly men, holding up the signs. However, they now draw curious crowds, some of whom take the strangers’ offers.

The hugging legions have grown over the past few months to include students arranging their own hugging events after exams, and Naver, the popular Korean Internet portal, lists thousands of people joining an online hugging community.

Soldiers interviewed at Camp Red Cloud recently said they haven’t seen any South Korean huggers yet.

One said he pretty much hugs everyone if he’s had a few drinks, but most said they probably wouldn’t be inclined to go for a big stranger hug.

“As long as it’s a female, it’s all right with me,” said Spc. Josh Chambers of B Company, Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.

All other male soldiers interviewed agreed with Chambers, including Spc. Jeff Du Menil, who says he’s seen the concept before.

“I think they stole the idea from that Dave Matthews video,” Du Menil said.

In 2001, The Dave Matthews Band produced a video for its single “Everyday,” in which a man with mutton chops and large glasses attempts to hug strangers in a city.

People are startled at first, but as the video goes on he gains mass acceptance.

Many Web sites attribute the “free hug movement” to an Australian calling himself Juan Mann, who has given away free hugs for more than two years.

After the Sydney city council asked him to acquire $25 million in public liability insurance, he collected 10,000 signatures supporting him and posted a video on the Internet site You Tube, which received millions of page views.

Since then, others around the world have posted their own free-hug videos. A “free hug” video made in Seoul can be found here.

Despite its popularity, some academics are calling the free hug movement a short-term fad.

“The free hug phenomenon can be translated as symbolic resistance against a society that is turning bleak and lonely,” Seoul National University sociology Prof. Jung Keun-sik told Stripes. “But I don’t think it will last long.”

Nevertheless, soldiers such as Michael Morgan say they understand why the free hugs have become popular.

“Everyone needs a little compassion sometimes,” Morgan said.

Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.

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