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K-pop star Kang Young Hyun, a member of the group Day6, before and during his military service as a KATUSA soldier in Eighth Army.

K-pop star Kang Young Hyun, a member of the group Day6, before and during his military service as a KATUSA soldier in Eighth Army. (Kang Young Hyun/U.S. Army)

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — A South Korean pop star serving his compulsory military service is among Eighth Army’s Best Warriors after a six-day trial that tested competitors' physical and mental limits.

Pfc. Kang Young Hyun, 28, a South Korean soldier serving as a human resource specialist for Eighth Army’s Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, won the command’s Best Warrior Competition in the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army, or KATUSA, category from May 8-13.

Kang is a member of DAY6, a pop rock band represented by JYP Entertainment, a South Korean record label that debuted K-pop groups like Wonder Girls.

Other competition categories include best soldier, noncommissioned officer, officer and warrant officer. U.S. soldiers who were crowned best warrior and best squad will advance to U.S. Army Pacific’s three-day competition starting July 19.

Army Pfc. Kang Young Hyun plots points on a map during a Best Warrior land navigation challenge at Camp Casey, South Korea, May 8, 2022.

Army Pfc. Kang Young Hyun plots points on a map during a Best Warrior land navigation challenge at Camp Casey, South Korea, May 8, 2022. (Taylor Gray/U.S. Army)

Forty-nine U.S. and KATUSA soldiers competed for the title of Best Warrior and Best Squad by going through events like a water survival skills test, small arms qualification, an eight-mile march, land navigation and obstacle courses, knot-tying assessments and military knowledge tests.

Kang said he was encouraged to compete by a noncommissioned officer in April.

“I made the decision that night,” he told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday. “Because my only goal in the Army was to have a healthier body, just to build a better one, because I feel like I haven’t been taking care of [it] before.”

Kang was raised in South Korea but studied in Canada for four years. While living in Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia, he honed his English by studying and practicing music from artists like Maroon 5 and Coldplay.

Kang’s group, DAY6, spent 15 weeks in Billboard’s K-Pop 100 category in 2020, with songs like “Zombie” and “You Were Beautiful.”

As a South Korean man, Kang was required to serve in his country’s military before age 29. He returned to South Korea and applied to become a KATUSA soldier through a highly selective process.

“I knew I had to come into the army one day,” Kang said. “I knew I was going to stay here in Korea, and I knew I was going to serve.”

KATUSA applicants are required to meet a certain score in several internationally recognized English knowledge and speaking tests, have no criminal record and pass a physical fitness test.

“I realized being a KATUSA is something very special,” Kang said.

Prior to his military service, Kang said he focused on his music career and the albums he planned to release. He learned during his military training the value of introspective thinking and to occasionally “look into myself” and to “take care of myself.”

Kang said the cardio events were the most difficult of the Best Warrior competition.

“I was not a good runner compared to the others,” he said, smiling. “Thankfully, because I was physically very, very tired, I fell asleep right away.”

Despite struggling through some trials, Kang said he endured after “seeing the other competitors … all very dedicated and competing hard against each other.”

“I think what I got out the most was the experience itself,” he said. “I feel like I am never going to have this experience ever in my life anywhere else.”

Kang said he knew he “wasn’t going to be the fastest one” among the competitors but noted his “goal was to hit every single obstacle.”

“There were hiccups,” he said. “There were times when I almost fell down but being able to overcome my limits … gave me more confidence in myself — believing in myself — and thinking I can do other things, too.”

An Eighth Army spokesman said Kang received no preferential treatment during the competition.

“We treat Pfc. Kang exactly as we treat all of our soldiers,” Army Lt. Col. Neil Penttila told Stars and Stripes. “He won this competition purely on his own hard work and effort.”

David Choi is based in South Korea and reports on the U.S. military and foreign policy. He served in the U.S. Army and California Army National Guard. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles.
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