SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 22, 2008 -- 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.
Slower or lazy teenagers like Jaemin are punished by standing half-naked as Spartan drill trainers splash buckets of ice water on them. Every time he is splashed, he must shout, "Get rid of my selfishness!" Some kids, surprisingly, are sufficiently receptive. "I've never been treated this way but it's OK. If I go through this, I will be stronger," said Jaemin shivering in the cold.
The students are also taught about time management. "Most of these kids are addicted to the virtual world of games where they are superhuman. So in reality, they have no concept of managing time. Our goal is to teach them that in the real world, you move fast and with responsibility," said Kyung-Hoon Park, the head of Blue Dragon Marine Camp.
Boys are given three minutes and girls five minutes to wash at the end of the day. Undressed or wet, the slower ones are kicked out of the shower into the cold outdoor yard.
Campers with unbalanced eating habits are also targeted. "You have three minutes left to clear your trays," shout drill instructors as they patrol the tables. Kids who leave leftover food or exceed the time limit are forced to finish up outside the cafeteria.
Family values are also emphasized throughout the course, as instructors make sure they thank the parents who have paid $270 for the boot camp. Lined up with arms on each other's shoulders, they are told to shout and scream "Love you Dad!" squatting down, and "Love you Mom!" getting back up. In the half-frozen muddied beach, they also roll, crawl and run while trainers repeatedly shout, "You will be good to your parents! Filial piety is your duty!"
The day wraps up with a session dedicated to self-reflection when they are to write diaries or letters to parents that are later dictated to others at an emotional camp fire ceremony on the last evening. The kids also pledge to cut down time spent online and to be more disciplined before graduating. But parents like Ahn say bad habits die hard. "I'll have to see [if he changes]. Maybe four days might not have been enough."
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