In late October 2020, the wife and I traveled down to visit friends in Gwangju while also exploring the region. It was an overall successful trip, but the intended site I wanted to see was an abandoned discipline training center for wayward children in the country. On the day we visited, many cars parked out in front of the school. We couldn’t figure out why; perhaps it was redevelopers assessing the land for their purposes. We didn’t stay long to figure it out; we made a quick plan B to check out the old staff dorms south of the facilities. Trees protected our view and allowed us to inspect the old condos safely. This plan B almost made up for missing out on the brat camp. There were tons of pictures and other artifacts left behind. We got to see the timeline of one instructor from when he was a young cadet to a middle-aged man with college-aged children. It was a great exploration but not the desired location I hoped to visit.
Cut to the end of May of this year, my wife and I were busy with other things that we hadn’t taken a road trip in a long time and needed to rectify the situation quickly. Nothing was going to blocking us from visiting the boot camp twice!
Decorated in the colors of ROK Marine Corps, the 수련원 (suryeonwon discipline/training camp)made me imagine parents would send their kid here to build “character.” I don’t think the typical kid here was doing outrageous things like the ones you’d see on a day TV talk show. Perhaps it was where kids went if they backtalked their strict parents one too many times; or did poorly in school to develop more discipline and “character building” through physical activity. I’m not sure how long kids stayed here, but the winter and summer months most have been booming times for the camp as the kids were not in school and moms and dads wanted their child to learn lessons outside of the classroom. Maybe kids with military fetishes requested to come to this place to cosplay their army fantasies?
Ironically, It’s been a breeding ground for the thrill-seekers and vandals it tried to rehabilitate into polite society since 2015. We found evidence that this discipline camp had existed under different names. From 1986-2001, it was a saemaeulundong (새마을운동“New Village Movement”) training center. The New Village Movement was established in 1970 by former president/dictator Park Chung Hee to modernize rural Korea. The initiative helped improve irrigation systems, bridges, and roads in the country. This place was for community leaders from the Honam region to learn, teach, and lead ways to renovate their hometowns. Park Chung Hee also believed that to become a modern country, suppressing and eliminating old folk beliefs, like shamanism, was vital.
Even after it became a military-themed camp, there was still evidence of saemaeul everywhere, including the lyric boards used to sing the theme song. We found pictures of the campus from the 80s; scenes show young men participating in team-building activities and listening to lectures from bureaucrats. The boot camp continued to the saemaeul brand window blinds in the cafeteria.
This post isn’t complete if I didn’t add pictures of other repressive, terrible presidents in modern Korean history! Whether it was a saemaeul or disciplinary training camp, both places were all about reprogramming and brainwashing children to the “right” way of life.
Pictures of Rhee Syngman (top left) and Park Chung-hee come from this uber-patriotic book about the 50-year history of the ROK Marine Corps.
I’ll end this post with pictures around the facility. Besides having regular class rooms, the campus had two auditoriums for some reason. This place was a fantastic exploration, definitely worth the wait and the willingness to try again. This boot camp has been one of the best visits of 2021. Thank you Mr. Urbexpat for showing us around!
Copies of The Bulldozed Future issues one and two are still available for purchase in PDF form from Gumroad. If you live in Korea, and want a physical copy get in contact and we can work something out. I hope to have issue number three out by August, just in time for the Kinektid Book Fair.