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‘D.P.’: a dark look at the Korean military

With the increasing popularity of K-pop and K-dramas to non-Korean audiences, more and more people are becoming aware of South Korea’s mandatory military service for men. At least in America, it’s not exactly commonplace anymore to learn that one’s favorite actor or singer is taking a break for military reasons—but in South Korea,  as a response to the constant threat from North Korea, all men ranging from the ages 18-28 are required to serve for 18 months. The new Netflix mini-series “D.P.” explores the brutalities of military service, specifically through the eyes of Deserter Pursuit team Private Ahn Jun Ho (Jung Hae In) and Corporal Han Ho Yeol (Koo Gyo Hwan). 


While South Korea may not be actively involved in war, this series doesn’t shy away from the violence within Korea’s own military ranks, covering harrowing instances of hazing and suicide. Given the amount of hardship in military training, it’s therefore not surprising that there would be a few people who would desert their post. This is where Jun Ho and Ho Yeol come in, and in the span of six episodes, we follow their attempts to catch individual deserters and their reasons for desertion. 


Given the grim and gritty nature of this kind of story, there aren’t too many bright moments in this series save for the interactions between Private Ahn and Corporal Han. These two play off each other perfectly as the duo of the mild-mannered, newbie soldier and the flirty, sarcastic senior. Despite the darkness of their lives, Jun Ho and Ho Yeol both manage to be at least marginally moral, perhaps in part because as Deserter Pursuit soldiers, they’re less exposed to the harassment that occurs within the barracks. That said, their jobs are still difficult, and each episode demonstrates just how complex these characters are. One particularly memorable instance is when Jun Ho and Ho Yeol confront a soldier who deserted in order to move his dementia-ridden grandmother to a nursing home before their neighborhood could be demolished by local construction companies. Even with their unpleasant jobs, the protagonists handle the situation with respect and care and, above all that, real compassion for the individual cowering before them. 


This is the underlying theme of this series: that in the end, humanity is the most important thing in the face of darkness. Jun Ho and Ho Yeol try their best to bring some of that where they can, whenever they can, even though it sometimes ends in tragedy rather than not. It’s a sad battle against the toxic masculine culture of the military, one that the show demonstrates can sometimes break even the gentlest and most kind hearted of souls. 


One of the most memorable moments that demonstrates this is towards the end of the show, when Jun Ho and Ho Yeol have to confront Cho Suk Bong (Cho Hyun Chul), who deserts in order to murder his recently discharged tormenter, Hwang Jang Soo (Shin Seung Ho). Like many of the deserters, Cho Suk Bong starts military service as an innocent young man—as a former art teacher, he draws cute cartoons to cheer Jun Ho, offers him snacks and shines his shoes before going on another operation. But while Jun Ho maintains his personality by leaving the barracks, Suk Bong is often alone and therefore harassed, hardening in the process. When Jun Ho and Ho Yeol attempt to catch Suk Bong, the audience finds him ready to murder his tormenter—and it is only when Jun Ho tells Suk Bong about one of his former students getting into college does he falter. But in a thematic moment that is not at all lost on the viewer, this moment of humanity extinguishes itself once more military personnel come to stop Suk Bong, and so the cycle of violence repeats itself.  The most chilling moment of this exchange is when Jun Ho begs Suk Bong to stop so that they could change the way things are run in the military, to which Suk Bong replies that even the canteens the soldiers drink out from haven’t been changed since 1953, the year of the Korean War. “They can’t even change the canteens,” Suk Bong says bitterly. How can the military change the way it handles its internal violence? 


The answer to this question remains unanswered. The show concludes on a bittersweet note, asking its viewers to question exactly what stays the same, what can be different. What, in the end, can perhaps keep people from losing themselves completely to the cruelty of their surroundings. As the show has been recently renewed for a second season, perhaps we will get more answers to that question. In the meantime though, “D.P” asks us to hold onto our humanity for just a bit longer.

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