When I wrote my original article on how to the reform the military conscription system as it applies to professional footballers, I mentioned that there were two professional clubs that allowed footballers to continue to play professionally during their military duty. Well, there is now a strong possibility that one of those two clubs could fold in the next few weeks.
In the past few weeks, news has broken that the National Police Academy intends to halt recruitment of players for the club Asan Mugunghwa, currently leading the second-division K League 2, after this season. The move is a result of the South Korean government’s long-planned decision to phase out the auxiliary police force, which Asan Mugunghwa players serve as a part of, by 2023.
To get a greater understanding of why this decision was being made, I asked the popular Korean politics/culture blogger Ask A Korean to explain the history/role of the auxiliary police in South Korea (check out TK’s blog, we at the Tavern highly recommend it!). He explained that there were political and practical considerations made when deciding to phase out the auxiliary police.
In terms of politics and history, the auxiliary police were used in the past to silence citizen protests. “‘Riot police’ is too generous of a term to describe what the Auxiliary Police did,” TK said. “They were basically human shields blocking protesters. They had a checkered past when it comes to beating down protesters, so that was certainly a consideration when they were phasing out the Auxiliary Police.”
Equally as important, the South Korean government took social trends and community needs into consideration when making this decision. As the birth rate in South Korea is currently very low, there will be fewer young men to serve in the military. “Auxiliary police force means fewer men who could serve in the regular military, which is supposed to be the priority when it comes to national defense,” said TK. In addition, the Moon Jae-in administration hopes to boost public sector job creation and police professionalism by opening more permanent police officer positions. As a result, the police force will be more community-oriented and focused on reducing crime, rather than young conscripts looking to serve their military duty.
TK summed up the plan as it relates to Asan Mugunghwa by concluding that Asan cannot continue as a police team. “This team exists as an alternative to the military service, so if the police cannot offer the military service, the team cannot exist either.”
As of now, it’s hard to say what exactly will happen next. The National Police Academy notified the K League on October 15th that they will not recruit new players next season (they have also said that they will not recruit any more baseball players for their baseball team either). With the end of the services of quite a few of their players approaching at the end of the year, Asan Mugunghwa will be left with only 14 players by March 2019. K League rules state that a club must have a squad of at least 20 players to participate in the league, so Asan would be ineligible as of next season.
This is an absolute shame, as Asan are leading the K League 2 by 7 points and would be promoted to the K League 1 if the season concluded today. If the National Police Academy follows through on the decision to halt recruitment so abruptly, Asan Mugunghwa will disband after the season and Asan’s promotion will be given to Seongnam FC (the current second place club).
I haven’t seen an official decision from the K League as to Asan Mugunghwa’s future so I will be on the lookout for updates in the next few weeks. Asan has had good fan support in their new city (they relocated from Ansan two seasons ago) and the city government has expressed an interest in converting the club into a “citizen” club, the K League term for a club owned and operated by the city government. Unfortunately, the city government has targeted 2020 as the earliest they could do this so fans as well as former Asan players have asked for the National Police Academy to delay their recruitment halt for one season to allow for the transition.
During the international break, a group of former Asan players and fans held a press conference voicing their frustration at the current situation. The local Asan supporters group, on Instagram as @armada_in_asan, have been active on social media asking for support to help the team continue for one more season. There is currently a petition at the Blue House’s official website asking for a phased reduction of recruitment until 2020. You can sign it easily here if you would like to support the cause.
When Asan Mugunghwa ceases to be a club that allows footballers to complete their military duty, there will need to be solutions to fill the void left by Asan. For one, I think it would make perfect sense for Sangju Sangmu, the current military club, to apply to start an additional football club to compete in the K League 2. There are certainly cities (Goyang, Yongin, Hwaseong, and Pyeongtaek spring to mind) across Korea that could host this new club and hopefully the military considers this option as a way to expand the K League.
Another more reform-minded solution is one that I mentioned in my previous article. I said that football tournaments such as AFC youth and senior tournaments as well as FIFA tournaments should be considered as a measure to earn military exemption. I read somewhere (couldn’t find the article, help me find it!) that the KFA and other sports federations in Korea are planning to ask the military to revise the rules for military exemptions. As long as different sports receive fair and equal opportunities to decide how to have athletes earn exemptions, this is certainly something worth exploring. It seems that if there are comparable international competitions (i.e. FIFA World Cup, WBO Baseball Classic, World Track and Field Championships) it would be fair to allow athletes who perform well to earn an exemption.
Look out in the next few weeks for an update on Asan’s situation and check back for more Korean football news! Get active in the comments if you have questions or thoughts about this situation!