To encourage more Koreans to work in vital industries.

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To encourage more Koreans to work in vital industries.

All Korean-born men are required by law to serve in the military. Unless they have a serious illness or other special reason, they are obliged to give over two years of service for national defense. Most of you Teenteen readers would probably know that.
To be frank, some Korean men hate the idea of having to serve in the army. Although it is their duty as Koreans, not many are willing to spend part of their lives on this physically and mentally demanding job.
There is a special program that gives some people the privilege of being considered to have rendered the duty even without actually joining the army. In exchange for being exempted from military service, those who meet the qualifications for the program have to be actively engaged in certain industrial fields. The majority of these people are university engineering majors. In addition, a handful of people who have shown outstanding performance in international sporting events can receive exemptions from their military service, including winners of bronze, silver and gold medals in the Olympics and gold medalists in the Asian Games.
Why does the government grant exemptions to engineers? The aim is to make up for the low number of researchers and workers in the field by encouraging more high school students with excellent academic abilities to choose to study engineering in college. The government intends to secure sufficient human resources in specific industrial fields that it considers crucial. This means that the exemption privilege benefits not only the individuals but also private companies and the country as a whole.
When did this privilege start? It dates back to 1973, when the government granted exemption to all the male graduates of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist). In the 33 years since, the system has proved effective and has remained in place. Those 65 Kaist graduates did not have to enter the army at the time, and continued with their studies at research centers. They received stipends comparable to ordinary corporate workers, an unprecedented favor.
However, the benefit requires specific qualifications. It is similar to bestowing scholarships to students who show excellent academic achievement.
When news spread that Kaist graduates were given special concessions, high school students with good academic records suddenly rushed to get admitted to the school. The measure firmly established Kaist as a prestigious school.
Currently a total of 45,000 men are covered by the exemption, outside of sports figures. The men exempted fall into two categories: “research experts” who have earned a masters’ degree in engineering or hold higher degrees, currently numbering 8,600; and “skilled industrial personnel,” graduates of high schools or universities specializing in engineering, of which there are 36,500.
Before the government implemented the military exemption program, many local business ventures had a hard time attracting excellent human resources. Unlike large firms, ventures could offer only modest wages, the research environment was not as good as in large corporations and it is unclear when to shut down due to financial problems.
Once research experts land jobs at government-designated companies, they are not allowed to move for at least two years. If they fails to show up regularly or break company rules, the government immediately sends them to the army.
The state-controlled Science & Technology Policy Institute conducted a survey in late 2003 on how much research experts contributed to the national economy. The results showed that they played a role in raising sales revenues in different industrial categories by 2.9 trillion won during 2003. The amount for each industry averaged almost 120 billion won ($12.5 million).
Let’s take a look at how much revenue each industrial sector reaped. Computer and office equipment fields saw the biggest rise at 1.1 trillion won, accounting for 38.4 percent of the entire revenue growth. Next came semiconductors, communication gadgets and precision machine tools, which made up 22.6 percent, followed by 15.4 percent of petrochemical products and plastics.
Another survey by companies that hired the research experts and skilled industrial personnel showed that they were particularly talented in new product development ― work that companies value the most.
Let’s look at an example of a company that is hugely benefiting from the special program: TmaxSoft, a computer software development venture. Established in 1997, it posted about 50 billion won in sales revenue and the amount is forecast to double this year, according to the firm. Behind the company’s rapid growth were those research experts. Currently it has 23 such people with masters’ degrees and two with doctorates. The company said the majority of the core software currently on sale has been developed by the research experts.
Where there are privileges, there are some who break the law, however. The Military Manpower Administration keeps a sharp eye out for people who take advantage of the military privilege.
In one case an owner of a company entitled to hire people exempted from military service employed his own son so that he didn’t have to serve in the army. In another case a company owner sent his son to study abroad, fabricating documents as if he was working at the firm. In another instance, a man who qualified for the exemption got into a company unrelated to his university major, which is against the law. Some companies were bashed by people they hired because they withheld payment of salaries for the three years of obligatory service. Those cases have tarnished the army exemption system that was originally meant to help the national economy and not waste the country’s brains.


by Park Bang-joo

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