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Weapons maker accused of neglecting to pay bonuses

South Korea reveals its first 3,000-ton class homegrown submarine capable of carrying ballistic missiles on August 13, 2021. (South Korean Navy)
South Korea reveals its first 3,000-ton class homegrown submarine capable of carrying ballistic missiles on August 13, 2021. (South Korean Navy)
Workers at South Korea’s chief weapons developer were offered no incentive pay, despite their efforts that President Moon Jae-in hailed as marking a new milestone in the country’s decadeslong drive to mount a self-reliant defense.

The Agency for Defense Development -- which recently tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, making South Korea the first non-nuclear state to do so -- has yet to prepare guidelines on compensating those who build strategic assets like SLBMs, a lawmaker found.

“Researchers at the ADD are, too, our assets critical to defense. If they abandon us because we don’t pay them right, that’s a loss, a threat to national security,” Rep. Kim Byung-kee of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea said, referring to data from the Science Ministry and the arms procurement agency overseeing the ADD.

Workers usually receive proceeds from overseas sales, but those involved in top-secret projects, like the SLBM task force, have no way to get the extra money because no exports are permitted over security concerns.

The ADD, fully aware of the loophole that had gone unnoticed until recently, said workers on secret projects have received yearly allowances of 600,000 won ($514). But not even that went to everyone waiting for them last year because of budget constraints.

“We’re in talks with the Defense Ministry and the arms procurement agency over the issue, to compensate employees who get sidelined when it comes to bonus payments,” the ADD said, noting it could take some time to see that happen.

But a Seoul official familiar with state-driven projects said it was beyond time that it come under debate. The Finance Ministry, which handles regulations on such projects, will have to agree to making exceptions for employees in charge of making secret weapons, the official added.

Defense Minister Suh Wook, who told the National Assembly last week that he will look at ways to accelerate weapons programs without leaving anyone demoralized by compensation, also echoed worries, saying he could not guarantee how the discussion would turn out with the Finance Ministry.

Meanwhile, the ADD is awaiting a court decision on unpaid bonus payments.

Researchers sued the weapons maker, claiming that they had not been offered their share of the proceeds from a battle tank technology transfer made to Turkey in 2015. The ADD suspended the payments after mediation failed to work out workers’ differences over splitting 70 billion won.

“They wanted a bigger share, a second opinion on our profit split method,” the ADD said. The ruling will affect some 400 workers at the agency that employs about 2,400 researchers.

By Choi Si-young (