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The 6-episode D.P. (Deserter Pursuit) is shorter than most Korean dramas we have been accustomed to. But unlike these other products of Korean culture, D.P. lays bare some of the most jarring truths of Korean society. While tensions with North Korea have centralised the military and conscription as part of social memory, issues associated with the rank hierarchy percolate in the military. They become more potent as they are compounded with the effects of class disparities. In this short essay, I use D.P. to understand the issues of social class disparities. In particular, rather than economic disparities, I explore one effect of disparities in ascribed social status on individuals - institutional inertia against workplace misconduct - where individuals of high social status are blind to or ignore such problems.
Figure 1: A scene from D.P. where Sergeant Hwang (right) conducted the hazing of his subordinates. (Kim, 2021)
D.P. follows the life of Private Ahn Joon-ho as he enlists in the Korean Armed Forces. After basic training, Ahn joins the military police, only to be faced with a harsh reality of bullying and hazing in the military. While enlisted non-commissioned officers, such as Sergeant Hwang, subjected his juniors to constant bullying, the commissioned officers of his unit had seemingly turned a blind eye. Ahn begins his journey in the military police where he was offered a chance to become a plainclothes officer by his superior, Sergeant First-Class Park Bum-gu. The series then follows Ahn’s transformation from an indifferent, cynical enlistee to a compassionate, resolute soldier, as Ahn adjusts between his newfound partial freedom while he works to pursue military deserters. The series switches between scenes of the outside world and the barracks, where Ahn finds himself faced with pressures from his superiors to deliver military deserters back to camp and the oft-heartrending reasons for his targets’ desertion. The series soon ends with the escape and pursuit of Private First-Class Cho Suk-Bong, a victim of Hwang. With Cho armed with a gun, the unit had been ordered to shoot their comrade if he turned uncontrollable. Cho eventually shoots himself, ending his own life along with his pursuit.
A consistent theme in D.P. is Sergeant Park’s conflicts with his superiors. While Sergeant Park seemed unconcerned about his soldiers, the show hinted at Park’s true caring nature for his soldiers and targets alike, especially since Park had persistently been passed over for promotion. Meanwhile, Park’s superiors had been portrayed as out-of-touch with realities in the barracks, especially while they sat in comfortable offices, oblivious to the bullying and hazing. In the last episode, during Cho’s pursuit, Park had even commented to his subordinates that “[Captain Im is] obsessed with promotions. He’ll do anything if things get out of hand.”
Apart from the bullying and hazing, however, D.P. hints at other sinister implications. While the spate of bullying cases, which culminated in suicides and mass shootings, has eked responses from the South Korean executive and military, the rootedness of bullying in South Korean culture is still left unaddressed. In a society with a strict obedience to hierarchy, cases of bullying are easily replicated beyond the military (Salmon, 2014). Notably, in the workplace, South Koreans were more likely to indicate that their superiors were “doers” of undesirable acts rather than be branded as “bullies”, which were instead often implicated on colleagues (Seo, Leather and Coyne, 2012). Yet this does not signify that more economically and socially reputed superiors were not bullies. Employees were also more likely to avoid branding their superiors as bullies for fear of ostracism in social settings. Another notable case is that of the suicide of a Korean Air Force sergeant, who had experienced social ostracism in her unit after reporting her experience of sexual assault to her superiors (Shin, 2021). Unfortunately then, bullying becomes sanctified as the “rules-of-the-game” rather than the exception. Similarly, in the portrayal of D.P., officers of a higher social class were more unlikely to move against acts of bullying unless such cases could implicate their careers.
Figure 2: An altar of the deceased Korean soldier. According to Yonhap, the military had not properly conducted investigations into her case. (Yonhap, 2021)
D.P. amalgamates major themes of bullying and ostracism prevalent in Korean society. However, viewers of this series may note that these phenomena are neither an exception in Korean society nor completely dissociated from class disparities. As observed, class disparities can inflate the effects of bullying.
Food for Thought:
Singapore shares similarities with South Korea in having a high proportion of conscripted and reservist personnel, coupled with a presence of national existential vulnerabilities. What are the likely effects of class disparities on possible problems with National Service?
Another major theme in the case of South Korea which is neither portrayed nor discussed in D.P. is the effects of class disparities on military conscription; a correlation has been observed between household income level and the probability of completing military service. In your view, has this contributed to growing differences in social experiences among South Koreans of different social backgrounds? How might social polarisation occur as a result of this.
Written by Winston Wee Chin Hin, Year 3, Political Science Major & Sociology Minor
Salmon, A. (27 August, 2014). South Korea military under fire over abuse. CNN. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-28933724.
Seo, Y. N., Leather, P. and Coyne, I. (2012). South Korean culture and history: The implications for workplace bullying. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 17: 419-422. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2012.05.003.
Shin, M. (14 June, 2021). South Korean Female Sergeant’s Death Highlight Military’s Problem With Sexual Assault. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/06/south-korean-female-sergeants-death-highlight-militarys-problem-with-sexual-assault/.
Kim, D. (Producer). (2021). D.P. [Television Broadcast]. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.
Yonhap News Agency. (4 June, 2021). Air Force chief offers to resign over suicide of sexually abused noncommissioned officer. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210604004151325.