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An in-depth report by our senior reporters and team of correspondents from around the world. Every Saturday at 8.40 pm Paris time.

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Latest update : 2010-03-05

"Children... Ten, HUT!"

School’s out, military and combat training are in: it’s a holiday programme that’s all the rage in South Korea. More and more families are sending their children to military camps during the holidays to toughen them up. But when faced with this soldier’s life, some of them can’t take it...

Muju, a small town located in the centre of South Korea. It’s vacation time, and 41 children from all over the country have gathered here. They are not attending a summer camp, but a boot camp. The youngest ones are 10 years old, the oldest 18. They are cut off from the outside world: no mobile phones are allowed, nor access to the internet. Pocket money is confiscated at the camp entrance, so as to prevent the kids from purchasing snacks.

Nothing is allowed to distract them from their training. The rhythm is intense: they wake up at dawn, exercise bare-chested on an empty stomach in the cold, immerse their bodies in freezing water and abseil down the side of a building… Five instructors, all former South Korean Marines, keep watch on them.

It’s a shock for most of the kids. Some burst into tears, and that’s exactly what the camp is there for: an emotionally trying lesson in discipline, teamwork, and surpassing their own limits.

In South Korea - where military culture still has a strong influence on society - many believe that the young generation, which did not experience the war and consequent economic hardship, has become weak, both in mind and spirit, and needs to toughen up.

Indeed, on a daily basis, children are often spoiled by their mothers who try their best to ease the pressure kids endure at school from a very young age. In South Korea, the school leaving exam is not just a simple examination, but a gruelling competition in which only those with the highest scores are allowed to enter the country’s most prestigious universities. It is very common for kids to attend after-school classes at as early as primary school level. This leaves little room for sport or other leisure activities.

This is why parents do not hesitate to spend 300 euros - no small sum for middle-class families - to send their children to boot camps.

The Muju Marine Strategy Camp is one of many in the country. In 2009, 5,000 children came here and enrolment increases by 10% per year. The camp’s director plans to open similar facilities in China, Japan, and even in Europe.

By Nathalie TOURRET , Julien ALRIC

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