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Army Spc. Joseph J. Waldal speaks Korean during a speech contest May 31 at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea.

Army Spc. Joseph J. Waldal speaks Korean during a speech contest May 31 at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea. (T.D. Flack / S&S)

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — U.S. Army Spc. Joseph J. Waldal brought down the house at the 7th Annual Korean & English Speech Contest at Yongsan Garrison on May 31 by tackling the thorny issue of a small group of volcanic islets claimed by both South Korea and Japan.

“Japan is claiming that Dokdo is their island. This, of course, is utter nonsense,” Waldal said in perfect Korean to the cheers of the people packing a garrison theater. “Do Japanese cell phones get reception on Dokdo? I don’t think so.”

Waldal was one of nine U.S. troops who put their language skills to the test during the contest. Sgt. Sean P. O’Brien took second place; Sgt. Melinda Iketau, third place; and Sgt. Corey M. Pike, fourth place. Spc. Justin H. Kelly received the friendship award.

Five South Korean grade-school students, taught by U.S. soldiers or the South Koreans who augment the U.S. forces, gave speeches in English. Kim Yoo-li and Hong Young-ju, both in sixth grade at Nok-Yang Elementary School, took first place for telling the story of “The Giving Tree.” Yoo Eun-joo took second place and Ahn Eun-kyung finished third.

Waldal, who spent four years studying Japanese in high school in the Portland, Ore., area and lived in Japan for about six months, thought he would continue with that language when he joined the Army. Instead, he was sent to study Korean at the military’s Defense Language Institute.

“I didn’t want to learn Korean and I wanted to change” the course, he said. But after starting the class, “I found it to be interesting. I picked it up … and loved it.”

Waldal said his Japanese studies also helped prepare him for Korean. “I was light years ahead of the other students,” he said. “I learned Korean from the perspective of a Japanese person. I even bought a Japanese-Korean dictionary.”

The 23-year-old soldier said coming to South Korea about a year ago helped develop his skills.

“I’ve made a lot of effort to go out of my comfort zone,” he said, “to get out in the community and get exposed” to the language.

He said he has no set time to study each week, that “it’s just a part of my life.”

The soldier said he knew he would have tough competition when he joined the speech contest and really didn’t think he’d win.

With fluency in both Japanese and Korean, why did he choose to speak about Dokdo?

“All I have to say,” Waldal said, “is, you have to play to your audience.”

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