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South Korean government to review military exemption policies after Son Heung-Min’s Asian Games gold

Sonnny got out of military service, but the circus is prompting a fresh look under what circumstances athletes receive military exemptions.

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As it turns out, it wasn’t just Tottenham Hotspur fans that were closely following Son Heung-Min’s pursuit of gold at the Asian Games men’s football tournament. The South Korean forward, who was playing for his final chance to earn a sport-based exemption from two years of compulsory military service, captained his country’s U23 side to a gold medal at the competition in Indonesia, earning himself and all of his teammates a reprieve.

The celebrations that followed Korea’s 2-1 overtime win against rivals Japan — complete with Son twirling South Korean flags on the Indonesian pitch — indicated not only excitement, but also relief that Son and his teammates would not have to cut short their footballing careers for a two year stint of pushing papers around in a military office.

However, in the wake of the Asian Games, the circus surrounding the Korea team’s win and subsequent exemption has led Korean military leaders to consider taking a further look at the current system of full-service exemptions from duty, according to Korean news agency Yonhap. All South Koreans are required to fulfill a mandatory two years of military service before they turn 28 years old. As it stands now, professional athletes can earn exemptions if they earn a medal of any color in the Olympics, or a gold medal at the Asian Games, and there are other exemption options for artists. There are exceptions: the men’s football team that made the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup also received exemptions from military service, for example, but they are few and unusual.

Korean citizens have in recent years been calling for a fresh set of eyes on the current system, particularly as it relates to who gets exempted from that service. Historically there has been strong cultural support for the idea of mandatory service, but in recent years public opinion has begun to soften, especially among the younger generations of South Koreans.

There’s no question that Son earned his exemption fairly — he was one of only a handful of the best South Korean footballers in his generation NOT to have previously earned an exemption via achievements on the football pitch. But even though he refused to talk about it in the media, it was crystal clear that he was desperate to get out of the military, and the controversy has led Korean officials to consider changing the rules.

“Due to the recent controversy, I felt that time has come for us to look into the exemption system. ... (We) plan to conduct an overall review of the system for athletes and artists,” Ki Chan-soo, the commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, told Yonhap News Agency over the phone.

“We plan to see if we can make institutional improvements in a way that toughens standards for active-duty exemption,” he added.

It’s not clear what kinds of changes Ki would envision. The quotes seem to suggest a future tightening of exemption requirements that would make it harder to earn an exemption, but the article also references a “point system” from participation and achievement in high-level sporting competitions instead of winning a single event. That does seem like a fairer system, but obviously it would depend on the details of any such change.

In an update, the Yonhap article stated that Korean officials had backtracked later in the day — the decision was made NOT to make any immediate changes to the requirements, but instead to collect advice and opinions from the government and other “related agencies” first. However, any future changes to South Korea’s exemption policies would not affect Sonny or his teammates — they have earned their exemptions via the current system and will not be made to jump through any further hoops.