Fortunate Son: Koreans re-evaluate military service exemption

Korean men during their mandatory military service (Photo: Channel News Asia)

In South Korea, where military service is mandatory for all men, exceptional talent may provide a way out. However, the question of military service exemptions is far from uncontroversial in Korea.

Football fans will often say that they are willing to sacrifice everything for their team, but recently South Korean fans of Premier League footballer Son Heung-min took that sacrifice to a new level. In 2018, they petitioned the Blue House (the South Korean presidential office), saying that they would be willing to take Son’s place in the country’s mandatory military service.

Representing Tottenham Hotspurs, Son’s performance in the English Premier League has been outstanding, earning him international recognition. He has now become the top-scoring Asian player of all time in Champions League.

His fan base was well represented at South Korea’s recent friendly football match with Colombia on March 26. More than sixty four thousand people filled Seoul World Cup Stadium to watch the the sixth sold out game in a row.

The resurgence of interest in the South Korean national football team was due to the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta-Palembang, where South Korea won gold. Perhaps luckily for his devoted fans, the victory meant that Son was granted an exemption from military duty, a privilege extended to athletes who manage to win an Olympic or Asian Games gold medal . However, this has sparked a debate in Korea about who exactly is worthy of such exemptions. This is because, while most Korean men consider their two-year spell in the army an arduous waste of time, the nation as a whole maintains a certain sense of respect and pride about its military, and it generally scorns those who try to find an “out.”

The Golden Rule

Had Son needed to fulfill his national service, he would have lost not only a great opportunity to play in the English Premier League, but also a great fortune of KRW 11.1 billion (USD 9.4 million) for nearly two years, not to mention how a mid-career hiatus would have negatively impacted his football skill.

While his talent in Europe seemed way beyond what should be required by anyone to be exempted from military duty, Son had missed out on earlier opportunities for exemption. Due to personal reasons, he did not participate in the 2014 Asian Games, where fellow players earned their exemptions by winning gold. At that time, few disputed that the national football team had made themselves worthy of their gold-given exemptions.

Footballer Son Heung-min during a World Cup-game against Mexico in Russia, 2018. (Photo: Svetlana Beketova, Creative Commons)

South Koreans’ ambivalent attitude to military service exemption for athletes is perhaps best illustrated by the nation’s lukewarm feelings for the national baseball team. Before and during the Asian Games, the South Korean baseball team was harshly criticized because it seemed to many that the players were playing more for the sake of obtaining military service exemption for themselves, rather than glory for the nation.

Two baseball players even postponed joining the army and waited to be listed to the national team. They may very well have had innocuous intentions, but many Korean baseball fans became suspicious. In a sport where a player’s worth lies in his statistics, the two players were mediocre compared to their teammates. Yet, coach Sun Dong-yol picked them anyway for the Asian Games, despite saying that he would only “pick the best players to win gold.” It seemed to many baseball fans like there was foul play involved.

Things got even worse when the team showed up to play. The team was full of professionals, but they were crushingly defeated by a Taiwanese amateur team. They also displayed lackluster qualities in the group-stage game against Hong Kong, although they did emerge victorious after a torturous fifth inning.

The South Korean baseball team eventually went on to win the Asian Games, but the damage to the team’s image was already done. South Korean fans simply felt that the team lacked sincerity towards the national games. The players could not even brag about their gold medals before the public on the day of their return to Korea.

Korean citizen Jeong, who served in the artillery during his military service, told NOVAsia, “the baseball players did not show proper sportsmanship during their games even against relatively weak teams. They just took advantage of the system.” Jeong added that he thinks South Korea should completely do away with the military service exemption for athletes.

The Weight of the Flag

The disdain that South Koreans like Jeong feel towards the national baseball team is the result of a reevaluation of what makes an athlete “worthy” in the eyes of the nation. Increasingly, South Koreans have begun to recognize other aspects of athletes’ performances as equally important to gold medals, such as the way that the athlete shows respect for the Korean flag.

A current graduate student who did his military duty as a language specialist said to NOVAsia, “I could also have a chance to develop my abilities in the army. Everyone cannot be exempted, but chances are open to be assigned based on their capabilities or interests, so I do not feel objection to national athlete’s military exemption. They are devoted to elevating the nation’s reputation.”

Still, whether celebrated like the national football team, or disdained like the national baseball team, Korean athletes may be lucky enough to enjoy the privilege of military service exemption, but what about non-athletes?

If special talents and devotion to national prestige are the two main requirements for military service exemption, the question of fairness arises. Of all talents that South Koreans can reward in this way, why put athletic talent above all others? For example, the military service exemption does not extend to seemingly normal talents like studying. Even medical students, who are considered the best and brightest of society, must serve their duty as army surgeons or medics.

Defining the extent of special talents is tricky, as shown in the recent debate on what exactly constitutes sufficient skill to be exempted from duty.

Korean pianist Cho Seong-jin was exempted from military duty after winning the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 2009. He would then go on to win other prestigious musical competitions, like the Chopin Piano Competition in 2015. Based on Cho’s case, some claimed that the Billboard-topping members of the world-famous K-pop band BTS should also be exempted from their national military service.

Conceding some partiality issue arises in the current exemption system, Kim another Korean man who served his military duty said, “Considering that the lifetime of a top idol group like BTS is comparable to the career of professional athletes, maybe BTS should be considered for a military exemption as well.”

However, the Korean public is divided, arguing whether the group’s feat actually increased national prestige. One recent survey showed that a majority of people do not believe that BTS has a legitimate basis for claiming military exemption.

The Korean idol group BTS at 2019 Grammys (Photo: John Shearer/GETTY IMAGES)

March of the non-volunteers

Recently, talk of a volunteer military system has entered the public debate recently, but unlike conscripts, professional soldiers require professional and competitive wages, and there is little money to finance such a system.

Meanwhile, the current exemption system is “convenient” for Korean authorities says Kim, because it does not require them to put much effort into evaluating different exemption claims:

“It seems true that [Korean] society puts sports talents above other talents, but I do not think that it is intentional. In case of sports, the achievements of athletes are simply more visible through results in worldwide events like the Olympics or the World Cup.” 

Perhaps owing to patriotism, or to the controversial nature of military exemptions in South Korea, Son Heung-min has stated that he will take part in a four-week basic military training course this summer. This will surely earn him much respect from his countrymen, and definitely eliminate the need for any of his fans to serve in his stead.

Still, thanks to his talents, Son enjoys a privilege that few other talented men in Korea do – the privilege of choice.


About Minhye Park 8 Articles
Before coming to Yonsei GSIS, Minhye studied mass communications at Sogang University. She formerly worked as a fact-checker at a Korean public broadcaster and is now a news assistant for foreign correspondents based in Seoul. She has published a feature story in the Korea Exposé.