Universities offer military courses, and more students don military uniforms in shrinking economy.
SEOUL: Mandatory military service was often viewed as an unavoidable nuisance among young men in Korea. Some, in particular those from wealthy and powerful families, avoided the draft by forging medical records or obtaining foreign citizenship.
As the armed services fell out of favour with young Koreans, military schools struggled to keep their doors open in recent years.
Today, however, the trend has reversed. Military schools are gaining popularity as an option for young people to survive the economic slowdown and increasingly competitive job market.
The economic downturn has been hard on young Koreans, according to Statistics Korea, which reported that 249,000 Koreans aged 20 to 29 were jobless in August, up 5,000 from a year earlier.
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Observers say that as more young people face the tough economic conditions and struggle to find a decent job, more will choose to wear a military uniform.
According to recent data from the army, 6,403 students applied for the Korea Military Academy to become an army officer, a competition rate of 23.7 for each place, the highest rate in nearly three decades.
The Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy had 27.2 and 25.7 applicants respectively.
To meet the growing demand for students, the army last year established new undergraduate programmes in four private institutions, including Konyang University in South Chungcheong Province and Yeungnam University in North Gyeongsang Province.
“Rising tuition fees and a shrinking job market are leading more students to join military courses,” said an army spokesman.
All enrolled students in the military courses benefit from having all tuition fees paid for by the army, and also a guaranteed job after their graduation, according to the official.
“The army can also benefit from the joint-degree programmes as we can secure talented young students and nurture them as outstanding leaders,” he added.
Currently, there are 10 universities that offer joint-degree courses for students who want to become an army officer. The army also runs non-commissioned officer academy programmes at more than 40 institutions across the country.
The Marine Corps also announced earlier that it would introduce, for the first time in its history, an undergraduate course in cooperation with Dankook University’s campus in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province.
Thirty cadets will be accepted for the new course starting in 2013, and the Marine Corps will pay for their tuition fees and study materials to help them to become marine officers, according to Kang Sang-dae, the dean of academic affairs at Dankook University.
“Many young people want to join and stay in the military. But the recession isn’t the only reason they choose the military,” said Yoon Hyeong-ho, associate professor of Department of Military Science at Konyang University.
Prof Yoon, who served more than 30 years in the army before joining the university, said that school was not only providing the students a military education, but also opportunities to develop their careers.
“Our curricula integrate other subjects and emphasise practical learning, such as foreign languages and computer training,” he said.
“The students will not only receive military training, but also expert care through a tradition of leadership training and a rigorous curriculum, which will help them become a great leader in society.”
Employers also believe that army veterans make great employees with a variety of skills, from leadership and a good work ethic to teamwork skills.
For those reasons, more and more companies are employing army veterans. Samsung Group, the country’s largest conglomerate, hired some 200 former military officers in 2011 through its special military-retired recruitment programme.
Recent data shows that an increasing number of high-school graduates are opting to pursue military education at private universities.
Konyang University announced recently that it received 244 applicants for 24 spots in its military course this autumn, recording one of the highest rates among its courses. Yeungnam University announced that it received 245 applicants for 20 places.
Students say that majoring in a military course at non-military academies has many perks, such as paid-for tuition and scholarships as well as accommodation benefits.
“Last semester, I had quite good grades so I received 1.5 million won in scholarship funds, on top of having 100% of my tuition paid for courtesy of the army,” said Im Ju-hwan, a student in the Department of Military at Konyang University.
Ju-hwan, 20, said he knows that the military will be his career. His father was also in the military and many relatives followed the same path. “I want to stay as long as I can in the army.”
Du Geun-wook, a student at the Department of Military Studies at Yeungnam University, said he thinks non-military institutions provide students with more personal freedom to develop their careers than traditional military schools do.
Geun-wook noted that students at the non-military school can take a double major in other courses and also participate in club activities as well as volunteer work as other academy students would do.
“I first thought of going to Korea Air Force Academy, but I chose this university over the military school because of that. I think that apart from wearing a uniform, we are no different than other students here,” he said.
Still, one of the biggest reasons why students chose a military course is the actual job, said Kim Jong-ryul, a professor of Department of Military Studies at Yeungnam University.
Prof Kim said that mounting tensions with Japan over the Dokdo islets and North Korea’s artillery attack on a border island have played a role in bringing more students to military courses.
“When I speak to my students, their motivations are slightly different, but they all express a deep love for their country and a sense of duty to defend it,” Prof Kim said.
Still, observers say students need to think carefully before applying for military courses.
“The programmes are rigorous academically as well as physically. Students undergo military and physical training. Also, our current graduation requirements are quite demanding,” Prof Kim said.