Tottenham Hotspur winger Heung Min Son has been creating headlines recently, albeit away from his natural habitat of White Hart Lane, London. In the last month, the South Korean international captained his side to glory in the 2018 Asian Games, assisting both goals in a 2-1 victory over Japan in the final. This achievement is especially significant for him as it earned him, and his teammates, an exemption from the mandatory military service in the Korean army. While the Korean army require all able-bodied men to complete 21 months of military service before the age of 28, they begrudgingly offer exemptions to those who excel at international sporting events. Aged 26, Son had been running out of opportunities to earn his exemption, but he can now continue with his career without the spectre of enforced military service hanging over him.
It was evident in the aftermath of the final that Son was relieved to be free from his military duties. He ran around the stadium grasping two Korean flags, looking like a changed man compared to the man who broke down in tears at the World Cup following South Korea’s elimination at the group stage. On that sorry day in Russia, he must have been struggling with the realisation that his opportunities of avoiding military service were fading into oblivion. However, the Asian Games provided him with another possible road to exemption, and he grabbed it with both hands.
The question of mandatory military service for elite Korean footballers has always been a topic of controversy in South Korea and further afield, but Son was on course to be the first high-profile Korean footballer in the English game to complete the full service. Ji Sung Park (formerly of Manchester United) avoided service due to his role in South Korea’s run to the semi final of the 2002 World Cup, while Sung Yeung Ki (Swansea City and Newcastle United) was exempted because of his bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.
To anyone who is not a South Korean native, the situation seems clear: these men are representing their country with great aplomb on the international stage, and to force them into military service would ruin their careers, while simultaneously costing the country international sporting success. In the case of Son, it is undeniable that his career would have been hugely compromised had he spent two years in the military. He may have returned with outstanding levels of fitness due to the rigorous training regime of the military, but he would have inevitably lost his footballing touch from a lack of playing time while on duty. The case of professional golfer Sang Moon Bae provides evidence for this argument. In 2015, Bae was at the peak of his golfing career, achieving a second career PGA Tour victory. Unfortunately for him, his success was not enough for an exemption, and he was forced to serve in the military until 2017. He has since returned to professional golf and is currently ranked 327th in the world, some fall from his pre-service high of 26th.
However, South Korean nationals would be justified for feeling far less sympathetic towards footballers like Son. From their point of view, footballers like Son and Ki are every bit as South Korean as they are, and therefore, equally responsible for the welfare of South Korean citizens. While they may be brilliant at representing South Korea on the world soccer stage, the threat that North Korea poses to their home country must surely take priority. There is a powerful argument to be made for all South Koreans, regardless of career, to have to carry out the two years of service. An insistence that absolutely everybody must serve for the military would ensure maximum discipline and camaraderie amongst the South Korean public. After all, two years is not a long period of time in one’s life, and if everybody must do the same service, then few complaints can be had by anyone. Surely football should fade into insignificance when your country needs you? Historically, this kind of nationalist sentiment has been widespread amongst South Koreans, which, in truth, is completely understandable.
The South Korean government could take some inspiration from the way in which Egypt handled the case of Mohamed Salah, the famous Liverpool footballer. Egypt, similarly to South Korea, requires males to carry out mandatory military service. While he was playing for Chelsea, Salah’s place in an Egyptian education programme was rescinded, which in a normal case, would have required him to return to Egypt to serve in the military. However, the Egyptian Prime Minister stepped in to ensure that Salah would be spared of any duty. The flexible stance which Egypt took in the situation allowed Salah to continue his career, and to develop into one of the world’s best footballers. He even managed to inspire an average Egypt national team to their first World Cup since 1990, a feat which would have achieved far more for the Egyptian public than any military service ever could have done.
While it is natural for South Koreans to want everybody to carry out their military service regardless of profession or talent, it is difficult to justify a situation whereby Heung Min Son would lose two peak years of his career to army commitments. The Korean army is not weakened by losing one man, and by being free to continue his career, he can continue to expose South Korea to the world in a positive light through his skill and success. While Son has escaped military service through the loophole that is the Asian Games, the current government policy dictates that the next generation of South Korean sporting stars may not be so lucky.