SEONGNAM, Korea ? At a military training camp in the mountainous outskirts of Seoul, Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets in camouflage, equipped with K-2 assault rifles, strike at their imagined enemy with the butt of their weapons.
Closer examination of the future warriors reveals some of them are women in arms ? the nation's first ever female ROTC cadets ? taking a big step for women's rights in a society where the glass ceiling for women still exists.
"I applied to the ROTC to show that not only men but women also have the same opportunities because we are the same people. Through joining, my goal is to change people's perception and open the door for women a little wider," said Park Gi-eun, a student at Sookmyung Women's University.
Braving the record-breaking chills, the 60 female cadets train side by side with men. The recruits are going through their three-week basic training and unsurprisingly both sexes struggle with their clumsy movements.
"I think the establishment of the female ROTC shows that women will not fall behind, and will be given the opportunity to challenge themselves in whatever they want," said Min Ji-hyun from Sookmyung.
"I want to show that everyone can participate in everything, equally without discrimination and as a female cadet, I wish to work even harder to show that it's true."
What women lack in strength, they make up for it in focus, according to a drill sergeant. But many of the female cadets found nothing daunting about the training; to them the hardest part was fighting the coldest weather in decades.
These women were not only physically fit enough to overcome the six-to-one competition ratio, they also had the courage to join the military and go against the grain of society.
According to Kim Bo-hyun, a female ROTC cadet at Sookmyung, many of her friends in her major ? arts and crafts ? had wished to apply for the program but could not muster up the same courage.
Reflecting that change in society, the female cadets have received tremendous support from their peers.
"I had several of my friends from within the major try out for the program, but many did not make the cut. They told the cadets to maintain their will and succeed in the female ROTC program," said Park Gi-eun, a physical education major.
But for all their strength, courage and focus, they were no different from an average female student, each with a story of their own.
For Kim, 21, whose father had been in the military, joining the program was an easy choice.
"My father told me that contrary to a common belief, the military is not as dangerous as many think and that as long as I work hard I will see the benefits," she said.
Kim hopes to design topographical maps on computers for the army, a marriage of her father's military past and her mother's fashion design occupation.
Park Ji-eun, 21, always had an interest in joining the service. She applied for a military academy, but was rejected, so she decided to attend Sookmyung.
Park, who majors in culture and tourism, said that through the program she is burdened with a new sense of responsibility to show that women can do just as well, in and outside of the program.
"My parents told me that no matter what I choose they would be supportive. Now they are proud of and pleased with my choice," said Park.
The female cadets from seven different universities will train with no difference from their 2,400 male comrades for a total of 175 hours, and throughout a course of 28 months. By the end of their ROTC training they will have marched 80 kilometers in full gear.
Until last year, the ROTC program in Korea had been open only to male students.
For a woman to become a commissioned officer in Korea, she had to graduate from a military academy or apply to an officer commissioning program after graduating from a four-year university.
With the popularity of the ROTC program increasing among women, as seen by the fierce competition ratio, the Defense Ministry plans to increase the number of female cadets by sharing the quota of 4,000 male cadets.
The ministry has decided to appoint 5.6 per cent of its commissioned and non-commissioned officers with women by 2016. The number of female soldiers currently stands at 6,162, nearly 10 per cent of the total.
Some two months after the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, a group of about 500 female volunteer troops was set up in the southern port city of Busan.
Since 1990, female soldiers have engaged in a variety of military tasks ? including engineering, transportation, aviation and patrol ? areas considered challenging and where many thought women would have difficulty operating.
-- The Korea Herald/Asia News Network