THE SOLDIERS: South Korea’s New Military Reality Show Displays How Soft Power Goes Hard

You may have seen clips circulating on TikTok, or perhaps as a thumbnail of half-naked men on your YouTube recommended. However, South Korea's new military reality show is more than just ripped men fighting in mud and rain.

[Image via 뉴띵 NDD on YouTube]

By Jill Chang

You may have heard of The Return of Superman – a Korean reality TV show featuring an adorable cast of babies. Or Weekly Idol, where you can watch your favourite Korean popstars get bullied into 99 seconds of choreography hell, but have you heard of The Soldiers?

The Soldiers is a variety show featuring South Korea’s elite special forces competing against each other in various obstacles and challenges in teams. Each team is led by a trained professional from the British Special Air Service, Sweden Särskilda Operationsgruppen, United States (US) Green Beret, and Korea’s 707 Special Mission Group respectively.

While the premise sounds interesting, admittedly, it was a thumbnail of a half-naked man on my YouTube recommended videos that drew my attention to it in the first place. In fact, I have never actually committed myself to finishing all the episodes of any Korean reality TV show — except for this one. 

One hour in and I found myself supporting certain underdogs of the show (In-Goh from Central Intelligence for anyone who cares) and even tearing up when candidates were eliminated. Why was I emotionally invested in these people? Under normal circumstances, I doubt I would have been as interested if this was a show about Singapore’s National Service. 

In fact, South Korea’s National Service is not too different from ours. All South Korean men between the ages of 18-30 are strictly required to serve the nation’s military for approximately two years. It is because of this forced conscription that it also happens to be an extremely sensitive topic amongst its citizens. So how does a reality TV show about their military service differ so much from ours? 

The keyword we’re looking for is soft power.

What is Soft Power?

In international relations, soft power can be understood as a country’s ability to persuade others’ decisions either through cultural or economic efforts, rather than coerce them like a rough display of military power. 

South Korea’s soft power strategy is not a new concept and has been observed by scholars to have been around since the 1990s. One might be able to best understand the strategy in the K-wave movement that swept the world off its feet, where countries have been adopting South Korea’s popular culture through K-pop, TV dramas, and film. 

The true strength of this strategy became especially obvious when BTS spoke at the United Nations General Assembly back in 2018. The world watched as these brightly-coloured young chaps stood among sleepy politicians and urged their young fans to “Love Yourself”. It was arguably one of the most pivotal (and arguably absurd) moments of Korea’s soft power strategy in engaging a global platform. 

From there, we’ve seen multiple instances where South Korea has leveraged its culture and arts to continue its influence, including dominating the charts in Netflix’s most viewed dramas.

Thus, with The Soldiers, this is likely another means of appealing to an international audience, this time through their military.

The Difference between TV Reality Shows of Soldiers

According to IMDB, there are over 50 reality TV shows in the US related to the military. These shows range from documentaries showcasing their military training to game competitions involving civilians who are put through said training. 

The Selection is one such show that demonstrates this. The show frames itself as a social experiment to explore if regular civilians could tough out the fierce military training US Special Operation cadets go through. A few minutes into their trailer, one thing is made clear: the US Special Forces is not to be messed with. 

Singapore seems to gun for the opposite reaction to this, with more successful media of our military appealing to the humour and nostalgia of Singaporeans rather than a flamboyant display of our military prowess. The most obvious example would be Ah Boys to Men – using classic Jack Neo slapstick humour and obscure local references to make the idea of National Service more appealing to our people. 

However, unlike the aggressive display of US’s reality TV that serves to intimidate or Singapore’s passive display of humour that serves to charm, The Soldiers seems to hit the right spot with a display of passive-aggression that manages to both awe and sway.

How is this accomplished?

The Idolisation of South Korea’s Military

At the moment, each video posted on their main Youtube channel comes in at around one million views, with most comments coming from International audiences.

If you’ve seen enough Korean variety shows, you’ll know what makes them stand out. Usually, a quarter of the screen is filled with edits and pop-ups commenting on the situation, ambience music, and sound effects are engineered to play at the right moments to stir your emotions. 

The Soldiers is no different from a typical variety show, cleverly placing edits and pop-ups to tell you exactly what the mood of the situation is. For example, at the beginning of the episode, when the recruits fall in line a good number of them are just walking up the hill to get in place. The show takes over 20 minutes to demonstrate this, half of which is just commenting on the awkward way the men shuffle inline or the way this man touches his nose.

Image Source: 뉴띵 NDD The Soldiers Episode 1 (5:56)

Why does this man touching his nose warrant attention? Surprisingly, this strange edit of Gong Gi-hwan from South Korea’s Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) is deliberate.

Further on in the episode, we realise that he is meant to represent the “class clown”/cool charismatic candidate on the show. In this tense situation where the soldiers first meet their instructors, it seems that he is the only one that is calm enough to casually leave his hands in his pockets setting the tone for what his personality is like for the rest of the show.

Hence, how the episodes are edited frames how you perceive and judge these contestants, and as all these contestants represent South Korea’s military force it is crucial that they are presented in the best light. 

These edits are mixed with the deliberate selection of candidates that display the best of South Korea, specifically through aesthetic appeal. I would argue that soldiers they’ve selected to be on screen are almost on par with most models and Korean idols I’ve seen – flawless skin and a conventionally fit physic. 

Thus, it is the combination of factors that South Korea’s military is perceived through this show as idols rather than just the military.

Balance of Power between Allies

Who they’ve selected to represent their teams is also what makes The Soldiers a unique form of television. Instead of just simply having a show that is catered to South Koreans, having team leaders from the US, UK, and Sweden automatically takes their viewership to an international one. 

This also serves as a reminder to all about who South Korea’s allies are. The fact they’ve managed to score a deal with individuals in the Special Operations of each respective ally proves that not only do they have the support, but the strength of these countries. 

Interestingly, this also becomes a line that the producers of the show have to constantly tow. The show has to illustrate that while they have the friendship of strong international leaders – South Korea is still the best. 

It is because of this, there were moments where I questioned if the situations were staged. 

During an arm-wrestling match between the four leaders of the teams, South Korea’s leader is pitched against Sweden’s leader. While watching the match, it did not seem that Sweden had put up much of a fight. 

Image Source: 뉴띵 NDD The Soldiers Episode 3 (38:24)

Of course, this is based purely on speculation, but you are free to make your judgment by watching the episode. 

Nevertheless, this does not disregard the pressure the Korean team has to perform the best in the competition. For context, South Korea’s team, Alpha, is currently considered the best performing team on the show because their team leader was able to select the soldiers who did well during the individual challenges. 

Their team consists of Beom-Seok Hong, a first sergeant from the 707 Special Mission Group, Kim Chang-wan a sergeant from the Combat Control Team (CCT), Kim Ho-jong from the Ship Salvage Unit (SSU), and Chu-Buyeon from the Republic of Korea Marine Corps Recon BN. 

Ironically, it was even mentioned by the Korean team leader himself who stated that they had enough power because they had “world-class power, world-class face (and) world-class hypeman”.

Image Source: 뉴띵 NDD The Soldiers Episode 6 (36:37)

Is Singapore Able to Accomplish Something Similar?

While I approach this show with a pinch of scepticism, I should highlight that I find that there is nothing wrong with the way South Korea has chosen to produce this show. In fact, I find it admirable and an intelligent way to showcase their military in a digestible manner. 

The Soldiers is a fantastic example of how South Korea displays its soft power tactics through media, appealing to international audiences while instilling a sense of nationalism into its citizens. 

Up to this point, soft power is normally understood as a passive way to persuade countries to make a decision. However, The Soldiers have managed to take this a step further by making their military part of the appeal.

I have to wonder if Singapore could ever reach this point – and the more optimistic part of me says yes. Take the reactions to SCDF’s Day in the Life of an SCDF Firefighter video with overwhelmingly positive comments appreciating the firefighters in Singapore (mixed with one or two thirsty remarks), or the reactions to Mothership’s video on Singapore’s Most Recognisable Policeman

So perhaps if Singapore’s army was to attempt to embark on a similar project, it may just work depending on the talents and the circumstances.