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(News Focus) Military service incentive re-emerges as hot-button issue in S. Korea

All News 17:48 June 17, 2013

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, June 17 (Yonhap) -- A move by conservative lawmakers and the defense ministry to revive incentives for job applicants with military backgrounds has emerged as a hot-button issue in parliament due to a lack of consensus.

All able-bodied South Korean men are obligated to serve in the military for at least two years as the country still remains at war with North Korea after the Korean War ended in a ceasefire 60 years ago.

Most draftees are in their early 20s and are forced to delay their studies or other life plans to join the armed forces where many of them struggle to adapt to the hierarchical military culture under constant threat from the belligerent North.

As part of efforts to compensate those who completed the grueling period, the government had given them extra points on exams required when applying for government jobs since 1961. However, the reward system was ruled unconstitutional in 1999 on the grounds of discrimination against women and the disabled.

Since then, there have been attempts to revive the system every couple of years in parliament in the last decade, but the majority of efforts have fizzled out.

One of the bills currently pending in parliament proposed by Rep. Han Ki-ho of the ruling Saenuri Party calls for giving extra points to test-takers with military backgrounds for government jobs. The difference with this particular bill is that it reduces the number of people who can pass exams with additional points to below 20 percent of the total number of job openings.

The former three-star Army general claims the bill is needed to compensate those who serve the country, arguing the Constitutional Court took issue with the "excessive benefits" of the law, not the reward system itself.

As the parliamentary defense committee plans to review the bill during this month's special session, the ministries of defense, and female and gender equality are locked in a simmering debate.

Last week, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin voiced his support for the legislative move, saying his ministry will come up with a separate revision bill that reduces the number of beneficiaries to below 10 percent of job openings. Cho Yoon-sun, the minister for gender equality and family, is against the bill.

The issue is also a bone of contention between ruling party lawmakers who belong to the defense committee, and ones who are part of the gender and family affairs committee.

Saenuri Rep. Kim Hyun-sook, a member of the gender and family affairs committee, opposes the passage of the bill, saying it has failed to achieve broad social and political consensus.

"Reviving it would spark a strong backlash from women and the disabled, and create social conflict, so it requires caution," Kim said.

Park Hye-ja, a lawmaker of the main opposition Democratic Party, pointed out that the proposed bill only benefits a small number of male applicants for lower-level government jobs, stressing the need to introduce enhanced compensation and a welfare system for those who completed their mandatory military service as well as active soldiers who receive meager salaries.

Currently, the average of soldiers' monthly pay is set at 96,000 won (US$90), which is less than three days of wages when assuming an employee works eight hours a day at a minimum hourly wage set at 4,580 won.

President Park Geun-hye had promised to double soldiers' pay during her election campaign to appeal to soldiers and their parents, but the plan needs to receive approval from the parliament and finance ministry to take effect.

The military draft is a never-ending issue in South Korea where political candidates lose elections because they or their sons have not served in the military. Celebrities and sports stars get arrested and forced into near exile after getting caught evading the draft.

The issue has come into the spotlight at a time when public attention to military service has climbed lately as a popular Army reality show featuring celebrities has created much curiosity among those with no military background and evoked a nostalgic feeling for those who'd been there.

"Real Men," a show aired by main broadcaster MBC, gives a rare glimpse into 20-something soldiers and their life in an Army barracks. It has the highest viewer's rating in golden weekend time.

After the latest episode of a muddy, sweaty training session, some netizens balked at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family over its opposition to the incentive bill.

"Why is it so unfair to give some benefits to those who served in the military after toiling for over two years?" a netizen who goes by "aloha 314" posted on his blog.

The tight job market in Asia's fourth-largest economy is fueling many online discussions among job seekers as a growing number of qualified women eyeing stable jobs are applying for government jobs, and have fared better than male applicants in recent years.

"Those who don't have to serve in the military can spend more time preparing for exams and in other activities, so the government should compensate those who completed their mandatory service by any kind of means," another netizen wrote in an online community on the nation's popular portal Daum.

"As there is no system that compensates the time and efforts spent in the golden days of their life, many young men still want to be exempted from the service if it's ever possible."


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