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.[table “” not found /]
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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.