SEOUL, Mar. 19 (Korea Bizwire) — Winning a medal is a pretty big deal for most athletes. But it means a whole lot more for those in South Korea, where it can land them an exemption from serving in the military.
In South Korea, every man aged between 18 and 35 faces conscription into the armed forces for around two years, but athletes who win a medal at the Olympics and gold at the Asian Games are effectively exempted from the mandatory service.
Seven South Korean athletes at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, including skeleton slider Yun Sung-bin, did just that, according to government officials.
Though the athletes will still be participating in a four-week long basic training course, they will spend the rest of the conscription period as officers in the field of arts and sports, while being able to participate in international competitions and leagues.
The conscription exemption policy has proven controversial, for better or worse, as some sports fans back the special treatment to see their favorite players thrive unaffected, while others have accused athletes of being ‘draft dodgers’ by barely making the cut.
Calls for Military Exemption for Son Heung-Min
Some football fans are offering themselves up to serve in the military on behalf of Son Heung-Min, as the up-and-coming football star at the height of his career is set to serve his country sometime next summer.
Son’s performance has been consistently great as of late, ranking 56th place in transfer value at 72.6 million euros, topping all Asian players in the five major European leagues, according to a 2018 report from the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES) Football Observatory.
Born in 1992, however, Son will turn 28 years in 2020, which means he will have to serve in the military and be absent from the Premier League for nearly two years as per the terms of the Military Service Act.
With the 2018 Asian Games left as the only option for Son, fans have taken to the internet to get behind the football player.
More than 150 online petitions have been filed with the Blue House website so far, with many calling for the government to provide special treatment for athletes like Son who are representing the country on the world stage, while others even offered themselves up to serve on behalf of Son in the military.
The closest Son came to winning military exemption was at the Rio Olympics in 2016 when the South Korean team lost to Honduras 1-0 in the quarterfinals, falling just one win short.
Members of the South Korean football team received military exemption for reaching the round of 16 in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, after the government reformed the military law to recognize their unprecedented performance.
In 2006, a similar action was taken by the government after the South Korean national baseball team reached the semi-finals of the World Baseball Classic with six victories in a row.
However, growing controversy surrounding the policy’s inconsistent requirements saw the preferential treatment scrapped for players competing at both the World Cup and the World Baseball Classic.
In 2012, football player Kim Ki-hee became an object of ridicule for earning the much coveted military exemption after the South Korean football team won bronze at the London Olympics.
Kim, who spent most of the time on the bench, replaced Koo Ja-cheol in the last minute of the match against Japan, spending a total of just four minutes on the pitch.
Hyunsu Yim (firstname.lastname@example.org)