Welcome to the Tavern’s new weekly column series, Korean Football Reform! In this series, we will be taking an in-depth look at an issue that is plaguing the development of Korean football and what solutions could help spur positive change. The aim of this series is not to be all doom and gloom criticizing the goings on of Korean football. Instead, we want to take a look at what’s working and what’s not working and see what could make things even better. Like in any footballing nation, even the football powerhouses, there is always room for reflection to make sure that development is not stagnating and the footballing scene is always moving forward. Feel free to post in the comments your own solutions to the Reform topic or to propose a topic you would like to see the Tavern address. For this first Reform column, I decided to tackle the thorniest issue out there: mandatory military conscription.
Update: I realize after seeing the response in the comments as well as feedback on Twitter that I have made a mistake that I want to address. Since this is a football website, I only discuss how mandatory military conscription affects footballers. However, I am in support, however difficult or controversial it would be, of a full reform of the military conscription system that is fair to all men, regardless of profession, personal beliefs, or identity.
Mandatory Military Conscription: The Current Situation
Look at that picture above: it’s Lee Keunho after scoring his goal against Russia at the 2014 World Cup in a 1-1 draw. He’s doing a military salute because at the time he was serving his military duty with Sangju Sangmu. However, after a promising career in Japan with Gamba Osaka, he may have been able to move to Europe if he had a military exemption. Therein lies the rub with military conscription: if you get an exemption, you have a ticket to Europe. If you don’t, you may never get your chance.
So what are the current rules and why are they in place? Well, the reason Korea has military conscription is because since the Korean War ended in armistice, neither South Korea nor North Korea has signed a formal peace treaty. There have been skirmishes over the past 65 years since the war has ended and it is an important priority for South Korea to maintain a strong, able-bodied military that is ready for action in the event of a resumption of the fighting between South and North. This necessity will not go away if a peace treaty is agreed upon for many reasons, one of which being that we don’t know when the two Koreas will be reunified. As a result, the current rule for all able-bodied Korean men is that they must serve a military duty that lasts for about 2 years before the age of 35. Each branch of the military has a different length of service: 21 months for the Army and Marines, 23 months for the Navy, and 24 months for the Air Force. For most Korean men, they elect to serve their duty right after graduating high school and put off university entrance for 2 years so they can study in university and begin their career unburdened. However, for footballers, the habit is a little bit different and presents a lot of complex dilemmas.
For footballers, the Korean Armed Forces Athletic Corps has Sangju Sangmu FC and the Korean Police Agency has Asan Mugunghwa FC. These two clubs accept domestic-based players on a rolling basis and conscript players for a 21-month period loan. Sangju is currently playing in the K League 1 and Asan is in K League 2, although Asan’s strong midfield class that includes KNT call-ups Ju Se-jong and Lee Myung-joo has them in the Promotion Play-off places so we could see them both in the top division very soon.
How do you get selected for these teams? There are a couple rules and we will be examining the shortcomings of the current rules in place. The first rule is that both clubs are only allowed to pick players currently playing in the K League. Even more than that, the player has to have been active in the K League for the past six months. This was why Lee Myungjoo finished out last season with FC Seoul before starting his service with Asan. Another rule is that you must begin your service before the age of 27 (28 Korean Age) to serve with one of these clubs. If you wait until after that deadline, you will serve in a normal military unit and will not be able to train with these football clubs during your service. As it stands, most Korean footballers serve at Asan or Sangju in their mid-twenties after playing a few seasons in the K League. For players who play abroad like Lee Myungjoo, they return to the K League around that time and sign for a K League club before getting loaned. For the most part, it is rare for a player to return to a career abroad after finishing their military service (although I would love to hear of historical or current examples of this in the comments).
Exemptions: How do you get one?
Thankfully, the Korean Military Manpower Administration has laid out some athletic accomplishments that allow a footballer to become exempt from conscription. The 2002 World Cup heroes who achieved 4th place at the World Cup hosted in South Korea and Japan were given exemptions. However, this rule doesn’t seem to be permanent as there hasn’t been another World Cup squad given exemptions. It might be up to the current administration to decide if the World Cup squad has done well enough to deserve exemption (paging Moon Jae-in). The rule that is set into law is that an Olympic medal or an Asian Games gold medal is enough to allow any male athlete exemption from military service. The 2012 bronze-winning side and 2014 Asian Games gold medalists are all military exempt. Ki Sung-yeung himself has said that this was key to allowing this generation of Korean footballers the chance to pursue careers in Europe. Ki once went home during the offseason to do a month-long training spell with the army but that’s about it. Think about that! To go from 21 months to just one month is a huge gift!
There are also some loopholes in these military conscription rules that Korean footballers have tried to exploit, to some success and controversy. For example, Lee Chung-yong was spotted by FC Seoul as a middle schooler and subsequently dropped out of school to join their youth sides. This was because at the time the Korean military did not draft men who hadn’t completed high school so as a result Lee has never had to do military duty. However, that loophole has since been closed. A controversy arose when Park Chu-young tried to argue that his residency visa in Monaco allowed him to postpone his military duty until he was in his 30s. He became quite unpopular in Korea when he tried this and was only able to avoid military service by being chosen as an overage wildcard for the London Olympics and then scoring a goal in the bronze medal match. These are the most prominent examples of players trying to skirt the rules but I am sure there are more examples.
There are many people that have proposed changes to the military conscription rules to allow Korean footballers more chances to develop their skills abroad. The military duty is the main reason that European clubs tend to get scared off of signing Korean players and instead opt for Japanese players. So there needs to be changes so that promising Korean players don’t get overlooked by European clubs that would offer them a contract if they were free from military duty. I mean, imagine a scenario where Dijon don’t sign Kwon Changhoon because he hasn’t won his exemption yet.
There have been some ideas suggested that I think deserve mention here. Our friend Steve Han recently said that Korean players should be encouraged to begin their military services earlier, such as in their late teens or very early 20s. This idea has seen Tim’s favorite young player, Hwang Inbeom, begin his service this season with Asan Mugunghwa FC. Hwang is only 21, but having seen a previous transfer offer to Europe fall through because the club weren’t willing to pay Daejeon’s transfer fee on a player without military exemption, he has decided to get his military duty out of the way even though he may get selected for an Asian Games or Olympics squad. I think this solution has some merits but I can also see why some players elect to wait until their mid-twenties to serve. In your late teens and early twenties, you are transitioning from the youth sides to the first team squad. As such, you’re fighting with the club’s veterans to get minutes in the K League. Sometimes, you get noticed and get minutes as was the case with Han Chanhee. Other times you’re sitting on the bench just waiting for that chance. My guess is if you decided to go straight to the military you might miss that chance to establish yourself at the club. You would be gone for 2 years and if you’re not on good form at Sangju or Asan, you might be right back to the bench when you come back.
The wonderful 48 Shades of Football blog also posted a nice translated article about Son Heungmin’s upcoming military duty. Have a look here: Son Heung-min’s Military Service. This article basically advocates for a points system that would reward players for continued dedication to playing for the national team or for achieving good results at international tournaments. I think that this is the right direction to be going. However, the article doesn’t really lay out clear objectives for this new system. So, I’ll try to give that a shot.
For continual service to the national team, I think a great marker to give exemptions would be players who reach 100 caps. For reference, at 29 years-old Ki is sitting on 99 senior caps. However, the 100 cap mark would be more attainable before the age of 27 if you could also include youth caps as well. Basically, this would reward the consistent player who has developed through the Korean national youth and senior sides and always opted to appear for the national team. That’s a pretty good indication of someone who is dedicated to their country.
In terms of achieving results at international tournaments, I say that this should include more tournaments! For the World Cup, adjust the rule as the senior side progresses up the ranks of international football. At the moment, the farthest Korea has ever advanced on foreign soil was the Round of 16 in 2010. If this Russia squad matches or betters that, give them an exemption. For the 2022 World Cup, the goal would be to advance even further than the last team. This would challenge every Korean squad to want to do better than the squad that came before them! Another tournament that deserves to be added is the AFC Asian Cup. For goodness sake’s, we haven’t won the Asian championship since 1960! As the most consistent nation in Asian football, that’s a bit disgraceful. So give the squad an exemption if they win it! The AFC Asian Cup is also a ticket to the FIFA Confederations Cup, which is a huge opportunity to test out the environment in the World Cup host country before everyone else. While you’re at it, AFC and FIFA youth tournaments should be included as well. This would be beneficial because a young player can secure his exemption early regardless of where he is playing his youth football. This would benefit players like Lee Seungwoo, Paik Seungho, and Lee Kangin who were noticed by European scouts early and joined European youth squads. Although this may insert unnecessary competitiveness into youth football, my thought is that pursuing the title at any tournament Korea enters is always the goal so why not reward players that can achieve that goal?
Finally, in order to be fair to players that elect to pursue a career in Europe early but are unable to win a military exemption, I think Sangju and Asan should be allowed to choose players from foreign clubs as well. For example, should Son Heung-min be unable to earn his exemption I believe Tottenham should be allowed to loan him to Sangju for 2 years so he can fulfill his military duty. As of now, Spurs would have to sell him to a K League side where he would play for six months before he is allowed to begin his military service. Who knows if they would be willing to re-sign him after his service is completed. This is unnecessarily complicated and effectively punishes Son for chasing his dreams in Europe and joining Hamburg’s youth academy in high school. Let’s encourage talented Korean youngsters to chase their footballing dreams in Europe rather than punishing them for it!
Where are we now?
Well, where we are now is that this is a hugely important summer for Korean footballers currently playing in Europe. Son Heung-min, Kwon Chang-hoon, Suk Hyun-jun, and Hwang Hee-chan all have established themselves in Europe but have never won exemption. So the upcoming 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia is hotly anticipated as a chance to secure Son, Hwang, and Kwon’s European careers (and yes, I’m starting to worry that Suk’s journeyman career in Europe may be over). For Son especially, desperation is setting in as he has missed out on three opportunities for exemption in a row. So here at the Tavern, we’ll be eagerly waiting to see how this summer unfolds and hoping that military exemption dilemmas like this current situation can be avoided in the future. What do you think? Do you have any other ideas for fixing Korea’s military exemption problem? And no, the answer is not to get rid of it. But every other suggestion will be welcome! Get active in the comments below!