A tear trickled down Kim Cheong-yong’s cheeks as he, South Korea’s teenage-prodigy, stood at the top of the podium on Sunday. By clinching the 10m air pistol title, the 17-year-old became the country’s youngest gold medallist at a multi-discipline event. But it wasn’t just about the medal.
Young South Korean male athletes who compete at the Olympics or an Asian Games may draw inspiration from many several sources. But the prospect of getting exempted from mandatory military service by winning a medal tops them all. The thought of continuing their careers without any disruption has been enough to make grown men cry while standing on the podium.
And Kim was no different. “My biggest prize is exemption from military. The Asian Games is a great chance to win a gold medal and be exempted from the military, which is very important for South Korean men,” he said.
The South Korean law states that every man aged between 18 and 35 must serve in the military for about two years — 21 months for the Army and Marine Corps, 23 months for Navy and 24 months for the Air Force, to be precise. Mandatory military service has been a highly sensitive issue in a country that has technically been at war with North Korea since 1951.
But with sports high on their agenda and to improve the country’s show in multi-discipline events, the government has dangled a rather juicy carrot. Those who win a gold medal at the Asian Games or any medal at the Olympics are rewarded with complete exemption from the Korea’s mandatory military service. Athletes who are exempt from the service only have to complete four weeks of boot-camp training.
Sportsmen and coaches here believe that the two years of military service has had a strong impact on an athlete’s career. They say the rule is the key reason why the country isn’t able to extend its continental domination to a world level.
Drying talent pool
“The talent pool for Korea this time around, though, is somewhat thin in the over-23 group when you only consider players who aren’t already exempt,” South Korea’s shooting coach Kim Seun-il says. “When Korean athletes are performing military service at the prime of their careers, athletes from countries where they don’t have mandatory military service continue to improve. At this rate, South Korea would never be able to keep up with the rest of the world.”
Winners in their respective sports’ world championships were once granted exemptions, but the government limited the scope to only Olympic medallists and Asian Games champions from 1990 onwards. The Military Manpower Administration (MMA), a government agency handling the issue, faced heavy backlash from sports communities in September 2013 when it proposed sweeping changes to the law, under which an Asian Games medal would not be considered for military exemption. It still hasn’t been cleared and is currently under review.
Men who have fulfilled their obligation feel downright offended, especially when sportsmen are exempted from the conscription for all sorts of dubious reasons. In 2004, baseballer Cho Jin-ho, a former Boston Red Sox pitcher, was sentenced for dodging conscription. Cho doctored his urine sample during his physical examination to fake kidney failure and spent eight months in jail.
One of the first high-profile instances of team exemptions came at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, where the Korean baseball team grabbed the gold with an undefeated 6-0 record. Each of the 22 players earned the exemptions. A few other athletes who have been granted exemptions in the past are the bronze medal winning football team of 2012 Summer Olympics and swimmer Park Tae-hwan, winner of the 400 metres freestyle at Beijing 2008, along with three silver medals, including two at London 2012.
A rare exemption was made for the 2002 World Cup team. The Taeguk Warriors became the first Asian team to reach the semifinals of a FIFA World Cup, an event which gripped the whole nation. The government, under pressure from the football-crazy public, decided to exempt every player from mandatory service, and 10 players, including former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung, benefited from this exception.
While the careers of these players sky-rocketed due to the exemptions, for some, military service could mean a disruption to their playing days during prime years. In some cases, it could even spell the end of their career. Last year, Korea’s then highest-ranked players Yoo Yeon Seong and Son Wan Ho were called to fulfil their military service, bringing an abrupt halt to their careers.
Likewise for Seol Ki-hyeon, former midfielder of English club Wolves, who served the military during his playing days. But he could have avoided this completely with the help of a tattoo parlour — South Korea’s law rules that men with body art are unfit for the military because they cause “abomination among fellow soldiers.”
But young Kim, South Korea’s newest hero, has no such worries. He is relieved and ecstatic. “I’ll turn 18 in a few months. But I don’t have to worry about it. Now I will be able to focus strictly on shooting,” Kim said.