Draft dodging is a despised crime in this country. People who are given questionable exemptions from military service -- which is mandatory for all able-bodied men -- also become targets of severe public criticism and disdain.
Sometimes, gaining exemption from active-duty service by illegal or suspicious means becomes a socially and politically explosive issue -- so much so that it influenced the fate of a major presidential contender, whose sons were exempted from military service on disputed health grounds. The current nominee for education minister, a ruling party lawmaker, is also mired in controversy over her son’s exemption from conscription.
Health problems and mental and physical challenges are the most common reasons for exemption from national service. But the system is not without loopholes, and there are some who succeed in avoiding the draft by taking advantage of minor health conditions.
Those who work for government-licensed companies, including defense-related enterprises and small businesses, usually for a longer period than other conscripts are required to serve, are also exempted from active-duty service.
Then comes the special exemption program for artists and athletes, a subject of intense controversy on the occasion of the Asian Games, which ended in Indonesia early this week.
The program allows artists -- limited to those in classical genres -- and athletes who perform well in international competitions to be exempted from the military service. It is basically intended to reward them for enhancing the nation’s image and to avoid disrupting their careers.
Among the artistic competitions recognized under the program are 29 international classical music competitions, 12 international dance contests and seven Korean traditional arts competitions. Recognized sporting events include the Olympic Games and the Asian Games.
Under this program, 42 athletes who won gold medals in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang have been exempted from military service. Another two gold medalists who were already undergoing national service are eligible for an early discharge.
The latest controversy concerns the baseball team. Nine of its 24 players -- all professional athletes -- qualified for the special exemption. Critics accused them of exploiting the Asian Games to gain exemption from military service.
Indeed, among the major competitors in the Asian Games baseball tournament, Korea was the only country that fielded professionals. The Korean Baseball Organization even suspended the Korean professional league during the Asian Games.
Baseball officials and coaches had already been accused of choosing players, potentially helping them qualify for the special exemption program, on the basis of personal connections rather than capabilities. In fact, a few of the players who competed in Indonesia had performance records that could hardly be considered exceptional.
In contrast, the soccer team also won the gold medal and all 20 of its members have been granted the privilege of exemption. In accordance with the Asian Games rules, the national soccer team consisted of 17 players who are 23 years old or younger and three older “wild card” players.
The soccer players’ stellar performance in Indonesia played a part in helping them avoid the questioning eyes of the public, but the main reason is that the public could see that the officials, coaches and players were not as preoccupied with exemption from military service as their counterparts in baseball.
As the controversy heats up cyberspace, some have raised questions about the fairness of the special exemption system. For instance, some have asked why the members of the K-pop group BTS, which has now occupied the top spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart twice -- a major feat in the music industry -- should not enjoy the same privilege as Olympic or Asian Games medalists.
As public outcry mounts, government officials said they would conduct a thorough review of the special exemption system, which has been in place since 1973. Some officials have suggested that it might be necessary to scale down the program gradually, if not phase it out altogether.
That is the right direction. Minimizing the number of exemptions is the best way to reform a system whose fairness and transparency have been challenged so much and for so long.