[OUTLOOK]Army should teach skillsThe Korean economy is already afflicted seriously with unemployment. “Growth without employment” was at first a disease that advanced countries suffered. The problem is more serious because we are afflicted with such a disease when our national income per capita is only $10,000. There is only lots of talk without suggestions of any particular measures for employment. The president only talks big and bureaucrats are busy scurrying around to avoid their responsibility. Expanding temporary employment at government offices or giving tax breaks to businesses for new recruitment is, in fact, not a policy.
For the first time, the Korean economy is experiencing the type of unemployment disease that has affected advanced countries. It is likely to take at least three to five years to cure the disease. We have to face the pain for the time being and exert ourselves to increase jobs in the future. In this context, I would like to make a practical suggestion as an alternative to the existing policies.
As a part of employment policy, I suggest that we make active use of the army. Korea has a unique system in which people in their early 20s have to serve in the military for two years between the periods of their education and employment. They should complete their military service to get a proper job. In terms of time and age, military service and employment are inseparably related to each other. Also, the army functions as a buffer to bear the burden of unemployment for a certain period and serves as an outlet or waiting place for the reserve army of industry.
This is to say that we should raise the effectiveness of the army. For example, we can teach Chinese language compulsorily to young people in the army. Let’s suppose that anyone could learn Chinese during his military service if only he goes to the army, and receives certificates for mastering at least intermediate-level Chinese language by the time he finishes his service. After ten years of implementing this system, it would be considered a matter of fact that there are no young Korean men that could not speak Chinese. It is needless to emphasize the need for learning the Chinese language when the Korean economy has to make inroads into the Chinese market to survive in the future.
The military authorities may retort, “What an unreasonable suggestion this is!” and ask whether the “sacred” army is a private cram institute like those in southern Seoul. They may also ask how they could hold bayonet drills, even though they have stopped computer training due to lack of time, if they must teach Chinese. But all the more because of this, they need to change their way of thinking. All depends on how they think. If they can change the notion that only bayonet exercises can protect the country, they would be able to find unlimited amounts of spare time. They have only to coordinate priorities in line with the policy direction. Who has not served the military? If they say the Korean army cannot teach Chinese or computers because there is no time, how many members of the reserve army in this country would agree with them?
It should not be necessarily Chinese language. Whether it is English, Japanese, or computers, my suggestion is to teach soldiers some language or some skill during their military service that would be instrumental in getting a job after they leave the service. Soldiers will be much busier than they are now, but their productivity would increase naturally. This is not only a very fundamental employment measure that the government could take, but also a way to strengthen overall military power itself and change the military’s image drastically. It is killing two birds with one stone. People would no longer complain about the military service period, regarding it as “lost time” or “period of interruption” for young people.
It would be a different story if the army taught its soldiers to speak Chinese so that they could travel in China without any difficulty with the language. If the army taught soldiers Chinese just as it forces them to memorize the “Soldier’s Way,” with corporal punishment when they can’t recite it, parents might come forward to send their children to the army rather than helping them avoid military service. The government also would not need to finance other employment education.
I would like to make another suggestion. The employment situation is better for men because they have some place to go, like the army, if they cannot get a job. Women cannot do that. Parents raised and educated their children equally, whether they are girls or boys, but the problem of youth unemployment is by far more serious for women. The fact that a vast army of highly educated female resources is being wasted is a serious social problem. Therefore, expanding the recruitment of female soldiers could be an effective way to solve the problem. It is an out-of-date saying that women are unfit for military service. It is nonsense to say, “Women can’t do it,” when aspects of war have become totally different and the concept of national defense has changed entirely.
If the president made a decision and commanders of the army changed their conception of female soldiers, their numbers would be increased to as many as they wanted. If this suggestion were adopted, the popularity of military service would soar at once. In any case, if the productivity of the Korean military force with 650,000 soldiers went up by even a few percent every year, the spillover effect would be tremendous.
* The writer is chief economic correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chang-kyu