Last Friday, Tottenham announced their new marquee signing Son Heung-Min. Coming to Spurs from Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, Son represents a relative coup in the transfer market: a young, highly-rated player coming from a Champions League team to a Europa League team.
Son is a player still climbing towards his peak years as an attacker and – barring a swoop from one of the footballing giants in the next few years – could form the core of a Tottenham that challenges for the top four in years to come.
But lost amid all that excitement there is a potential concern that lingers on the horizon: South Korea’s mandatory military service. The Constitution of the Republic of Korea mandates that all males, aged between 18 and 35, must complete a military term of service that varies between 21 and 36 months, depending on branch and whether serving as active or non-active (civil service).
South Korea is very serious about its mandatory service, and there are few ways around it – even for celebrities and star athletes. To give you an idea of just how seriously they take the issue, consider the story of Current FC Seoul player Park Chu-young.
In 2011 Park announced (while playing for some rubbish London team) that he would have to interrupt his footballing career in order to complete his mandatory service. But in a surprising and unorthodox turn of events, only a few months later he secured a 10-year residency permit from Monaco, where he had also played previously.
While this was a serviceable workaround and deferred his military service until 2022, it was not looked upon favorably by the media in South Korea and resulted in permanent damage to his reputation and a temporary removal from the national team. Park eventually issued an apology to his fans and his countrymen serving in the military, and, fortunately for him, won a further exemption through his eventual bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics.
As with Park, athletes are able to obtain an exemption via performance in a variety of international tournaments. In football, several well-known players qualified for exemptions based on winning bronze at the 2012 Olympics or gold at the 2014 Asian Games (Swansea’s Ki Sung-yeung, for example). Unfortunately, Son wasn’t a participant in either, and at age 23 he's now too old to be on Korea's U23 team. However, Korea does have a limited number of above-age players that they can add to the Olympic and Asian Games roster, and there's an extremely good chance that Son would be one of those players in South Korea's Rio Olympics roster in 2016 and Jakarta Asian Games roster in 2018. With Korea historically very competitive in Olympic and Asian Games competitions, there's a decent chance that he could receive an athletic exemption in this way.
The good news is that his military service is many years off – if current laws hold he must complete his military training before he turns 30 and can also defer his service past 30 if he declares residency elsewhere, though if Park is any indication, the social implications could be high. Still, barring any changes in South Korean law, this is an issue that Spurs won’t have to deal with anytime soon. Son has at minimum six years before it becomes an issue, and who knows what the future will hold until then? For all Son knows, he might not even be a Tottenham player by the time his service term comes due. And anyway, this is certainly something that Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy would have taken into consideration in his negotiations with Bayer Leverkusen.
For now, Tottenham have a wonderful new talent to add to their offense. Here’s to many uninterrupted years with Spurs, Son Heung-Min!
(Hat tip and thanks to Seoul_BMO on /r/coys for an excellent explainer on the subject)