Winning a medal in a internationally recognized event like the Olympics or the Asian Games is considered a very big deal for most athletes, but much more is at stake for South Korean athletes. In South Korea, every male faces mandatory military service from the ages of 18 to 35, barring special circumstances. This rule is set in stone for every individual with a Korean citizenship, with no exceptions for athletes and celebrities, how famous they may be. Due to this, the military service is seen as a form of rites of passage for young men due to the tough physical and mental challenges they have to go through. Due to this, men who try to avoid military service is frowned upon immensely by the Korean public. However, athletes and their military service has sparked heavy online debates, with the public seeming divided on their opinions on the service. In a survey of 500 adults by Realmeter, 47.6 percent said they were in support of male athletes being exempt from conscription. The poll showed that 43.9 percent said they were against such measures, while 8.5 percent said they didn’t lean one way or the other.
However, there are multiple methods of exemption, but none of them easy. With the exemption of the 2002 Korean National Football Team that reached the quarter-finals in the 2002 World Cup (special exemption), the rule is set into law that an Olympic medal or an Asian Games gold medal is enough to allow any male athlete exemption from military service. The 2012 bronze-winning side and 2014 Asian Games gold medalists are all military exempt, with the exemption allowing another generation of Korean footballing talents to showcase their abilities in Europe, a huge positive for Korean football. Son winning the gold medal in the ongoing Asian Games will put him out of military conscription for good, allowing the potential Korean Golden Generation spearheaded by Son Heung Min with Lee Seung Woo, Hwang Hee Chan, Kim Min Jae and Jo Hyun Woo to flourish in European football.
Son Heung Min’s military conscription has seen one of the biggest debates in recent years, simply due to his athletic prowess in the football. One of the deadliest forwards in world football, Son has had an illustrious career so far, surpassing even Korean legend Park Ji Sung in some categories such as goals scored in the Premier League. Son is currently 27 years old and in the middle of his prime. He has netted 39 goals with Tottenham Hotspur in the last two seasons alone, a key cog in the formidable Spurs offence of recent years. Son will have to report to conscription by the time he is 28, the maximum age athletes should report by. Having to serve in the army for 2 years will effectively put him out of contention in European football, with 30 being the start of most athletes’ physical decline. This is essentially a death sentence to a footballer’s career at the top level, however talented a player might be. The conscription tends to be one of the prime reasons that shoo Europeans away from top Korean talent.
There have been many suggestions to resolving this issue, from it being one of the biggest national debates of the recent years. One of the most supported was a point system that allows players to skip if they reach a certain threshold. For football, this standard would be caps for the national team. If a player reaches around 80 caps for the A team, it would probably mean that the player has served the country enough to warrant an exemption from conscription. Another method is to allow European teams to loan Korean teams to Sangju Sangmu, a team created to serve in the military while playing football. However, this is limited to people who have played in the K League, which is a category Son does not fall under. Allowing clubs to loan their Korean players to Sangju will allow not a perfect solution to avoiding conscription, but a much fairer one nonetheless. This would benefit non-K Leagers such as Lee Seung Woo, Paik Seung Ho and Lee Kangin, who were all picked up at a young age by European scouts. Being talented enough to be scouted by the top European teams in their teens should be awarded, not punished.