The Netflix television series “D.P.” is the talk of the town lately. As the title “D.P.,” which stands for “Deserter Pursuit,” suggests, the drama is about the military police’s pursuit of deserters. At the same time, the drama vividly depicts the violence within the ROK Army, which is one of the main reasons for soldiers’ desertion. Violence is so rampant that even the protagonist, who is in the military police D.P. unit, faces periodic physical violence from his malicious superior.
Many of these scenes are so intense that, according to a popular if perhaps exaggerated rumor, quite a few Korean men developed post-traumatic stress disorder after watching the series, recollecting what they had gone through while fulfilling their own compulsory military duty. Obviously, to these veterans, “D.P.” was a cruel reminder of the humiliation and violence that they had to deal with during their military lives. “D.P.” also appalled foreign viewers with its eye-opening depictions of the widespread cruelty and violence in the Korean Army.
Newspapers report that the popularity of “D.P.” embarrassed the Ministry of National Defense because the drama exposed the falsity of the Ministry’s official statement that “there is no more violence in the Korean Army.” Parents of soldiers have also had a strong reaction to the series, many of whom have voiced concern that their sons might be victims of violence in the military barracks. The parents of young Koreans who are about to be drafted, too, are reluctant to send their sons to the Army.
Yet what makes “D.P.” an important series is that, using the motif of violence in the Korean Army, it ultimately exposes and criticizes the more widespread violence in Korean society. Since military duty is mandatory in Korea, most Korean men are veterans who are used to the military mindset. In her moving poem, “Song for Soldiers,” poet Moon Chung-hee writes: “Perhaps you wouldn’t know/ but all the women born in this land/ once fell in love with a soldier.” Then she continues, “All young men in this land/ once went to the DMZ in military uniform/ bearing a gun against their brothers in the North/ learning intense yearning and the bittersweet agonies of life.”
As a result, in a certain sense, Korean society has the atmosphere of a military camp. Even Korean schools resemble the army to an extent. Although not all students are required to wear uniforms, senior students still give orders to juniors, who are expected to be obedient. Students pick on someone who is weak in personality and harass him, exclude him, or beat him up. Indeed, school violence called is a persistent issue in Korea. Sometimes, Korean homes, too, exhibit military culture. As the protagonist’s father in Han Kang’s famous novel “The Vegetarian” exemplifies, some Korean fathers who belong to the older generation often act at home as if they were a military commandant.
Moreover, like the Army, Korea is also a group-oriented society where the people value community, rather than individuality. The Korean government, too, resembles a military headquarters in the sense that it regulates the people and restricts their freedom, if necessary for a good cause. No wonder that Korea has been so effective at quarantining during COVID-19; the Korean people are willing to sacrifice their individual freedom for the safety of the community and thus the government can easily control the people.
In “D.P.,” a sadistic senior soldier in the military police unit relentlessly harasses and beats up lower-rank soldiers to the level of torture. He does it for fun and enjoys bullying his subordinates. Meanwhile, other soldiers keep silent about the violence and merely watch it as bystanders. The same thing happens in other military units. In one of the episodes, the sister of a deserter who committed suicide asked the protagonist, “Why didn’t other soldiers stop the violence, even though they knew it was wrong and unjust?” The drama poignantly criticizes the cowardice of the silent majority of people who hide in the crowd. If you do not stop it, however, it can happen to you someday. That is the recurrent theme of “D.P.”
When a man becomes a leader in a society, he has the responsibility to protect his people, not to exercise violence upon them or make them miserable. As the maxim says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In Korean society, however, men of a higher position often want to exert their power to oppress their men, instead of protecting them. In that sense, the senior M.P. soldier in the drama, who bullies his subordinates, is a good metaphor for the leaders of our society.
While watching “D.P.” we cannot but help thinking about our society plagued by violence, especially from those who wield power. With the power vested in them, they should protect the people, not suppress them. Yet, the reality is quite the opposite. We should deplore that our leaders seriously lack noblesse oblige, decency, and integrity.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.