South Korean players toss teammate Hwang Ui-jo in the air after the victory ceremony for the men's football winners at the 2018 Asian Games in Bogor on September 1. Photo: AFP / Martin Bureau
South Korean players toss teammate Hwang Ui-jo in the air after the victory ceremony for the men's football winners at the 2018 Asian Games in Bogor on September 1. Photo: AFP / Martin Bureau

How do you motivate athletes to perform beyond the call of duty? South Korea may offer one example.

Striker Son Hueng-min, along with fellow stars Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan celebrated as if they had won the World Cup when the final whistle sounded on the 2018 Asian Games football final on Saturday. In fact, they may have won something even more valuable for their personal careers.

Thanks to their 2-1 victory over arch-rivals Japan, they and their teammates can continue kicking balls around pitches – rather than spending nights in the freezing cold on sentry duty at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), obsessing over tiny pay packets and suffering the kind of hazing from senior ranks that has made military duty a dreaded rite of passage by millions of families in South Korea.

This is because South Korean medalists in top-level international sporting events are exempted from military service. And it spells very, very good news for the footballers.

National glory, personal benefits

Son was the focus of wide attention from international media, despite appearing in a tournament that, frankly, does not usually register on the radar of global soccer fans. The 26-year-old had been released from English Premier League duties by his team Tottenham Hotspur so that he could head to Indonesia for what was almost certainly his last chance to win exemption before he turned 28 and had to head home to serve South Korea for 21 months in uniform.

But the Asiad victory was his salvation. Now, he can continue his lucrative Premier League career, uninterrupted.

With Son’s ecstatic image being beamed around the world, it is easy to forget about the 19 equally delighted others. Goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo impressed during the 2018 World Cup in June, but had already registered to join the army’s team in December. Now he can follow his dreams. “I know what the fans expect of me and I want to show them that I can succeed in Europe,” Cho told local media.

Lee Seung-woo is already engaged to a club in Europe. The talented 20-year-old can now stay with his Italian team Hellas Verona and try to make a name for himself there. Hwang Ui-jo, of Japanese club Gamba Osaka, scored nine goals in the tournament and was the team’s real star. He too has now assured his future. And all others played their part.

In recent years, most of Korea’s top football stars have won draft deferments thanks to a bronze at the 2012 Olympics and a gold at the 2014 Asian Games. For those players who did not make the side, however, the shadow looms large. If Son is the biggest star in Korean football, Kwon Chang-hoon has swiftly become the second. The midfielder, just 24, scored 11 goals for Dijon in the French league last season but ruptured his Achilles tendon in the last league game of the season in May.

Not only did Kwon miss the World Cup, a competition in which he was expected to shine, he then missed the Asian Games. When he returns to action late this year or early next, Kwon is going to face the same issue as Son. Assuming he is fit and that Korea qualifies, Kwon will be in the Olympic team for 2020. If that doesn’t work, he may just be able to squeeze into the 2022 Asian Games. If the team wins medals at those tourneys, Kwon will be free to continue wearing a football strip rather than military camos.

More exemptions for players and K-pop stars? 

Of course, there are no guarantees on the field. Still, there could be relief off it. Korea Football Association (KFA) president Chung Mong-gyu – a Hyundai scion and political heavyweight, as well as a benefactor of domestic sports – is trying to make things a little easier for football players who already face short careers.

“Korean players face difficulties at their peak, as it coincides with their military duty,” Chung said, according to Korean reports. “I’ll discuss with the government about potentially granting more exemptions, pushing the age limit and expanding player selection for military teams.”

It is not just football players that are affected. Military service disrupts the careers of all other athletes too. An unrelated field that also suffers from a demographic with a low ceiling is entertainment. And after athletes like Son, who play for overseas teams the most recognizable Koreans globally have usually been involved in K-pop.

Over the years, a number of famous pop artistes such as Rain have cut their hair, said goodbye to fans and entered military bases. Conversely, attempts to dodge the draft have ended in shattered careers. MC Mong was a household name at the start of the decade with his music and appearances on hit television shows. But his career never recovered after he was accused in 2010 of pulling out healthy teeth in order to avoid the draft.

Thanks to a 1973 law, those with special abilities in the arts can receive special exemptions. But “the arts” does not currently extend to K-pop – a significant export, and perhaps South Korea’s biggest soft-power, brand-building assets. Some think it is high time to update the rules.

“There are classical music competitions, such as violin, but pop music is excluded,” Ha Tae-kyung, a prominent conservative lawmaker, told Korean media in July.  That means national superstars BTS, who topped the Billboard charts in the US, are not eligible for draft exemptions, Ha noted.

“The military service exemption fields are selected through our discussions with the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism,” said Ki Chan-soocommissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, according to local reports. “It is difficult if there is no national consensus.”

That consensus may be hard to reach. The public tend to be indignant when individuals – often children of the rich, famous and well connected – manage to wriggle out of their service obligations. Moreover, South Korea is already facing a demographic plunge, putting pressure on military numbers. The Korea Times editorialized today about the concerns that players’ exemptions have raised.

“There is also the issue of fairness for outstanding achievers in other fields,” the newspaper said. “And what about all the other young men who sacrifice their personal lives to serve the country? We are a country technically still at war, and exemption from mandatory military service should not be perceived as a gift.”

On the same day, Ki waded into the debate once again. “I felt that time has come for us to look into the exemption system,” he told Yonhap news agency on Tuesday. “[We] plan to conduct an overall review of the system for athletes and artists.”