When the Korean national soccer team won the gold medal at the Asian Games on Sunday, English Premier League star Son Hong-min, along with 20 of his teammates, received exemptions from mandatory military service.
The hard-won victory over archrival Japan would typically have been a sweet moment for South Korea, but there was bitter sentiment this time that was openly expressed. The resentment stems from exemptions from military service granted to the soccer players for “raising national prestige.”
While Son, 26, who signed with Tottenham Hotspur for 22 million pounds (39.6 billion won), was recognized for his service to the country, most South Korean men have to serve at least 21 months on a monthly salary of 310,000 won. That disparity made Son’s exemption even more controversial.
“Two years in life is just as important for the athletes as it is for the average citizen,” an anonymous citizen said in a comment on the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae’s petition website. “I don’t think the athletes are the only ones who can raise the national profile.”
The post offers a snapshot of the decadeslong debate over the nation’s conscription system and its exemption clause, with more and more South Koreans demanding enhanced transparency and fairness over how the system is run.
According to the Military Service Act, the exemptions are offered to athletes who win titles at the Asian Games or medals of any color at the Olympics. The same goes for those who win second place or higher at an international arts competition and top place at an arts competition in South Korea.
Critics say that the way in which the exemptions are applied is discriminatory. For example, the members of K-pop boy band BTS, which topped the Billboard 200 albums chart twice this year, are not eligible.
“If you win a classic music competition such as in violin and piano, military exemption is granted. However, winning a pop music competition, say the Billboard albums chart, gets you nothing,” said Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the opposition Bareun Party.
Public sentiment is divided on the issue. According to a survey by the local pollster Realmeter in July, nearly 48 percent supported increasing the incentive for athletes, while 44 percent opposed it.
South Korean soccer players Son Heong-min(left), Hwang ui-jo(center) and Jo Hyeon-woo wave to the crowd of fans at incheon airport on Monday. Yonhap
History of exemption
Military exemption for athletes was introduced in 1973. Then-President Park Chung-hee believed that winning at international sport events was a good way to transform the image of South Korea from an impoverished, war-torn country into a modern, developing country.
The current version of the exemption law was mostly laid out during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Athletes who won titles at the Asian Games or medals of any color at the Olympics were granted exemptions.
The scope of exemptions was expanded when South Korea became a global sensation during the 2002 World Cup and 2006 World Baseball Classics. The soccer players placed fourth in the World Cup, the baseball players third at the WBC.
“Compared to other careers, those of athletes are short-lived. That is why the two-year exemption of mandatory military service was so crucial to the athletes,” Rep. An Min-suk of the ruling Democratic Party said in an interview with local broadcaster CBS.
But controversy has since emerged that too many athletes are being exempted from military service due to the expanded eligibility requirements. During the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, 66 athletes were granted exemptions.
Some athletes were even accused of exploiting the exemption rules. Two South Korea professional baseball players are under public scrutiny for delaying enlistment until they joined the 2018 Asian Games, in which South Korea won the title against Japan.
Some critics blamed the government for treating military service as a sacrifice for young people. For them, serving the country is an inherent duty shared by every citizen -- as long as South Korea is still at war with North Korea.
“Being good at playing ball does not justify exemption from your duty to defend the country,” said 27-year-old Kim Seong-soo, who completed his service in the Army. “Military service is what makes you feel proud of being a South Korean.”
Many South Korean politicians and celebrities have found themselves in public disgrace after trying to dodge the draft. The scandals significantly damaged their reputations -- sometimes, beyond repair.
Presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang lost the 1997 election after his son was found to have evaded conscription for health reasons deemed unacceptable to the public.
Singer Psy -- best known for his viral 2012 hit “Gangnam Style” -- drew criticism for “unfaithful service” by performing concerts during his conscription period. He redeemed his reputation by serving a second time.
Faced with the mounting controversy, the conscription agency’s chief hinted at the possibility of revising the rules, which limit exemptions to athletes and artists.
Ki Chan-soo, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, said Monday that he would look for ways to overhaul the exemption system and discuss whether it is fair that the exemptions are only for athletes and artists.
“The current controversy reminds me that it is time to fix the exemption rules for military service,” Ki said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. “We’re planning a comprehensive re-examination of the system in the areas of sports and the arts.”
Defense Ministry Spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said Tuesday that while the ministry is not seeking significant changes to the system for now, the government will consult with other agencies to ensure fairness in the conscription system.
Some sport experts have proposed a so-called “mileage scheme,” under which athletes and artists should acquire a certain number of points from international competitions to be relieved of their military duties.
Lee Kee-heung, president of the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee, who led the South Korean athletes during the 2018 Asian Games, said the mileage system is worth pursuing and needs public discussion.
“In fact, athletes really need exemption from military service. … I am in favor of the idea of giving exemptions to athletes who accumulate more mileage points than others at the Olympics, Asian Games and other international competitions,” Lee told reporters on Sunday.
Lawmaker An, who chairs the parliamentary committee on Culture, Sports and Tourism, said the mileage system is not enough to prevent athletes’ abuse of the system and ease public antagonism toward what they see as unfair exemptions.
An proposed a scheme that delays athletes’ military duties until after they retire and requires them to perform “alternative service” for a similar period of time.
The lawmaker said as long as the government can come up with fair rules and the public endorses them, the exemptions should be expanded to include famous K-pop stars who have achieved global stardom -- like BTS.
“Military exemption should not be treated as a lottery for the people. I think we need a consensus to fix the military service in a fair, rational way. We need to change the system in line with the change of society,” said An.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon on Tuesday echoed these sentiments, saying there was a need for a change to the exemption rules for the athletes. But he stressed that even if the government came up with new laws, they could not be applied retroactively.
By Yeo Jun-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org