For the Ahn family, winter vacations were usually spent skiing or traveling abroad. But this year, Heung-Jin Ahn and his wife made a tough decision. They sent their only son to boot camp.
"I don't want to go. I'd rather stay home and play online games with my friends," said 16-year-old Jae-Min Ahn while packing up for the four-day Marine camp. To give him no excuse to refuse, his father applied for the training as well.
Thousands of Korean students are signed up by their parents every summer and winter, at boot camps like the Blue Dragon Training Camp operated by the Marines. Korea's adult generation who experienced the Korean War and economic hardships believe today's children are weak, both spiritually and physically.
They are the product of both Korea's ominous educational system and advanced information technology. Korean schools only emphasize scholastic development and allocate less than 10 hours a week to physical exercise.
In the evenings, students attend private afterschool academies teaching math, English or writing skills. In the limited free time before going to bed, their social life is spent in the virtual world, chatting and playing online games. Ninety percent of Korean homes are connected to cheap megaspeed broadband and 24-hour Internet cafes exist on every other block.
"I tell him to go out, exercise, play sports during the weekends, but he spends all his time alone playing online games. This camp will do him good," said Soo-Bok Yoo, dropping off her grumbling teenage son.
The moment students check in, drill instructors in black Ray-Ban sunglasses confiscate pleasures of modern entertainment: mobile phones, iPods and portable game devices, the three must-have items for Korean teens. Money and snacks are also taken away.
The instructors weed out smokers by sniffing everyone's forefingers. "Crave all you want! You will no longer smoke!" they shout. Boys caught hiding cigarettes or lighters are punished with push-ups and squats.
Students as young as 9 train in below freezing weather on the island of Daebudo in Ansan, 56 miles west from South Korea's capital, Seoul. The co-ed camp also includes a few adults who are parents like Ahn or who came as part of a company leadership program.
The excruciating schedule starts at 6:30 a.m. with stretching exercises and gets tougher during the day, with army training such as crossing a single-log bridge above a frozen puddle.
"I can do it!" they chant, crawling under barbed-wire obstacle courses, climbing walls and trying out dummy M-16 rifles. Girls who fall from high-rung ladders burst into tears. Choking off smoke as they spring out of a gas chamber, students are told to "endure" and "enjoy the pain."
"My parents told me to have fun and play. They didn't say I was going to a hell camp," said one 9-year-old boy after calming himself down after he wept in frustration while struggling to button up his shirt. The instructor was yelling, "You don't cry. You are a man! Men don't cry!" Instructors say young, overprotected boys are used to mothers dressing them.
The rigorous exercises are designed to teach discipline and teamwork. In groups, they are to lift 180-pound logs and march with equally heavy Marine inflatable boats on their shoulders.