While I was in the Army, I was threatened with military prison three times—once because of the article in the Seattle P-I, once because I was reading an unauthorized Communist biography, and once because of a tattoo. I got the tattoo during my post-deployment furlough, and it was meant to be a statement. (For some reason, I had grown some brass balls during Afghanistan even though I spent most of my time on base.)
To the uninitiated eye, it might even seem somewhat patriotic. But the mark at the top of the tattoo is not a symbol of the Korean armed forces as a source of pride. The two characters beneath the star and anchor are read as gunyong, and the symbol as a whole can be found stamped on all military property. (Gunyong, directly translated, means “military-use.”) The text beneath builds on the symbol.
First line—Product name: Chun, Young Jin
Second line—Inventory No.: 04-7200XXXX
Third line—Date of manufacture: 2004 January 29
Last line—Date of expiration: 2006 January 28*
The tattoo was meant to be a protest of the Army’s treatment of conscripts. The officers didn’t see conscripts as human beings; we were nothing more than tools in their eyes. They didn’t care if we ate or slept, and it was no concern of theirs if we broke physically or mentally. A broken hammer is inconsequential when you have 600,000 more in stock with new shipments coming in every month.
It was the month before I became a sergeant that I got caught with the tattoo. I normally didn’t wear my shorts because they were practically camo daisy dukes, but the barracks in the Battle Simulation Center was like a hotbox and summers in Daegu are oppressive. I was pulling out my bedding to get ready for bed when the noncom in charge of the support staff spotted it.
“Oi, corporal,” he said. “What’s that?”
“What’s what, sir?” I replied.
“That,” he said, walking over to me and pointing at my leg.
“A tattoo, sir,” I said, feeling cheeky.
“When did you get it?”
“A couple of months ago, sir.”
“You can’t get a tattoo while you’re a soldier. It’s against regulations.”
“I didn’t know I couldn’t do that, sir.”
He started looking at it closely. “What the hell is this supposed to mean? Is this some sort of protest?”
I shrugged. I should have said something, but I didn’t feel like it. I was tired.
“I should report you.”
I shrugged again, finished unfolding my bedding, and went to bed.
Nothing happened afterward. I knew the noncom had no influence and that he wouldn’t report me. He wasn’t the right personality type, something that I understood really well by that time.
* The inventory number is my dog tag number.** The date of manufacture and expiration are the date of my induction and discharge.
** I X-ed out the last four numbers for no particular reason. The first two numbers are the year I was inducted (’04), the first number after the dash indicates that I was a conscript (7), the second indicates that I was trained at a divisional training center in the SROKA (Second ROK Army) area (2), and the rest of the numbers indicate that I was the XXXXth conscript for that year and area (00XXXX).