Program aims to woo S. Koreans, one student volunteer at a time
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — When U.S. military officials talk about wanting to win favor with the South Korean public, they often say it’s the country’s university students they especially need to win over.
Some of the most persistent criticism of the U.S. military and its presence in South Korea has come from university campuses. And the Americans — and even some Koreans old enough to remember the Korean War — sometimes say students have an unfair picture of U.S. troops and their reasons for being in South Korea.
So the Army in Taegu, South Korea’s third-largest city and one noted for the number of its universities, lost no time in looking for a few good friends.
Military officials teamed up two years ago with Kyungpuk National University to bring students onto Army installations to volunteer, everything from translating to lifeguarding, to helping in the office.
The program grew; the original handful of students since has become a full-fledged volunteer program between the university and the Army’s 20th Area Support Group.
“At first, I wanted to find out about U.S. soldiers,” said Jung Hee-bong, an electric and electronic engineering senior who plans to volunteer at the Kelly Fitness Center on Camp Walker.
“I was curious why they have such a bad reputation among Korean university students,” said Jung.
“My younger brother was a KATUSA,” a South Korean soldier assigned to the U.S. Army. “I was able to understand that there are always troublemakers in a group, and you can’t say that the whole group is bad because of that individual,” he said. “I don’t think that U.S. soldiers are all bad guys after all.”
To mark the program’s success, the 20th ASG hosted a lunch and orientation earlier this month for more than 30 students, faculty and staff from the school and gave them a tour of camps Henry and Walker, both in Taegu.
Army Col. James M. “Mike” Joyner, the 20th ASG’s commander, spoke directly about student perceptions of U.S. troops when he met recently with students.
“This program offers an outstanding opportunity to learn more about one another and to build stronger Korean-American bonds,” Joyner told them. “As you get to know us, your English skills will get better, and you will learn more about our culture.
“I ask you to take it back to your university, take it back to your Korean friends that you go to school with, and tell them that people living inside that fence are really not that bad. They are different, but they are really not a bad bunch of guys,” Joyner said.
Since the program began, some 90 students have volunteered with such organizations as Army Community Services, American Forces Network-Korea and the Red Cross, said Lorne Hwang, the school’s international adviser, who first proposed the program.
An orientation like that held earlier this month will be offered each semester for each group of up to 40 volunteers, Hwang said.
“We think it’s a valuable relationship that can benefit both sides,” said Hwang. “We definitely value the opportunity for students to volunteer on base and gain experiences, but equally, we host visits from U.S. military.
“It also gives a chance for the American military to find out what’s going on in Korea beyond their work experiences,” Hwang said.
The university plans to invite Joyner to speak on campus in the near future, Hwang said.