#Asia Military service kills creative startup ecosystem in South Korea


Image Credit: Carey Ciuro

Image Credit: Carey Ciuro

Even in the midst of constant threat from North Korea, South Korea has seen rapid growth. From a war torn country that received financial aid in the 1950s, it has gone on to become a financial donor.  A country that is just over 20% of California’s size is now a member of G20, ranked top in education, and has the fastest internet infrastructure in the world, all in less than 3 generations.  Despite these monumental achievements, thousands of startups in South Korea in the last decade have struggled to make international headlines, and the root of this lies in the mandatory military service.

In South Korea, every able bodied man earns their citizenship by serving in the mandatory military service.  I lived in San Jose, California, my entire life, and served in the Republic of Korea Armed Forces in the years 2010-2012 to retain my Korean citizenship.  From my experience running my startup called Memoirs Inc, based in South Korea, let me share my firsthand account of how this military service affects the startup ecosystem in South Korea.

Military kills creativity

Curiosity begins when you are born and peaks in college years. Curiosity enhances learning, risk taking and understanding.  In the first few years of college, many new social groups are formed, wild nights are experienced and you learn the consequences of rash decisions you have made. It is also in these formative years that the majority of South Korean males serve in the military service.  These curiosities, creative thoughts, and adventures all come to a screeching halt once you enter the military service.

Imagine beginning your first startup, learning new things and testing out new methods using the latest technology, then receiving orders to go to boot camp in the next 3 months. What are you supposed to do then?  In the military, we joke that you are not allowed to think, just “do”. The number one skill you learn is to follow orders and execute them, rather than to think creatively. In boot camp, as a new recruit, no one wants to hear about your opinions, your favorite app, your ideas or concerns. They examine you only by how well you follow and execute orders. One mistake made by you, and everyone in your squad has to face the consequences too. These are the realities that young South Korean males experience in the military.  This also leads to a decrease in risk taking, since you don’t want anything to happen to your squad because of your decisions and actions.

Able-bodied men are at their physical peak in their 20s, yet there are still consequences from being in the military.  Imagine if Steve Jobs, who incorporated Apple at age 21, and Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook at age 20, had to serve their military service in their early 20s, would there have been Apple?  Or Facebook?  Maybe, maybe not; but many of the greatest companies, especially in tech, were started in their early 20s, sometimes even by college dropouts, around the same time when most South Koreans serve in their military service.  Could you start a company after your military service?  Sure you can, but until the threat of North Korea is neutralized or a new way to promote ideas within the rank is found, creativity and risk taking at a young age will still be affected for years to come.

Hope exists: military makes you the ultimate team player

There are several skills that can be developed in the military, including mental toughness, survival skills and different ways to complete a mission (plans B and C). Aside from them, the most valuable skills I learned during my service were communication and execution.  In South Korea, despite the hierarchical system in many workplaces, communication speeds are phenomenal, especially among small teams like startups.

In the military, communication is key to completing a task. Orders need to be crystal clear and executed to perfection, and a unit moves as a unit, not as an individual. It is for these reasons that the most targeted personnel in military exercises are the ones who handle communications and signals. In South Korea, customer service, delivery speed and how fast an action takes place to satisfy a customer is amazing.  If you have a refrigerator problem in the middle of the night, somebody will come and fix it for you, yet it takes about 3 weeks in the United States.  Using these communication and execution skills, young Koreans can be very valuable to a startup that needs to complete many tasks in a short amount of time.

Unicorns in Silicon Valley, Dragons in Korea

The dynamics of startups and new businesses in South Korea have shifted radically especially with the implementation of the creative economy in the last 3 years.  With the highest graduation rate in higher education in the world, an emphasis on foreign language, and the fact that the South Korean market is just too small, our upcoming generation in South Korea is shifting from the cultural norms towards a more global mindset.

Unlike the previous generation that had lifelong careers in one company, with conglomerates owning a big portion of the GDP, the next generation of companies will compete against the status quo. Samsung, for example, owns nearly 20% of South Korea’s GDP. With the most hyper connected infrastructure in the planet and a new mindset for our generation that is able to make a difference, it is just a matter of time before someone steps up to the plate and hits a home run.

In United States, we say “My country, my company”, in South Korea, we say “Our country, our company.” Every tragedy is mourned as a country and every victory is celebrated as a country. South Korea’s mandatory military service will exist until the threat of North Korea is neutralized, but things will change dramatically in the economic and technological space in the years to come. With the huge influx of foreigners that are coming to South Korea, especially Korean Americans, there will be a massive blend of talent, ideas and skills.  These ingredients: international community, superior internet infrastructure, elite talent and government backed programs will lead to the next generation of companies. The next billion dollar company that comes out of South Korea will not be a unicorn. It will be a high flying dragon.

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