FROM AUG. 18 to Sept. 2 the 2018 Asian Games were held in Jakarta-Palembang. For most athletes, these games are seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For South Korean male athletes, however, victory entails so much more: it entails the opportunity to be exempt from mandatory military service that all Korean male nationals are subjected to. Under Paragraph 11 of Article 68 of the Korean Military Service Act, gold medalists in the Asian Games are exempted from military duty. In the recent Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games, the world’s attention turned towards the result of Korea’s soccer match due to this privilege. At the center of this attention was Son Heung-min, one of the key Korean football players in the English Premier League (EPL)*, or, to be exact, the question of whether he would receive military exemption from the games. Despite having renewed his contract with his team, the Tottenham Hotspur FC, Son would face unfortunate consequences in his career in the EPL if he fails to win the gold medal, and, as a result, fails to garner military exemption. Son’s dilemma reflects the recurring shortcomings of the Military Service Act, which fails to provide sufficient exemption standards or alternatives to South Korean male athletes.
South Korea’s compulsory military service poses a dire problem to aspiring male athletes as it requires all men to complete their service before the age of 30, when most athletic careers tend to peak in one’s twenties. The only salvation comes with a medal in the Olympic Games or with a gold medal in a preapproved Asian competition, such as the Asian Games. For the football athletes who do not qualify for this exemption, the military offers an alternative service. Athletes can play as members of military football clubs, such as Sangju Sangmu FC and Asan Mugungwha FC, during their military service. However, this alternative is only available to athletes who have played in the K League** for a minimum of six months, and even then, there is still heavy competition in qualifying and entering the military football club. These restrictions severely limit the opportunities of many promising players, as many South Korean football athletes who serve in foreign club teams have never played in the K League before. While some Korean athletes in other leagues purposely transfer to K League teams six months before their military service, these athletes still risk underperformance after they are discharged from the army. The gap between the K League and other world-class leagues abroad leaves extremely gifted athletes in an under-competitive environment, stunting their overall careers. Given that these athletes are usually the best that South Korea has to offer, the rigidity of the alternative service proves to be especially detrimental.
Another obstacle to the alternative service is the level of education of the athletes, which affects their physical examination grade when entering the military. Before the conscription, all Korean men go through a physical examination to determine whether they are eligible for active service before they are assigned a position in the army. However, if a man drops out of high school, then he automatically receives a grade-4, placing him in the reservist-duty and not active-duty, which limits a soldier’s potential position to administrative work. This heavily affects football athletes since many drop out of high school to join foreign youth football teams. This immediately earns them a grade-4, disqualifying them from serving in the alternative military team. In addition, they are obliged to serve as a public service worker for almost two years, which is detrimental to their athletic career. These requirements for alternative military service do not consider the reality of most football players, making the alternative more of a pie in the sky than an opportunity.
To rectify these controversies, the government should consider reforming the Military Service Act by extending the amount of time an athlete can postpone his military service if he proves that his performance is above a set standard. While the act currently limits the postponement of military service to the age of 30, this is primarily due to concerns over the physical ability of soldiers. However, considering the relatively higher physical ability of athletes, the Ministry Manpower Administration has little to worry about. Although it might be controversial if the standard of the extension is ambiguous, the government has an obligation to address the consequences of the age restriction: to ignore the necessity of reform would be irresponsible.
For all South Korean men, military service is a sensitive issue. The ripple effect of the military service is not all the same, but still every man loses almost two years in their twenties. However, the current system of alternative service neglects the reality of a player’s career, which is why reforms in the Military Service Act for athletes are necessary. These reforms are not, by any means, a way of evading service; military service is an important civil duty. Nevertheless, there needs to be consideration into the reality of an athletes’ career. The given alternative service does little to help the stellar athletes since the restrictions create a blind spot. Therefore, the least the government should do is allow the athletes to prolong their inevitable service until they have reached their athletic potential.
*European Premier League (EPL): Top level in the English professional football league
**K League: Top level in the Korean professional football league
Lee Hyun-kyung firstname.lastname@example.org