A Korean Invasion Blindsides the U.S. Army–But in a Good Way

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2009

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Then Mr. Lee [Suk Joon Lee, a South Korean immigrant] stumbled upon a Korean-language Web site that described a way out: a program that the Army was about to launch that offered a shortcut to getting U.S. citizenship. The site was created by another Korean immigrant, James Hwang, and it explained in minute detail the steps required to qualify.

“James knew everything about the program, and he wasn’t even in the military,” says the 27-year-old Mr. Lee. In February, Mr. Lee, along with hundreds of other Korean immigrants who had learned about the pilot program from Mr. Hwang, descended on Army recruiting centers in New York to enlist.

The program was authorized without fanfare late last year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to attract temporary immigrants who speak strategically important languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Korean. The bait: The soldiers could immediately apply for U.S. citizenship, skipping the sometimes decadelong process of securing a green card first.

So many Koreans have applied, however, that the Army doesn’t need them all.

Koreans form the largest group among the 8,000 applicants for the program, launched on Feb. 23. Many have excellent credentials, including degrees in medicine and engineering. Almost all are veterans of South Korea’s own compulsory military service.

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The promise of America lures thousands of South Koreans to the U.S. each year. Korean students enroll in U.S. colleges. Others start small businesses in order to get temporary visas.

But many get tied up in bureaucracy.

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Immigrants who are permanent residents, such as Mrs. Hwang [who arrived on a student visa in 2001], have long been eligible to join the U.S. military. In May 2007, she enlisted so she could quickly secure U.S. citizenship and sponsor her dying father to remain with her in the U.S.

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In November 2008, Secretary Gates approved a one-year pilot program that the Army would unveil in New York City within months. Mr. Hwang, who was eager to enlist, felt obligated to share his research with other Koreans in the same bind.

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He created a free site (cafe.daum.net/USmilitary). He specified the eligibility requirements for the program: Applicants must have lived in the U.S. for at least two years and have a valid temporary-resident visa. Enlistees with language skills must agree to a minimum four years of active duty, which could very well be in Iraq or Afghanistan, and four years in the Reserves.

Mr. Hwang started leading free study sessions live online to prepare applicants for the standardized military entrance exam. {snip}

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As word spread about the Army pilot program, recruiting offices across the U.S. were inundated with calls and visits from Koreans. “They knew about the program before we did,” says Sgt. Joshua Cannon, who runs an Army recruiting center in Los Angeles.

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The Army recently expanded the pilot program to Los Angeles, home to the largest Korean community in the U.S. Koreans accounted for 20 out of the 22 applicants who had shown up at a recruiting station in a suburban mall by the second afternoon.

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The Army continues to process applications from Koreans, but it is unlikely to accept all those who qualify. “The Army also needs speakers of Pashtu, Urdu and Arabic,” says Lt. Col. Badoian.

Mr. Hwang says he is committed to maintaining his site, which now includes tips from fresh enlistees. One recent post recommends a particular recruiter in Long Island City, N.Y.; another complains about the long wait for a physical exam.

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