Korean Football Careers: Halted?!

Though some think tip-toeing around certain Korea-related topics is fine, that’s not the case with military conscription for South Korean football players. Both the controversy and the “hush-hush” mood behind this topic shows that it’s worth discussing and acting on: this post will address the reasons that South Korean male footballers should at least get military deferments.

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Footballers who aren’t required to serve in the military are more marketable to talent scouts in Europe than those who do. The charts above suggest this– more Japanese footballers play for elite European clubs than South Korean footballers do. Statistically, Japan’s current numbers are twice as high as Koreans’, an exponential increase from 4 years ago, when few Japanese footballers played in Europe. Unlike their Korean peers, Japanese players have virtually no domestic obligations preventing them from seeking challenges abroad. South Korean footballers who play for European clubs gain athletic versatility as they play with and against the best in world class football. This is an essential advantage to have during the Olympics and the World Cup. That doesn’t mean that K-League players don’t develop versatility, but those who play in Europe refine that quality further, because they’re training in a different and– many would argue– higher-caliber football environment.

Paying low transfer fees for Japanese players is an extra element that increases their marketability to a European club. So in the eyes of its manager, enrolling Japanese players into their teams doesn’t pose a monetary risk. Perhaps this idea is why Queens Park Rangers, according to John Duerden, wanted to “see Yun [Suk-Young] in training for a few days” to determine whether to sign him. Commendably, Jeonnam Dragons pointed out he had already proven himself at the London 2012 Olympics and didn’t need a trial. In the end, QPR did sign Yun for an undisclosed fee that reportedly was well over £1.5M.  Although European clubs pay smaller costs to sign Japanese players, this certainly isn’t the sole reason that their numbers are higher in Europe than those of Korean footballers.

Such a process shows that enlisting Japanese players into European ranks doesn’t pose as high of a financial risk (nor would they be short term ticking time bombs as Park Joo-Ho nearly was for Mainz), thus allowing managers flexibility for long term player development projects that wouldn’t tie up valuable roster spots. Comparably, Ji Dong Won to Borussia Dortmund is an example of this long term player development effort. He’s able to stay at Borussia for four years, in part because he gained military exemption from winning a bronze medal in London 2012.  What would’ve happened if Ji was not exempt from military duty?

The Japanese national team enjoys several benefits from having many of its members play in European clubs. For instance, Javier Aguirre, the team’s head coach could choose from many outstanding players at any given position. This state of affairs also gives him a player selection “cushion”: when one Europe-based player is injured, Aguirre has a deeper set of options at his disposal. Yet a place on the roster of a European football club doesn’t mean that a player will be on the pitch consistently. Still, the more players that South Korea has in European leagues, the more likely that a considerable number of those players will get minutes, though others may be benched.

Since South Korean footballers increase their potential demand after gaining military exemptions, European football club managers take action. For example, a contract extension until 2016-2017 for Park Joo-Ho, rated as one of Germany’s best left backs, is underway at FSV Mainz 05 since he secured his Asian Games gold– a situation that contrasts his initial anticipation of returning to Korea to complete his military duties. Also, right after receiving the bronze medal at London 2012, Yun Suk-Young received several offers from European clubs, including Manchester City. Advantageous career opportunities open up for South Korean footballers who aren’t tied up with military obligations, opportunities that shape them into multifaceted players.

Although the military service of young, able-bodied South Korean men is a praiseworthy duty, military deferments would actually ensure that physically fit, available people will constantly flow through the army’s ranks. Indeed, requiring that every able-bodied man, regardless of celebrity status, to become a soldier for two years is a fair, equal requirement. However, South Korea can emulate several countries that have balanced the need for national security with the cultural imperative for high-quality, national football by allowing athletes to defer their military time. Deferments are fair, because every man eventually fulfills his time in the military, and retiring footballers would join the army’s ranks in relatively prime physical condition. Also, we must remember that South Korean footballers function as active citizens by being ambassadors for South Korea on the football pitch, as Lee Young-Pyo once said. That is no superficial role, since, with every international game, South Korean players are representing their country while they’re in action. Also, channeling football experience and skills into results for the Taeguk Warriors is an act of service in itself. As Ki Sung-Yueng mentioned before the September friendlies, representing South Korea for international football games is a difficult yet honorable feat. Since military deferments would allow Korean footballers to focus fully on becoming better players, perhaps the K-League would become better known for being an incubator of world-class talent, and, in turn, attract diverse, international footballers to its ranks.

The most straightforward reason for military deferments is that conscription disrupts a South Korean footballer’s career. Many young south Korean footballers aspire to play in Europe, like these five students from Koo Ja-Cheol’s high school alma mater, who appear to be following his footsteps by going to Borussia Dortmund for tryouts. The anticipation of military duty places a mental burden on South Korean footballers, and a deferment would enable them to focus fully on developing as athletes and would reduce an enormous distraction. As spectators, we may forget that playing football at the highest levels involves fierce concentration. For players like Son Heung-Min and Lee Seung-Woo, addressing their military conscription would mean foregoing world-class competition at the peak of their careers.

Different questions and thoughts undoubtedly surround how South Korean footballers navigate their required military duty, and many of them are beyond the scope of this post. These ideas are meant to amplify the ongoing dialogue about why allowing reasonable flexibility to South Korean footballers’ military duty requirements would be a fruitful move.



  1. Evelyn – you should at least introduce yourself first! Haha.

    Interesting article – and Roy has discussed it at length on the Tavern and he’s probably overjoyed to see another article about this topic here – but again, what do you say to the Badminton, Table-Tennis and Baseball players who have to serve? They might not win an Asian Games gold or olympics medal but may be an incredible player, who is an ambassador for the country? How is it fair for them to have to do military service when football players, who equally failed to win an AG gold or OLY medal, don’t play by the same rules?

    And just for good measure – I’m not in favor of military conscription. I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

    And in case anyone was wondering, no, I won’t have to serve as I no longer hold Korean citizenship.

    • Her intro -that’s my bad, I am intro-ing her in the Jordan/Korea recap tomorrow, but unofficially: Evelyn Kim everyone! I’m psyched about her joining the cast & crew of the merry ship Tavern, but more on that tomorrow. Though I must admit I’m a bit biased on the subject, it’s a fantastic post and no doubt there’s more to discuss on the matter.

      Personally, badminton and ping pong aren’t real sports. Baseball is a boring and dying american pastime. Damn, did I just say that? Or am I being facetious? Only the shadow knows…

    • Hey Tim,

      I don’t know what I would say to the badminton / table tennis / baseball players who have to serve. It’s definitely a valid question, and it’s also one that beyond what the post touches, which is partially why I don’t know. Even though this post focuses on military deferments for South Korean footballers, I didn’t intend to suggest that other male athletes should still serve as well. I wasn’t wanting to make a statement on that.

      I appreciate your playing devil’s advocate, Tim 🙂 And that’s because your comments and questions help me to expand my thinking on topics like this / what other folks write about here.

      Lol, yeah I probably should’ve introduced myself first, but I wanted to get right to it instead and left it to Roy to introduce me, which he did in the comments + the recap as I saw!

  2. Few mistakes in the article.

    1. QPR bought YSY for well below 1.5m. If I’m not mistaken, and google translate is correct.. YSY had a buy-out clause in his contract that was inexpensive.



    2. Ever since 2012, the transfer fee of Koreans & Japanese moving to Europe (mainly Bundesliga) are about the same (roughly around 1 to 1.5m euro).

    • I helped Evelyn with that YSY #, so I’ll take responsibility if that # is wrong. However I think I’m correct is saying the transfer fee was never disclosed. It is thought by ‘some’ estimates that the transfer fee was over 1.5m but not verifiable – you might have more accurate sources for that. We went w/ the higher # theory when taking into account the fight b/w Fulham and QPR and the kerfuffle over QPR wanting Yun to go on trial.

    • Thanks for the pointers Takeuchi! I don’t have much to say about that monetary number about QPR and YSY, since Roy and I did think about the Fulham / QPR situation when deciding to state 1.5 million euros. I’ll make sure to look at different sources next time to verify numbers like that.

    • absolutely – Jon alludes to just that point in his comment below, but as I see it, those guys still benefit. they prolong their career in Europe – it aided them in their multiple transfers – it has only helped their Euro careers in a number of ways. So in essence, yes they were already here, but the kinds of contracts (longer termed) was aided greatly by their military exemption -and cements their presence in Europe. it goes back to the ‘more marketable’ point, etc.

  3. Very impressive Ms. Evelyn. Conscription requirements is a thorny topic indeed. Im on the fence personally as well I should be as I have sat rather comfortably on my ass with nothing like this hanging over my head. I imagine my thoughts would be much different if I had something like this to look forward to and had to watch someone like Lee Chun Soo skate by would likely infuriate me. For now I think they have a good setup and one that has reasonably good odds for success (winning medals or what not in major tourneys).

    OT (sorry) but this is a shout out for recognition to my favorite MMA fighter, Chan Sung Jung (the Korean Zombie) who a few weeks ago announced he is putting his fight career on an abrupt hiatus due to conscription. He had been nursing a severe shoulder separation but It was a shocker to the MMA world completely nonetheless.

    The timing couldnt have been worse as the UFC is lining up a show in Seoul in a few months and he was supposedly a headliner. He wrote a note that he had been trying to find a way to enter the tournament, but alas, the Kgov would not relent. He still wishes to fight new kid Connor Mcgregor or have a rematch with Jose Aldo but acknowledges now that that will have to wait. Apparently the army is letting him have a more kush conscription since he will be able to train as much as he likes (I guess he got a desk job) but he will not be able to enter any fights professionally until his 2 years are up.

    We have A LOT of Korean MMA talent thats coming down the pipeline ( a lot of it in the UFC), and unfortunately, they will likely all have to put their careers on hold at some point. Its Effing sad.

    I know this is completely OT…just thought Id drop it for anyone else interested in Korean MMA. I also thought it was somewhat related in the how conscription ruins career theme. KZ is only 26 yo I believe so hopefully he’ll be able to pick up where he left off. I am thinking about starting my own blog on Korean MMA so if theres anyone out there who’s interested in writing or what not, hit me up. I just bought a domain name just in case 😉

    • Thanks, Steve! I understand your point about how KNT members have a reasonable chance at winning medals in major competitions that could get them exemptions. That type of situation’s mixed, because those opportunities exist yet they’re pressure-filled, too.

      No problem at all about your Chan Sung Jung comment, lol! That def does sound like terrible timing, that he announced his entrance into the military right before that show in Seoul, and that’s crazy that a lot of the MMA fighters will have to pause their careers. That’s great that you’re thinking of starting a blog about Korean MMA. GO FOR IT.

      • In case anyone’s interested…the list of current Korean MMA fighters in the UFC now. Dana White the president has a special affinity towards Korean fighters lately and wears his KZ t-shirt proudly. They have all shown a propensity towards winning fight of the night honors which entails a cash bonus that all fighters on a card desire. I believe Kim Dong Hyun served in the ROK Marines…the others I believe have yet to serve.

        1. Kyung Ho Kang – Mr. Perfect, very well rounded with a lot of potential

        2. Doo Ho Choi – new kid just signed, debuting in Nov 2014, heralded as KZ’s protege, fights like him

        3. Chan Sung Jung – Most recent fight was against Jose Aldo, the current featherweight champion, a fight in which he lost because his shoulder was separated during the fight. He was seen trying to place it back in place on his own as Aldo rained down punches and kicks on the injured shoulder. Youtube search KZ vs Dustin Proirier for a BJJ clinic. Slickest transitions in the game today. The man’s a genius.

        4. Tae Hyun Bang – won in June, fight of the night honors

        5. Yui Chul Nam – He resembles a large toad and is tough as nails.

        6. Dong Hyun Kim – Stun Gun lost to Tyrone Woodley after a string of impressive wins

        7. Hyun Gyu Lim – This guy is huge. And scary. He’s the kind of guy who gets punched in the face and smiles back at the opponent. Welterweights is a stacked, elite division and he’s in the middle of it not backing down from anyone.

  4. Just curious about a few things. A) How do you know more Koreans will be picked up by European clubs if military service can get waived? The ones who are in Europe now were picked up while military service was looming over their heads. Also, others such as Park Chu Young and now Kim Shin Wook so far haven’t gained much because of military deferment. Certainly we can “hope” that more talent will go through, but I don’t see clubs actively avoiding Koreans because of military service. If a Korean is as talented as Son Heung Min, a club will want him no matter if he has military requirements or not. B) How do we know Japan isn’t outranking Korea in European numbers for other reasons? There might be other factors at play. Not sure how much Koreans’ numbers in Europe have changed…. the difference seems more to do with the fact that more and more Japanese players go to Europe than before. Why is that happening? Can they bring more money to their respective clubs than Koreans can? I’m just wondering if there are other factors at play here. We always automatically think it’s because of the military requirement. Most likely the government isn’t going to change the system… if that’s the case, continually blaming the military service requirement isn’t going to get us anywhere.

    • 1. You’re right but she was pointing out military conscription is a major stumbling black to many (especially for 23+ yr olds) Korean footballers.

      – you can make a case, many who did transfer to Europe (most actually) joined before they had military exemption.

      2. Again, you are right. It isn’t just military conscription but other factors (much more damaging imo but i will need to write a post of my own if I wanted to explain everything) that’s really damaging.

      • Jon, to answer yr questions (& piggyback off Takeuchi’s answer) A) yes -ones in Europe already arrived like Ji, Koo, Ki before 2012 Olympics -however their viability in Europe including several transfers by each of these players aided tremendously by military exemption-via-olympic medal. Marketability in transfers – most def. Their cases are different than Kim Bo-Kyung’s – who arguably was able to transfer to Cardiff w/ his military exemption. Yun- same. For the time being and to clarify further – those w/ military exemption, their european career either helps keeps them there AND helps in case of transfers // and in other cases helped seals the deal to transfer to Europe. different scenarios but military exemption helps keep them in the mix.

        -and as Takeuchi mentioned, for the 23yr+ players – military conscription = major stumbling block. Major headache for the Korean academy kids in Germany and Spain in coming years.

        B) most definitely there are other factors at play to why there are Japanese trending higher, particularly Germany. I don’t want to speak for Evelyn, she would have more to say perhaps in the comment section so for now I’ll reiterate that the military conscription issue is a factor – it’s not the only factor to why Japanese are rising in #s – but it’s fair to say it’s a significant factor at play.

        Takeuchi – this is why I love the Tavern – I think collective knowledge is illuminating – I can’t wait to read what you have that you identify are other major factors that hinder Korean football progress. Not that I want to linger in negative territory -but in order to improve something – got to bring everything to the table to identify and then find solutions.

        • Well, the bigger problem is the overall structure in Korea. I think it’s really difficult for young players to break through in the system. In J-league or Europe in general, if a youth player stands out, they are slowly integrated to 1st team. So, more often than not.. a young player in J-league will have pro experience & is better prepared (also much more exposed to European scouts) compared to Korean counterparts.

          For example, in Korea… they have to go through HS (youth football), college, and drafted to pro. By the time they have 1 or 2 yrs of pro experience, they are 23 or 24+ where military conscription & their overall earning potential comes in to play (Jae can correct me if I am wrong).

          • Yup pretty much. Take Han Kyo-won for example. He pretty much fits Takeuchi’s description perfectly. High school, couple years at college, drafted by Incheon where he played for a few seasons (unknown to most), and finally to Jeonbuk where he broke out at the age of 24. Other ‘young’ players we ID (Yoon Il-rok, Moon Chang-jin, etc) are all 21/22 and will probably follow Han KW’s path. The earliest you see players make pro debuts is 19 when they’re allowed to sign pro contracts.

          • It sounds like a huge structural problem that in some ways parallels problems in the US youth structure. This blogger Jerry McNeal, asking why US hasn’t developed world class talent yet, just posted this today http://www.whynotussoccer.com/why-not-us-6-college-soccer-the-bad/

            the clincher is the pre/MLS NCAA draft system.

            “…in the most crucial developmental stage…that pretty much eliminates 98% of our potential world-class field player pool here in the United States? Here it is: if a boy / young man is not playing professional soccer b/w 17-19, that player has almost no chance of becoming world-class…After crunching numbers -looking at hundreds of rosters of professional teams and thousands of player profiles that go back over twenty years, that is the one fact that is black and white.”

          • I don’t think the article was talking about the draft system. Rather he is saying that world-class players are virtually always playing at the professional level by the time they are 17-19 years old. They are not still playing at the ‘amateur’ level that exists in collegiate sports.

          • This is the big difference between Korea and Japan.

            Takumi Minamino – Japanese U-19 FW & 19 year old FW for Cerezo Osaka. Made his 1st team debut at age 17 & has at least 2 1/2 yr of pro experience (along with playing with Diego Forlan).

            Hwang Hee-Chan – The much hyped U-19 FW for Korea from Pohang youth (HS). He was competing in HS tournament in Korea before AFC U-19 tournament.

            If Takumi Minamino were to transfer to Europe (on the radar of many Bundesliga teams already), he would be part of 1st team. Hwang Hee-Chan.. if latest news are true.. I expect him to start with youth/reserves teams (especially if he were to join Bundesliga club). This is why I believe you see more Korean youth players in Europe but Japan has more 1st team players in Europe.

          • Jae – my bad – i didn’t mean to type ‘draft’ – I meant to say that many youth in US participate in the collegiate system -that (like in Korea) have players peripherally attached to pro clubs but technically are not playing pro ball. I guess when I think of collegiate soccer – suddenly ‘draft’ comes to mind regarding the sequence of progression to MLS – which I think is similar but different to University to K-League sequence draft (*being phased out – right?)

            Takeuchi – what you say in this snapshot difference b/w Takumi Minamino and Hwang Hee-Chan is interesting. Let me for a hot second not bring military conscription into all this, instead focusing solely on the hypothesis that Takumi transfer = 1st team Bundesliga and Hwang transfer = Bundesliga academy…

            could argument be made that short term, Takumi and Japanese Nat’l fare better, but long term (military conscription doesn’t factor here yet) that Hwang benefits by training at academy, then by building his way to 1st team status, a deeper set of skills learned along the way including german language & cultural+player chemistry, his development benefits him, his club and ultimately the KNT more in the long term? Or is that too simplistic, not enough relevant sets of data to predict that kind of short vs long term outcome?

          • I think the simpler issue that Takeuchi is raising is that it’s potentially 2-3 years lost for Korean players at the pro level at a crucial point in their development. I think your point Roy, would come into play more if HHC was 2-3 years younger than Minamino.

          • Your scenario is based on optimal/best case….

            1. How do we know Hwang Hee-Chan will break in to 1st team? In Asia (in general), Son’s the only player who went through European youth setup & established himself as 1st team member (at least that I can think of).

            2. Minamino can learn the language & develop chemistry with 1st team members as well (while Hwang has to go through the process multiple times.. well, developing chemistry with teammates). Being part of youth setup isn’t an advantage to learn new language or culture imo.

            3. At the age of 19 or so, I believe they are more or less done developing in technical aspect (1st touch and so forth).

          • I’ll have the tavern fact checker get on that 😉

            Great point about the structural system problem impeding youth progress in korea. I wonder aloud the quality of said H.S. & college coaching.

          • Kimbo transfer signing completed during Olympics. You are correct and we have a beer with your name on it at the tavern. Neverthess, w/ exemption he potentially prolongs stay in Europe. cross fingers and see what happens during January window to escape cardiff chaos

          • Jae, when you mentioned that age 19 is the earliest that players can sign pro debuts, I thought of Kim Seung Gyu, who signed with Ulsan Hyundai when he was super young (16). Kim Shin Wook was just slightly older than 19 when he signed with Ulsan as well.

            I feel like that whole process of going through HS youth football, then college, then into a pro club resembles the process that footballers go through in the U.S. Didn’t know they were similar till now!

          • He wasn’t a pro though. He went into their youth program which is essentially a high school team (Hyundai High School in Ulsan). He didn’t make his pro debut until he was 18/19. Kim Shin-wook was 20 when he was drafted by Ulsan, but he went though the same process. High school, couple years at uni. and then pro draft.

    • Jon, Takeuchi hit on the points that I wanted to say to you as I read your comment. Your point about how other factors influence Japan’s higher # of players in Europe is true, and you’re right about saying that it’s pointless to continually blame the military service requirement if the government isn’t going to change the system. The issue is complex, and there isn’t just one identifiable reason that not many Korean footballers are in European clubs– there are layers of them, for sure.

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