The Asian Cup & the Korean Military Exemption Question [updated]

For such a long and complex topic, this will be a relatively short post (a more thorough follow up on the controversial subject will be out sometime after Saturday’s Asian Cup Final between Korea and Australia)… we get this question during certain tournaments and the confusion over which ones earn military exemption for Korean footballers. Here’s the skinny:

All Korean males must serve close to 2 years in the military before age 30. There are a few exceptions to that (including if you sport a visible rad tattoo from your neck to your arms). Ever since military dictator Park Chung-Hee instituted this in the 1970’s, the following exemption ruling continues to apply to Korean athletes as an incentive to do well in international tournaments:

  1. Military exemption can be earned in the Olympics for any color medal.
  2. Military exemption earned only with a Gold Medal in the Asian Games

And that’s it. No other tournament exemptions allowed. Even after the very coveted exemption is secured, those athletes still have to do some basic training and service, but it’s largely perfunctory with flex scheduling.

Some of the confusion is that Korea’s senior team participates every 4 years in the Asian Cup, an AFC event that is not to be confused with the Asian Games (also every 4 years).  So the Asian Cup, unlike the Asian Games Gold Medal (1st place if you will) doesn’t earn players exemption – simply due to that fact that the Asian Games includes all other sports. The Cup, no matter how prestigious it is perceived to be, only applies to the sport of football, thus out of the running for granting military exemption.

As it pertains to Korean football, in recent years only the 2012 Men’s Olympic Football squad (U23 +3 overage players) and the 2014 Korean squad for the Asian Games (U23 +3 overage players) have won exemptions for it’s players. It’s been vital for Korean football progress, it’s players are free to develop and hone skills in world class leagues without worry about ending their careers just as they are at the peak of their athletic years. Not that every Korean with military exemption has gone to Europe, nevertheless the opportunity to “better control their future” is at least an option afforded them.

There has been to date, only one other outstanding sweeping exemption: the historic 2002 Korean World Cup squad -their incredible deep run all the way to the semifinals as the host nation enthralled the entire country. A massive wave of public euphoria gave way for a Presidential special exemption granted, this despite the tournament’s football-only designation.  The exemption doesn’t exist anymore. The 2010 Korean World Cup squad reached the round of 16 – with Uruguay putting an end to their WC journey at that stage. An impressive feat still given they advanced past their group for the first time outside of Asia, but not enough public euphoria generated – no exemptions granted.  [In theory: should Korea somehow return to the semifinals, reach the title match – or even more fantastically win the World Cup – since the precedence was set in 2002, not for certain but it’s likely that that squad would receive a one time military exemption under the banner of raising the national ‘kibun.’]

As the Tavern mentioned previously, with exemption, players like Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo were cleared for takeoff – unimpeded to make their mark in Europe.  And what an impact both had, in particular Park Ji-Sung, who was part of this 2nd vanguard of Koreans after Cha Bum-Kun that showed the world that Koreans had potential to be world class. Retired since last May, his legendary performances at Old Trafford will be long remembered.

It goes without saying that all players want exemption. Want evidence? In an article I wrote for In Bed with Maradona there’s Asian Footballer of 2012 Lee Keun-ho; he tragically missed his chance to go to Europe and instead served time on the Sangju Sangmu military football team (much of it in the K-League 2nd tier). He’s still an asset to the KNT, but there’s the sense his skills could’ve been evolved further had he competed in more challenging environs. Meanwhile, players like Ki Sung-Yeung, who won exemption in the 2012 Olympics have been able to dully focus on his career on what was an already existing European sojourn. Fast forward to today: while he’s badly missed by Swansea in EPL and FA Cup fixtures, Ki’s skills, sharpened from countless battles in England have come in handy in this Asian Cup tourney, expertly guiding the midfield with one masterclass performance after another.

In the present, the idea of military exemptions -or even bringing up military deferment as a viable alternative is a tricky sensitive subject in Korea for a number of reasons.  Still, it was very interesting to see this tweet from John Duerden this morning:

I later chatted with John via twitter and he mentioned this interesting tidbit: in the polling, males who already served were more evenly split. From that I give you a glass half full perspective: 50% (or more) who served their time weren’t bitter about that idea, but actually favored it – for the benefit of advancing the players careers and ultimately for the good of the Korean football as a whole. The Tavern’s own Tim Lee followed up further on what was originally a Naver polling:

A word of caution before we go on: I don’t want to unnecessarily raise hopes here – this was only a polling and the likelihood of a Presidential decree to grant exemption is low at this point. There’s not much evidence of political will in the national legislative chambers right now for it.  But (and this is a big BUT) it’s not out of the question that it could happen.  Korea is set for the first time since 1960 to win the Asian Cup.  It might not have been on many people’s radar before the tournament started, but there’s growing interest as Team Korea marched their way to the finals. Now that the big day is around the corner, it will be interesting to see after Saturday – results pending – if there’s traction for exemption with the conversational volume amping things up  – but it all hinges on the court of public opinion to get the gears of this in motion. If hypothetically exemption does magically occur, players like Son Heung-Min, who’s been on fire in the Champions League for Bayer Leverrkusen this season, will get their chance to stay rather than come back to Sangju Sangmu and an unimaginable exit from the world’s biggest football stage. For others, like Lee Jung-Hyub – this tournament’s diamond in the rough, exemption would completely alter his trajectory. Could it perhaps even the alter the future of Korean football?

[update: I originally wrote this in haste last night- I’d be remiss to not mention Evelyn Kim’s own article on the matter: Korean Football Careers Halted?  She examines a number of issues in and around military conscription/exemption and highlights Park Joo-Ho’s nearly having to prematurely end his own career at Mainz, with one goal in the Asian Games making all the difference – just in the nick of time.  Do check it out.]

 

 

Stay tuned – I’ll post some tips / strategies for US viewers to wake up in the middle of the night for Saturday’s finals – and developments in the K-League, particularly a new stadium plan for Busan IPark.

 

Addendum: on the comment section below, I wrote something that I realized later should be included in this post, so here goes [slightly edited]:

I always regret that I fail to mention in these posts and articles in which I advocate for greater flexibility for Korean players facing military conscription the all important but non-sexy task of building a better K-League. Most national programs face this difficult balancing act, one where they must continually improve the domestic football scene while simultaneously allowing players to take flight and take a stab in world class pro leagues abroad. It’s not easy. I read this NYT article that highlights Argentina- yes, 2x WC champs and 2014 WC runner ups -with just that very problem. Their problem is quite different from Korea’s but the gist is that balance for them is way off. Some argue too many go abroad at the expense of it’s own pro leagues. Lack of attention, funding, etc in their domestic leagues have some wondering how it can sustain a proper training environ for their youth. Argentina (w/ Messi, Higuain, di Maria etc) are a force to reckon with of course, but I think Jae mentioned this earlier – those players are with clubs abroad with vastly different systems. As an all star team – they may have been more disjointed than a more consolidated Germany w/ players honed in their own Bundesliga, trained over the course of a decade as youths with a unified academy approach (Stielike involved during that span).

Consider that the world’s current 2 best players in Messi and CR7 both play abroad from their native countries. Both have won the Ballon D’or multiple times.  Despite their insane football powers, it’s still not enough to propel their national teams to hoist the World Cup. That’s the thing, the gestalt of it all, the whole greater than the sum of it’s parts. It takes a goddamn village to raise a world cup winning squad.

{{Going too far off subject but it’s interesting to note Spain won 2010 WC with a Barca/Real Madrid co-mingled squad – it could be argued Germany won 2014 with a Bayer Munich / Borussia Dortmund hybrid squad. Team chemistry is another part of the equation But I digress… }}

The more Koreans in Europe, the better in general BUT it’s not a panacea for all existing structural problems. Hypothetically, Korea may one day field 23 players based abroad in Euro top flight clubs -and still not go deep in the WC (look at Spain’s early exit in 2014! holy smokes!). The more I look into Korean football as a whole, the more it becomes clear that they need the K-League to improve on a number of levels (+ get 16-20 year olds to get vital pro minutes!) in order to provide further depth to the national squad. That’s being 100% real with you (thanks Larry Wilmore for coining that -brilliant).  Look at our LB position -we have too much wealth there w/ PJH, YSY and KJS as good options all based in Europe. Fine – it’s a good problem for sure. But if we look at our CFs & CBs and therein the lack of depth is brutally exposed. How to get that fine balance is another post for another time…

About Roy Ghim 397 Articles
The old Tavern Owner

9 Comments

  1. if exemption was in the picture, wouldn’t it make sense to announce it before the game so that players know what they are fighting for?

    • Exemption was never in the picture to begin with. But as the Korean public’s interest in the tournament has risen, so has the conversation about the merits of granting military exemption. As it stands, exemption is still not on the table. If they garner intense interest in the finals match and just as importantly, should they win the cup, who knows, maybe Park Guen-hye -who is suffering from low approval ratings, will take a look at this for a nationalistic feel good moment, take advantage of the moment, and issue a decree. Again, just pure speculation on my part – a Tavern Owner’s got to do what a Tavern Owner’s got to do, dig?

  2. Thanks Roy, as always, excellent stuff….Perhaps a compromise would be to let the males serve after 35 years of age? But to me, if they win the Asian Cup, the boys deserve exemption. We have taken ginormous steps since the darks days of Choi Kang Hee

    • Hey you know, I would so love that to happen. I’m not going to hold my breath for it to happen but who knows… and yeah, a compromise – deferment is on paper a very attractive idea to get some traction with a polarized Korean public. I’ve always advocated that deferment is a very reasonable and more equitable way to share the burden with all Korean males – and allows Korea’s football program the flexibility it needs to continue to send players abroad to train, learn, and bring it back to the national team.

      I should’ve included what I’m about to write as an addendum to this post (I still might) :

      I always regret that I fail to mention in these posts and articles that most national programs face this difficult balancing act – one where they must continually improve the domestic football scene while simultaneously allowing players to take flight and take a stab in world class pro leagues abroad. It’s not easy. I read this NYT article that highlights Argentina- yes, 2x WC champs and 2014 WC runner ups -with just that very problem. Their problem is quite different from Korea’s but the gist is that balance for them is way off. Some argue too many go abroad at the expense of it’s own pro leagues. Lack of attention, funding, etc in their domestic leagues have some wondering how it can sustain a proper training environ for their youth. Argentina (w/ Messi, Higuain, di Maria etc) are a force to reckon with of course, but I think Jae mentioned this earlier – those players are with clubs abroad with vastly different systems. As an all star team – they may have been more disjointed than a more consolidated Germany w/ players honed in their own Bundesliga, trained over the course of a decade as youths with a unified academy approach (Stielike involved during that span). {{Going too far off subject but it’s interesting to note Spain won 2010 WC with a Barca/Real Madrid co-mingled squad – it could be argued Germany won 2014 with a Bayer Munich / Borussia Dortmund hybrid squad. Team chemistry is another part of the equation But I digress… }}

      The more Koreans in Europe, the better in general BUT it’s not a panacea for all existing structural problems. Hypothetically, Korea may one day field 23 players based abroad in Euro top flight clubs -and still not go deep in the WC (look at Spain’s early exit in 2014! holy smokes!). The more I look into Korean football as a whole, the more it becomes clear that they need the K-League to improve on a number of levels (+ get 16-20 year olds to get vital pro minutes!) in order to provide further depth to the squad. Look at our LB position -we have too much wealth there w/ PJH, YSY and KJS as good options all based in Europe. Fine – it’s a good problem for sure. But if we look at our CFs & CBs and therein the lack of depth is brutally exposed. How to get that fine balance is another post for another time…

      • I did mention that in a comment on another post. Spain (Barca/Real) and Germany (Bayern/Dortmund) did mix primarily from two squads, but the core of the team was based on one club system (Barca and Bayern). I suspect this is what Stielike, in an earlier comment, was looking at when he said he hoped that one day the KNT would feature 5-6 players from the K League champion. It’s not a ‘must have’ thing, but it’s important that the NT players are all reading off the same hymn sheet so to speak. Pulling from one club makes that easier.

  3. Great Article. I am always a big proponent of importing players from abroad like what MLS is doing and each K-League team should be mandated to build their own youth academy. That approach will strengthen public interest and develop a stronger support cast.

    I am not familiar with K-league structure but are there strong youth academies like what they have in England, Germany, and Spain?

    • Good question – there are youth academies but they vary in quality – with Pohang considered to be one of the better ones. The only trouble is, much like the US, youth don’t have much opportunities to play pro ball until roughly age 21+. That’s a disadvantage in developing players generally (see WhyNotUSSoccer.com – a good blog that talks about the parallel problem the US has with that respect).

      • Different set of issue in US. Best athletes in this country play football and basketball. I would think that soccer and baseball would be the sport of choice for the Korean youth. I am sure that fair amount of talent goes to waste because everyone is obsessed about going to college even though that may not be in their best interest?

  4. I need to add that South Korean athletes in 2006 World Baseball Classics were also exempted from military service for advancing to the tournament’s semifinals.

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