When Israel founded the Talpiot program to give the Israel Defense Forces a technological edge, it spawned new classes of tech-savvy warriors who went on to build the nation's booming tech sector. Now South Korea hopes to mimic the Talpiot program's success on a less ambitious scale by placing the best South Korean soldiers with tech giant Samsung.
The South Korean defense ministry plans to recommend 150 soldiers for a four-month training course on software languages and programming under Samsung's tutelage, according to The Wall Street Journal. Samsung has promised to pick 100 out of the 150 recommended soldiers for training, but has not guaranteed that they will become new software engineer hires. If the first test-run goes well, the South Korean military wants to expand the effort to other South Korean companies.
All South Korean men enter a compulsory military service for at least 21 months starting from as early as 19 years of age. Once they leave military service, they must typically join the swarms of top university graduates competing for plum jobs with South Korea's "chaebol" conglomerates such as Samsung or Hyundai. (The two conglomerates accounted for almost a third of the combined operating incomes of South Korean firms in 2012.)
The new South Korean military program cited Israel's Talpiot program as inspiration, but the defense ministry emphasized that its only goal is to help drafted soldiers search for jobs. That stands in contrast to both the main mission and results of Israel's Talpiot program.
Israel set up the Talpiot program in 1979 to train the nation's most promising high-school graduates to become technological innovators for the military, as detailed by The Wall Street Journal in 2007. Members of program, called Talpions, spend three years in study, followed by six years of military service focused on improving the Israeli military's technological edge rather than serving in combat units.
But Talpiot had the unexpected benefit of helping to kick-start Israel's booming tech startup scene. Many Talpions went on after graduation to found Israeli startups or flocked to Silicon Valley—a success that led some Talpiot critics to complain that the Israel Defense Forces weren't reaping enough of the benefits by comparison.
South Korea also has a thriving tech sector, but one still dominated by huge conglomerates such as Samsung. The country has only begun cultivating a startup culture friendlier to risk-taking entrepreneurs in more recent years.
The new South Korean military program probably won't change the existing dynamics of chaebol domination by funneling the military's best into Samsung's ranks of white-collar workers. But it could provide a stepping stone for helping place the best soldiers with a diverse array of both established conglomerates and riskier tech ventures in the future.
Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.