The Defence Ministry is pushing to allow conscripts to acquire academic credit through their military activities, triggering opposition from those who do not seek a university education or are exempt from mandatory military service.
The ministry said it sought to implement the plan by late 2017 after finishing coordination with related government agencies and revising a related law. It plans to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Education Ministry to push for the plan this month.
"We believe this plan will be a win-win initiative to boost the conscription rate and strengthen military training as many college students may consider joining at an earlier time and seek to pass training sessions that would offer them credits," said a senior ministry official, declining to be named.
The ministry commissioned the National Institute for Lifelong Education under the Education Ministry to conduct a feasibility study in November 2012 for a year. The institute found that draftees could gain at least nine liberal arts credits during their mandatory service of at least 21 months through combat training, military mental education and other sessions.
Converting all training sessions into academic credit, draftees could get a maximum of 27 credits. In Korean universities, students usually take 18 credits or more in one semester.
Some 85 per cent of the total 452,500 draftees currently serving in the military took time off from university to join the armed forces.
For conscripts who have already finished their university education, the ministry plans to encourage private and public firms to offer a higher step in their salary through incentives such as tax benefits. But whether companies would give any salary advantage to former conscripts remains uncertain.
"Yes, the plan is still in its infancy, and we will do more research to find a way to encourage companies to respond positively to the plan," said the ministry official.
For the conscripts who have graduated only from middle or high school, they would also be given credits in their "credit bank accounts," which can be used later on if they opt to go to university or enter private firms.
The ministry has been trying to come up with good ways to compensate draftees for their mandatory service. But their previous attempts have been bogged down in the face of strong opposition from people excluded from military duty.
One of the plans the ministry has considered was to give extra points to those, who have fulfilled their military service in recruitment exams at public organisations or firms. But women and disabled people argued that the system would limit their employment opportunities, and that other "nondiscriminatory" welfare programs should be chosen.
The system to give recruitment advantages was launched in 1966 to help those discharged from the military adapt to civilian life. But it was abolished in 1999 after the Constitutional Court ruled that it infringed on the rights of those exempted from the duty.
Currently, any able Korean man must serve either about 21 months in the Army, 23 months in the Navy, or 24 months in the Air Force to maintain the 639,000-strong military, which serves mainly as a deterrent against North Korea.