Even Getting Into the Military Is Competitive in South Korea

ké radar

It’s widely known that cut-throat competition is the norm of South Korean life. There are hagwons, or private cram schools, for children even in kindergarten. So it’s not surprising that hagwons exist also for those who are about to start their mandatory military service. Young South Korean men fervently study English and Korean history, and even donate blood … just to get into the military.

The right kind of the military, that is. Every “able-bodied” South Korean man older than 18 is subject to conscription. And South Korea maintains a big military, with 1.3 percent of the population constituting its armed forces in 2014, according to the U.S. State Department. (By comparison, it was 0.14 percent for China and 0.42 percent for the U.S. that same year.)

The duty is required of almost all South Korean men (there are some exemptions, for great musical and sports talents, for example), but not everyone completes the service under equal conditions. Some branches of the military are better than others. In come the competition and the hagwons.

Most prefer the air force and the navy over the regular army, for their ostensibly better conditions. One man who claims to have served in the navy wrote a list of reasons why the naval branch is better: more vacation days, better food, higher pay and fancier uniforms.

The most favored position is in the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army (KATUSA): the unit of South Korean soldiers who serve as part of the U.S. forces based in South Korea (USFK). The conditions in KATUSA are even better than those in the air force and the navy. But more attractive to many than the service conditions is the freedom to leave the base daily (as opposed to once every few weeks).

The living conditions at a regular army (left) and KATUSA (right) are considerably different. (Source: Namu Wiki and a personal blog)

The competition indeed seems fierce. According to the Korea Herald, citing data from the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), between January and July of last year, some 450,000 applied to begin their military service; only 19 percent, or roughly 86,000, succeeded in getting into the military branches of their choices. (Those who fail must apply again.)

The MMA did not confirm the figures when requested by Korea Exposé.

Previously, landing a slot in the military branch of one’s choice depended heavily on high school grades or university entrance exam scores. For the navy, academic performance accounted for 50 percent of the admission criteria. The air force? 100%. Critics pointed out then, rightfully, that one’s academic ability has little to do with his or her ability to fight.

So in 2015 the MMA capped the use of academic performance as an admission criterion at 35% of the total. Then in February 2016 the academic scores were replaced completely with government-issued certificates of certain — mostly technical and manual — skills.

The change drove applicants of unknown numbers to hagwons so that they can learn technical expertise, such as computer and translation skills. Even hagwons that help prepare for the in-person interview emerged.

Besides certificates and the interview, “extra credits” are also available if one needs to boost the chance at admission. Those who used to rely on their academic scores to get their preferred slots, especially in the much coveted air force, are turning to those extra credits.

This is where blood donation and English proficiency exam scores come in.

Since last year, the MMA is taking into consideration scores from certain English proficiency tests, the Korean Proficiency Test (what aspiring journalists and anchors take) and the Korean History Proficiency Examination in giving out extra credits. Before, only community service like blood donation, and family factors, such as having two or more siblings, or having a recognized patriot as an ancestor, mattered.

“I don’t understand why I need to pad my resume to do my national defense duty,” said Lee Joon-ho, a 21-year-old university student who is preparing to apply to the Air Force and the Police Force.

In the past, young men without promising prospects resorted to the military. In recent years, however, the rising youth unemployment rate, which hit a record high of 9.8 percent last year, has been driving young men to the military sooner, and for longer.

But it seems that even getting into the military is not as easy as it used to be.

Cover Image: Republic of Korea Army (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Jieun Choi wrote this radar report.

Jieun Choi is staff writer at Korea Exposé. She has worked in the art industry and startups in Hong Kong and Australia.