Pathways for Son Heung-Min to military exemption / conscription

Son Rounds Begović for his 2nd goal vs Bournemouth. Clive Rose / Getty Images

There are two parallel universes involving Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-Min. One will very soon see Son at the prime of his career leave the the global spotlight of Premier League and Champions League football to return to his native South Korea to serve out his mandatory 21 month military service. In the other, Son stays put in Europe and continues his fiery trajectory onward in what is arguably the world’s best footballing environs – thanks to a ‘maze runner-esque’ exemption loophole provided by a brutal South Korean dictator in the 1970’s who sought to project soft power by athletic achievement.

To be clear, we are talking about the same footballer, twice the Asian footballer of the year award recipient, 3 time Premier League player of the month, on the radar for his pace and penchant for finding the back of the net for club and country. Not surprisingly, he just landed a new Spurs contract extension to 2023. It may seem inconceivable for many that Son with all his accolades so far would be required to abandon the bright lights of European football, but that is what just may happen should he should he not find that holy grail for Korean footballers: a gold medal in the Asian Games for Korea. Time is running out, adding to the increased pressure that is mounting.

What is the Asian games you ask? It’s a regional scaled down version of the Olympics, a largely forgettable affair that somehow returns every 4 years. The 2018 edition of the Asian Games is in Indonesia, the football group stage starts August 15 and title match set for September 1. As far as football tournaments go for importance, it’s well below par -think FIFA Club World Cup in comparison. Other Asian footballing nations are treating this U23 (Son is one of 3 overage players allowed on the roster) tourney as an afterthought or a chance to test fringe players on the national radar – that is except for the South Korean footballers who need nothing short of being Gold medal finalists to extend their professional careers. Add to that pressure cooker the chance to set free a set number of players who could potentially advance their nation’s football program by unshackling their careers to hone their skills professionally.  Spurs will release Son for this affair following the first game of the Premier League season this Saturday, this despite the Asian Games classification as a non-FIFA sanctioned event. In exchange, the Korean FA will not call up Son for the international break in November as well as some group games for the Asian Cup. Son has apologized to his teammates for abandoning them with the squad depleted and exhausted from World Cup duties just as the season is about to begin. Beyond that, there’s a ripple effect as other clubs take note of the situation at White Hart Lane and what it takes to keep Korean players, much less a world class player in Son from having to press the eject button.

For both Son and Spurs, it’s nothing short of a high stakes gamble with little room for error.

Son has had windows of opportunities to gain military exemption via tournament route; in 2012 he was widely considered for the Korean Olympic squad that broke through Japan’s defenses to win Bronze (good enough for exemption for the entire squad), but instead he concentrated on preseason with his club. In hindsight, it  turned out to be his breakthrough season for Hamburg, turning him into a starter and more importantly scoring double digits with jaw dropping counter attacking goals against the ever stalwart Borussia Dortmund. After moving to perennially top 4 side Bayer Leverkusen, Son had a chance to join Korea for the 2014 Asian Games. While that squad went on to win the Gold, Leverkusen was under no obligations to release Son for the non-FIFA sanctioned tournament. They held Son back in order to compete for Champions League qualification, which they accomplished thanks to Son’s cheeky 2 goals against Coppenhagen, which added to his eventually tally of 5 Champions League goals that season. Son had his first real chance at exemption when Spurs released him for the 2016 Olympics. While it started brightly, Korea’s squad advancing through a difficult group including a 3-3 draw with Germany and a decisive 1-0 victory against Mexico, it ended in tears for Son when they couldn’t find a way to break down Honduras’ defense. Ironically, the anger and disappointment for Son may have fired up his Spurs career: when he returned to White Hart Lane, his breakthrough for his north London club started with a red hot goal scoring tally. By the end of September, Son was staring at his first Premier League Player of the Month trophy, the first Korean to earn the distinction. Since then, the smiles have continued with Sonny and for supporters at White Hart Lane, but the concerns over the military conscription issue are mounting for him.

We’ll address some of the historical background to why there is such a thing as military exemption via tournament hardware for Korean athletes -a strange intersection of cold war politics during South Korea’s autocratic pre-democracy era, but first let’s illuminate the pathway Son could take to earn the much sought after military exemption and relief for Son, his club and the legion of Spurs supporters, not to mention Korean national team supporters. This flowchart hopefully will clear up some oft repeated misconceptions about military conscription and exemption routes for athletes like Son Heung-Min.

Son’s pathway towards military exemption/conscription / Roy Ghim for taegukwarriors.com

To make full sense of the flowchart, you need to know a couple of things regarding military conscription. All abled bodies Korean males must serve a mandatory length of military service time (depends on the branch, with the army being the shortest at 21 months). There’s some extenuating circumstances that grants  deferring service up to age 37, mostly reserved for those engaged in vital academic research. There’s a few more curious exemption criteria (full bodied tattoos exempts one from service), but by in large, most loopholes have closed up in recent years and Korean society at present generally frowns on those (particularly celebrities) who skirt conscripted service.

 

There are only two main routes for able bodied Korean males to earn military exemption:

 

Military exemption via Asian Games Gold medal. Only a Gold medal will suffice. In 2014, the Korean squad representing at that year’s Asian games included then Mainz left back Park Joo-Ho – they won it all in Incheon, allowing Park to continue to play in Germany for several more years. Ex-Jeonbuk and current Holstein Kiel midfielder Lee Jae-Sung won’t have to worry about a forced move back to Korea with his inclusion in that squad.

Olympic medal in football. Any color of medal will do. In 2012, Korea beat Japan in the Bronze medal match and a generation of Koreans including Newcastle’s Ki Sung-Yeung found their footballing freedom this way. Spurs released Son in 2016 to participate in the Rio Olympics, only for team Korea under Shin Tae-Yong to fall short in the quarterfinals.

 

But let’s get to the nitty gritty of Son’s precarious situation that in some ways is unique to his case. The current path to exemption is clear: Son’s best chance for it is by winning it all in the Asian Games. Joining him are others almost equally hungry for exemption, including ex-Barcelona academy product and current Hellas Verona attacking midfielder Lee Seung-Woo, Red Bull Salzburg’s Hwang Hee-Chan and Korea’s outstanding World Cup and Daegu keeper Cho Hyun-Woo. Despite this stock of talent, there’s a lot that can go wrong, especially at the knockout stage. Ask Son, he knows all too well when his Olympic side failed in the quarterfinals to get past a defensively stodgy Honduras side in Rio 2 years ago. Korea won Asian Games Gold in 2014 but you have to go all the way back to 1986 to find another Gold medaling team. There are no guarantees.

Son Rounds Begović for his 2nd goal vs Bournemouth. Clive Rose / Getty Images

Time is not on Son’s side. Something important to note: able bodied Korean males must report to duty before they turn 28. Son’s birthday, July 8th 1992 means that he turns 28 after the 2019-2020 season and in that summer vacuum, should he fail in Indonesia to get Asian Games Gold, technically he needs to report for duty in Korea before July 8th.  2020 though is an important year for another reason – the Tokyo Olympics gets underway towards the end of July that year. Should Son get a temporary waiver from the government to compete, that would mean that summer’s tournament would be Son’s last gasp chance at exemption – an vastly more difficult road to secure a footballing medal then the Asian Games.

It’s here that Son’s outlook veers into dire and very desperate straights for his professional footballing career. Normally, decent domestic Korean pro footballers whose call to military duty comes up have an avenue to continue playing and avoid rust. Several teams, notably Sangju Sangmu, allows footballers to serve their army duty while still playing ball. They would need to be in a K-League club for 6 months or longer and then technically they are “loaned” to the military clubs. It’s not an optimal situation by any means, especially since clubs like Sangju end up bouncing between promotion and relegation year after year. However, 2 players from military teams were called up to the 2018 Korean World Cup squad – there is some stopgap value to those military clubs so long as forced military service is still in place.

Son’s fate would be bad enough if this were even a possible scenario for him. Here’s the rub, Son isn’t even eligible to play for any military club. This goes beyond just the extraordinarily high priced release clause that would render a transfer practically unaffordable to any K-League club. In 2008, a young 16 year old Son dropped out of Dongbuk High School to join Hamburg SV.  It’s that last action that leaves him ineligible for active army duty, and with it the ability to play for the army team.

His dropping out of Donguk High is critical in understanding what that next option leaves Son: Civic Service duty.  Meaning, what awaits him for several long months will likely be government desk jobs as an alternative. From playing Champions League matches to working behind a desk in Korea at the peak of his career arc. This could very well be Son Heung-Min’s fate. Some have speculated that Son can still play football, but with his strict weekday work schedule – he’d be free to play in the K3 League designated for amateurs on the weekends. If he has to completely drop out of playing pro football for that length of time, that virtually ends his career, leaves Spurs left to dry, and leaves Korea one short of having a world class footballer on their national squad. The cognitive dissonance looking at this scenario is staggering.

 

However there is speculation that if Son doesn’t get the preferred method of exemption via tournament win, the fallout from Son leaving Spurs in the fashion described above is generating chatter in the KFA and among key lawmakers that an extraordinary intervention may take place.

Additionally General Ki Chang-Su, the current minister of Korea’s Minister of Manpower Association talked openly about the possibility of granting a special deferment of the draft until his Spurs playing days are over. It goes back to the projection of perceived soft diplomatic power: if the image of Korea is somehow tarnished by Son forcibly yanked from playing Champions League ball to be relegated to working a desk job (not to denigrate desk jobs – they have their importance to running a civil society) Seoul may act decisively to circumvent this from negative image-making headlines about Korea. There have always been Korean players who have to circumnavigate in and around mandatory service and have shifted their careers for better or worse because of it (think Lee Geun-Ho not moving to Europe after winning the Asian Player of the Year in 2013 or Hwang In-Beom getting service out of the way despite his young age of 21). There has not been anyone with as high a profile as Son who had to return from Europe to forcibly end a European football career – nothing remotely like it…yet.

The flowchart of possible options are just that – for now there’s still the Asian Games to play for while the conversation and the hand wringing around Son’s future continues.

 

 

Extra Time:

More clarifying to do. What won’t get military exemption: winning the Asian Cup*. Neither does advancing to the round of 16 in the World Cup – with one notable exception. In the 2002 World Cup, Korea’s cinderella team axed Poland, Portugal, and Spain on the way to the semifinals. Team Korea captured the imagination of the entire nation, resulting in  millions pouring out into the streets in pure ecstasy. President Kim Dae-Jung congratulated the team and granted a one time exemption – to which players like Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo made their way to Europe to continue writing their chapters in football history.  That feat has not been repeated since, though when the 2010 Korean World Cup team advanced to the Round of 16 on South African soil, the tension with North Korea ratcheted significantly to the point that the public mood in favor of more special exemptions evaporated. To be fair, it’s likely given past precedent that should a Korean team come close to replicating the magic of 2002 – or dare we say win it all – the Coupe de Monde – THE World Cup, it would be such a monumental achievement that a Presidential decree granting exemption would be a certainty.

{* But why wouldn’t the Asian Cup or the World Cup be worthy of a exemption-by-tournament?  The Olympics and the Asian Games allow for athletes from other sports to equally given chances to excel and hand Korea soft diplomatic power via an impressive haul of medals. It’s that soft diplomatic power and prestige stoking enthusiastic nationalism-through-sporting prowess that General Park Chung-Hee was after. It was the reason during the 1970’s he first implemented such exemptions – perhaps borrowing template that General Franco toyed with by granting some high performing La Liga footballers to skip out on military service obligations during the years of fascist rule in Spain.}

 

We’ll be back to update. It’s such a complex and thorny issue but we will return to add more historical context and food for thought as well as other alternatives that might yet exist. I’ll leave you with a link to my In Bed With Maradona article from 2014 that highlighted the complexities of this very issue, and possible templates that serves to balance the national security concerns of Korea along with advancing the Korean national footballing program – both actions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s also fascinating to look back and see the issues facing Son back then that continue to burden him right now.

 

 

About Roy Ghim 431 Articles
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6 Comments

  1. Thanks! There are plenty of major European based media outlets that gets parts of the military exemption/conscription route incorrect (can’t blame them as it’s a very complex and convoluted process) but one of THE most frequently misstated factoid circulating around is the mixup between the Asian Games and Asian Cup as it regards to the exemption route. To be fair, in the last Asian Cup in 2015, rumors swirled that Korea could get a special one time exemption had they won the trophy (an elusive one seeing as they hadn’t won it since 1960). They were close but lost in overtime to Australia – so the theory never got tested.

    • It does happen – Victor An was a short speed track racer for Korea, changed his citizenship to Russia in 2011 and is now Виктор Ан and races for the Russian team (he won olympic medals in 2014 but wasn’t allowed to race in 2018 olympics due to the Russian doping scandal). It is frowned upon but at least in the footballing realm for Korea, citizenship changes to avoid military service hasn’t happened. However, Spanish media did confirm that the Spanish football confederation – the Real Federación Española de Fútbol did make an overture to Valencia’s Lee Kang-In to implore him to change citizenship to Spain – they’ve tried for a number of years apparently. In their appeal to Lee, they cited Korea’s mandatory military conscription as a rationale to switch. He declined. I’m speculating that his thinking is that he’ll have his chances at an exemption via medal route soon. Unfortunately Valencia opted not to release him for the Asian Games – they’re under no obligations of course but it would’ve potentially freed another KPA from military obligations should Korea win gold in football.

      • Part of me wonders if Suk Hyun Jun will do that. Something about him makes me wonder… he’s such a mystery and not sure he feels any loyalty to Korea (huge speculation on my part… he could be the most loyal/nationalistic guy in the world). But anyway I wouldn’t blame him after he didn’t get called up to the WC or Asian Games and should have!!

        • Ok you forced my hand a bit, I was going to post something about Suk Hyun-Jun later but here goes a sneak preview: I will simply speculate that due to the length of the deal with Reims that brought him over from Troyes (4 years), Suk will likely go through a deferment route that’s not frequently used but exists in the menu of options for Koreans based overseas. It’s one in which I believe he’s eligible for since he’s been plying the trade in Europe for quite a while now. In that way, it’s a similar yet different deferment route that got Park Chu-Young negative publicity in 2012 when he was with Arsenal. In review: the 10 year Monaco residency that PCY received (as a Monaco player before moving to Arsenal) was not necessarily draft dodging per se as some had accused him of in Korea – in fact it was a pre-approved method that Seoul gave the green light to. I think Suk wants to retain and remain a Korean citizen. Additionally, there’s all indications he would like the distinction of being called up for Korean team responsibilities – it’s just that some in the Korean coaching staff don’t seem to rate him. I’m not a coaching expert by any means, but as objectively as I can observe, what Suk has in his locker could benefit the national team above and beyond what Kim Shin-Wook provided during this last World Cup.

          Now that begs the question, if Suk is speculatively going to use it, why doesn’t Son use that route? It’s one of a few ‘maybe’ cards he probably could play, but the calculation is, to circumvent negative publicity a lá Park Chu-Young, why not just simply go through the safer PR route – exemption via tournament win. It’s clear, black and white, no fuss no muss with a tournament win. Should Team Korea fall short of the Asian Games gold medal – there will be behind-the-scenes conversations in which Korea would act first to give him a special exemption on the basis of, well, I’ll leave it to the Korean FA and the government to come up with a finely tuned wording to frame it for the Korean public. Sequentially, should those talks fail to produce anything substantially meaningful in a timely fashion, probably then and only then would Son and his agents pull the trigger on overseas deferment by temporary residency. There’s more weight to the previous option, a government intervention on behalf of Son for a number of reasons. I give it maybe a 20% chance or less that Korea would actually force Son to do civil service desk work and give up being a world class football ambassador to the world. That said, every scenario is possible and in play.

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