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SEOUL — To an American, it might not seem like the most prestigious of workplaces, but some South Koreans are willing to pay thousands of dollars just for a job taking out the trash.

Now, a fire protection inspector at Osan Air Base is selling a handbook for South Koreans seeking a foothold in what may be one of the most competitive job markets in an already hyper-competitive society: civilian employment at a U.S. military base.

A U.S. Forces Korea job doesn’t offer significantly better pay than private companies here, but there is the prospect of longer employment -- South Koreans are typically forced to retire in their late 50s – along with less stress and immersion in an English-speaking environment that can pave the way for jobs with international firms or organizations like the United Nations.

For many, it is so enticing that professionals will take entry-level jobs as waiters or custodians in hopes of moving up the job ladder later.

USFK positions are in such demand that fake jobs are sold on the black market. Last month, a middle-aged housewife was sentenced to eight months in prison for selling two nonexistent jobs at an Area II dining facility for $13,800. The job description included dishwashing and taking out the garbage.

The “USFK Job Guide” — a 272-page Korean-language manual published in April and selling for $11.50 at several local bookstore chains — is aimed at people trying to navigate the often-confusing recruitment process for USFK positions and avoid the cronyism and corruption that many believe has plagued the hiring process for decades, author Yi Kon said.

“In the past, there were so many people who joined USFK in this way,” he said while adding he has not personally seen evidence of civilian jobs being sold and he believes the “buddy-buddy system” is lessening. “I wanted to break the practice.”

Yi said USFK’s hiring process is so opaque that many qualified candidates never bother applying, believing they can’t break into the system.

It can be tough. USFK says about 12,200 South Korean civilians work for the U.S. military, but just 200 to 500 positions open up each year. The list of potential applicants is long; one website devoted to USFK job-hunting has more than 10,000 members.

USFK declined to comment on Yi’s book, saying it would be inappropriate for the command to discuss a work written by a South Korean civilian.

Yi, a former Seoul city firefighter, said that before landing a job as a firefighter in 2001 at the now-closed Camp Page, he knew little about Americans and even less about the U.S. military.

He had planned to go to Canada to study recording engineering so he could work in the music industry, when an acquaintance suggested that he instead apply for a job at a USFK fire station so he could improve his English.

He got the job, and 12 years later has nothing but praise for USFK, which he said offers a less hierarchical workplace than South Korean companies.

“Their doors are open all the time, and they like to hear from their men and their people,” the 42-year-old said.

rowland.ashley@stripes.com

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