As the referee blew his whistle to signal the end of the match, Korean citizens shouted for joy. The cheer was not only to congratulate the South Korean national men’s football team on their victory in the final of the 2018 Asian Games but also to share the joy of Son Heung-Min, the team captain, who now qualifies for exemption from military service by winning a gold medal. Currently, Korean law grants an exemption from national military service to those who have “enhanced national prestige.” However, this does not always delight sports fans. Many believe that, behind the medal, there are hidden intentions to simply evade the duty of a citizen.
In contrast to the many congratulations that Son received, several petitions were filed against baseball player Oh Ji-Hwan on the Cheongwadae website. Because the national baseball team also won a gold medal at the Asian Games, Oh became exempt from serving in the military as well. However, a number of people have criticized him for intentionally delaying his enlistment until he won a gold medal. They believe that he exploited the Asian Games as a way to avoid conscription because victory was guaranteed—in the 2018 Asian Games, unlike the Korean team, the teams from other countries were made up exclusively of amateur players.
The petitions demanded that the government not weigh all gold medals equally when exempting athletes from military duty, with many believing that the different levels of effort that are put into the various sports should be considered. However, realistically, it difficult to legally draw a clear boundary between those who deserve to be exempted from military service and those who do not. Even if the government sets specific achievements or careers as criteria for exemption, a backlash will still arise as the determination cannot be entirely objective.
One of the main reasons for this controversy is the ambiguous meaning of the phrase “enhancing national prestige,” which the law provides as the standard for exemption. Athletes who have won a gold medal should be praised. However, what judgment should the government make if the primary reason for participating in a competition appears to be for a military exemption rather than for the country or its prestige? Should the player still be applauded? The dispute regarding the military exemption of cultural artists who have corresponding achievements on the world stage, such as the boy band BTS, also derives from the phrase’s vagueness.
The reasoning behind granting exemption from military service to those who have enhanced national prestige is also questionable. Increasing the country’s reputation is worth praising but it does not strengthen the national defense. Allowing gold medalists to avoid military duty does not seem to be logical because raising the country’s reputation and reinforcing national defense are two different issues that do not have a direct relationship
It is worth considering whether military exemptions can be a valid legal reward for winning a gold medal. While rewarding athletes with military exemption can allow them to avoid potentially damaging career breaks and further enhance national prestige, it is no different from excusing a student who received an A in linguistics from a mathematics test. In addition, if protecting career prospects is the issue, the government should consider the many other citizens who are also working to advance national prestige in other fields and worry about the impact of military duty on their careers as well.
It would be rash to conclude that exempting gold medalists from conscription as a whole is irrational. However, many Korean men want to avoid serving in the military if possible, and this has become a sensitive issue. It is the task of the government to constantly address the criteria used to grant military exemptions so that it benefits the right people for the right reasons.