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Soldier welfare key to military spending next year

Soldiers take part in flood relief efforts in Pohoang, North Gyeongsang Province on August 25, 2021. (Yonhap)
Soldiers take part in flood relief efforts in Pohoang, North Gyeongsang Province on August 25, 2021. (Yonhap)
The military is spending drastically more on soldier welfare in its budget for next year by providing better meals, pay and terms for soldiers’ savings, the Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday in its proposal that links most of the 55.2 trillion won ($47.5 billion) spending to maintenance.

Soldiers, who take part in mandatory military service that lasts as long as 21 months, make up more than half the country’s 550,000-strong military.

The National Assembly will start looking into the budget plan Friday, which earmarked about 38 trillion won for maintenance covering soldier welfare, and 17 trillion won for improving defense capabilities. The plan marks an on-year 4.5 percent jump.

In June, the military drafted an extra budget for meals for conscripts in a rare move to calm public frustration over “subpar meals,” photos of which many conscripts posted online. The defense minister promised to revamp the rationing system.

The new budget will see a 25 percent increase from the current cap in money spent to feed a single soldier for three meals a day. Soldiers will be able to take advantage of a wider range of ingredients, especially meat, which they prefer most, the Defense Ministry said.

The new budget also pays for extra civilian contractors and for additional cookware to help the heavily understaffed military kitchen. Soldiers run the kitchen as cooks and they have called on the military to relieve them from those duties, saying they are being overworked.

Soldiers will see their wages go up as much as a little over 670,000 won a month, which would be half the 2017 minimum wage. President Moon Jae-in promised the hike when he came to office in May 2017. The ministry is pushing for an incremental wage raise because of budget constraints.

Soldiers will also be able to qualify for savings with more favorable interest rates than what is offered to the public. The measure aims to support soldiers, who many say have been underpaid for their service.

Meanwhile, the military is looking to bolster its defense readiness with the latest weapons.

It has set aside about 421 billion won to build a 3,000-ton submarine and about 7.2 billion won to make Korea’s first light aircraft carrier by 2033. Critics have long objected to the aircraft carrier project, saying it would not be the best use of military resources.

The military will spend about 454 billion won for the country’s first homegrown fighter jet. Korea unveiled the prototype in April and is looking to produce 120 jets after five years of flight tests. Partnering with Indonesia, the project aims to roll out a cheaper and less-stealth alternative to the US-made F-35.

But the military, which is working to deploy F-35, has slashed its budget to 2 billion won. The budget was cut back to make room for COVID-19 relief handouts.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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