Thanks to Korea’s third Asian Games gold medal in a row, a whole new generation of footballers earned military exemption, something that would’ve ruled out a move to more competitive leagues in Europe. In part 1 of our K League transfer series we featured 5 players. Four of them already moved to Europe (Cho Gue Sung, Oh Hyeon Gyu, Lee Han Beom, Yang Hyun Jun) – Kim Ju Sung has not yet. In part 2 I featured many more young K League talents, and while only Kwon Hyeok Kyu moved to Europe since I posted the article in December, six of them ended up getting military exemption at the Asian Games. So in Part 3 here, let’s review the players from our 2023 Asian Games winning squad who are much more likely to end up in Europe now due to their military exemption, listed in order from defenders to midfielders to attackers.
Note: my source for these transfer rumors is either Naver sports articles or this:
Hwang Jae Won
the 막내 (youngest member) of the squad having just turned 21, Hwang Jae Won was probably one of the most important players in the tournament’s success given the lack of depth in his position (although him, Seol Young Woo, and Park Kyu Hyeon were all extremely capable and performed more than admirably). Hwang Jae Won was someone I featured in Part 2, and a year later he has proven himself as an extremely capable right back – his attacking qualities are incredible – defensively, maybe needs some more work but for Korean fullback standards he is definitely on par. His ability to carry the ball forward and dribble past (admittedly fairly easy) opponents is no joke. You can’t find highlights of these games unfortunately – but you can see in both our goals against Japan he was directly involved (first goal was an assist, second goal was a 30 meter run leading eventually to our goal).
I was personally getting major anxiety because he was playing so many minutes, and was constantly screaming in my head for Hwang Sun Hong to give him some rest. But as one of the strongest members of the squad in a position we historically suck at, he was not someone we could rest. If the Korean media is to be believed, Hwang does not have any specific teams interested in him at the moment however the Daegu FC president Cho Kwang Rae will green light a move to Europe for him if a good offer comes in.
A short YT highlight reel (the most impressive stuff is in the middle) of HJW against Uzbekistan:
Touches from a match against Seoul last season:
Seol Young Woo
Arguably the best fullback we have on the senior national team setup right now (and one of, if not the best fullbacks in the league), Seol Young Woo was just a few months too old to be selected as a regular U24 player. Though he was not in the greatest condition leading up to the Asian Games (he played 180 minutes in 3-4 days for the senior NT), he did eventually recover to form a great partnership with Hwang Jae Won. Like Hwang Jae Won, I covered SYW in part 2 – last year, I was anxious about his inclusion in the squad, but as the months went on it was very clear that he would certainly be called up to the Asian Games. Now he has earned exemption along with his Ulsan teammate Um Won Sang. In terms of his transfer rumors, there was reportedly interest from Hearts in the Scottish League, but the loan + option to buy offer was not good enough for SYW and Ulsan (also Ulsan’s Lee Dong Gyeong is a prime example of the negative aspects of a loan + option to buy transfer).
You’re going to hear me say this a lot, but a SPL, Belgian Juliper League, Eredivisie, or even the Danish Superliga are great leagues to which our players can start their European career. I am certain he will get heavily scouted, but I also hope that in the summer a really good offer from a decent league will be on the table for him.
SYW has been brilliant for the national team (ok that’s admittedly exaggerating a bit but given our extreme woes in that position, he was a huge breath of fresh air) as well as in the Asian Games. Some highlights from the El Salvador match:
Paik Seung Ho
Paik Seung Ho is the player most likely to leave for Europe (and the soonest) in this entire Asian Games squad. He spent a good chunk of his life in Spain and has been rejecting a new contract with Jeonbuk in anticipation of his military exemption. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him move to La Liga, although at this time it seems that Stuttgart is the only team that has made a bid for him recently. Apparently he rejected that at the time due to his military issues, but perhaps they will make an offer for him again now that the issues are sorted out. Stuttgart is playing insanely well right now though, and they have their CMs locked in with a Stiller and a Karazor (I don’t know anything about these guys admittedly). La Liga would surely be Paik’s preference – perhaps a return to his old club Girona (also doing well above expectations in the league)? Or will Mallorca bid on him in a bid to pick up where Lee Kang In left off?
Primarily playing as a center mid for Jeonbuk since his return to the K League, in more recent times he has played in an attacking mid / “shadow striker” role for Petrescu (which is the role he is more used to from his days at Barcelona). Paik has gotten better and better every season, and the Barcelona prodigy in him is still there. Though it sucks that the FIFA ban effectively ruined his career, he has clearly shed off the 3 years of rust and I’m confident he will go on to enjoy a successful spell in Europe.
Also for any non-Koreans reading this or those generally unfamiliar with this player – he’s the one who scored the screamer against Brazil in the World Cup. His long range shots and free kicks are incredible.
Jung Ho Yeon
Jung Ho Yeon is a key player for Gwangju FC – one of the surprise packages this season currently third in the league playing some great, entertaining football under their up and coming manager Lee Jung Hyo. He was on my radar personally (as I haven’t been watching Gwangju’s games until more recently) as one of the many Korean players being scouted by Celtic FC 1-2 years back. They ended up taking Oh Hyeon Gyu, Yang Hyun Jun, and Kwon Hyeok Kyu (sadly only Yang Hyun Jun gets minutes right now and even that’s only thanks to an injury in the team), and given how congested their midfield is right now (to the point where Kwon rarely even makes the bench) Celtic is probably not the best destination right now. I can’t predict where he’ll end up, but like SYW, he is young, has time, and I hope he goes to an appropriate league playing for a team that values him and offers him time on the pitch.
JHY is a box to box, #8 kind of midfielder for Gwangju. He dribbles up the field and can score goals, is quite press resistant for K League standards, and can also put in good tackles and interceptions too – all attributes he showed during the Asian Games campaign.
Go Young Jun
It’s not often in the K League that a U22 player (the K League has a very fascinating U22 rule) becomes an undisputed starter for a K League club, let alone one of the best teams. Yet Go Young Joon, a Pohang youth academy graduate, is doing just that for his hometown club. A very talented CAM in the vein of Lee Kang In, Go Young Joon is one of the most in form K League players at the moment. Eight goals despite missing time due to injury (due to a Chinese player’s tackle) and the Asian Games – and many of those goals were some really important ones. And there was absolutely no doubt he’d be a shoo in for the AG squad.
We don’t have any specific transfer rumors for GYJ just yet but he is certainly a top pick in this generation to head to Europe in the coming years. I worry that some teams might write him off because of his height, but this obviously is not that important of a factor especially for his position. He also has surprisingly good strength for his size.
Cho Young Wook
Never the team’s headline player but he has always been in the NT mix – I seriously can’t believe he’s only 24 considering I’ve been watching this guy since 2014-2015 when he was on the U17 sides. He always brings something to the table, works hard, and scores clutch goals – as he scored the winner against Japan to clinch gold.
Look at these insane numbers (for Korean standards) despite his age:
Cho Young Wook has long been rumored to be on his way to Hamburg SV – however the military factor surely hampered his progress. He actually joined the military team last season and already has 13 goals there. Now he will be discharged early, presumably rejoin FC Seoul, and hopefully finally make that long awaited move to HSV (or some other European team) soon.
Um Won Sang
One of my favorite players to watch, Um Won Sang almost didn’t make the team after a horrific challenge in a friendly against China left him injured. Fortunately he did make it and although he had another injury scare after yet another awful challenge by an Uzbek defender (it’s always these two teams injuring our guys), he ultimately came back as a sub against Japan and his pace caused many problems for their backline in the late second half.
I have full confidence that every player on this list can flourish in Europe but in terms of adapting the fastest and getting to a top 5 league the fastest, I would pick Um Won Sang alongside Paik Seung Ho and Song Min Kyu (purely my opinion of course). All three are more than technically gifted enough, but Paik boasts years of experience in Europe and a Barca upbringing, Song boasts monstrous physicality (no one can muscle the ball off him), and Um boasts speed the likes of which we don’t see in Korean players. I am clearly no top tier football analyst/expert but I wonder if UWS could succeed right away in a direct, attacking oriented (maybe counterattacking-oriented more so than a buildup-oriented) Bundesliga side.
Song Min Kyu
Linked to many clubs in the past, perhaps a move will finally happen after getting military service out of the way. It makes sense why – he’s arguably Jeonbuk’s ace and is right behind only Son Heung Min and Hwang Hee Chan on the senior national team’s attacking winger/wide forward pecking order alongside Jeong Woo Young of Stuttgart. And I don’t think JWY is necessarily a BETTER player than Song Min Kyu (they’re both fantastic) – JWY though did come through the youth ranks at Bayern Munich and Freiburg. I wrote last year:
Most of us will be familiar with Song Min Kyu as he is a fairly regular name on the KNT with 13 apps and 1 goal to his name since his international debut in 2021. Prior to the 2022 season, there were lots of rumors about a move to Europe – Udinese, Fenerbahce, and Celtic (it really is always Fener and Celtic…) were rumored to be interested but nothing materialized
SMK was injured for the majority of the Asian Games but he finally made a starting appearance against China in the quarterfinals and impressed with his incredible physicality (prob the strongest in the entire team alongside LB Park Kyu Hyun) and press resistance – for these attributes he is reported to be a favorite with Petrescu and Paulo Bento. In the final against Japan he was single handedly holding off two Japanese defenders by the corner flag while trying to run down the time.
With regards to highlights, just search “song min kyu” on Youtube – sooo many compilations come up.
Guys like Song Min Kyu, Um Won Sang, Paik Seung Ho, and Seol Young Woo all have senior NT experience, and per football pundit and columnist Seo Hyung Wook (From the source video at the very top of this article) – if you have what it takes to succeed on the senior national team, you have what it takes to play in Europe; the challenges come from military service and adapting to a new environment. Now that the first part’s out of the way, we shall see what happens in the coming transfer windows.
Lee Seung Woo
LSW is on an incredible run of form recently and has won Player of the Month in August. There are rumors of a return to the Serie A. How serious are these rumors? Unclear, but he is in the form of his life at the moment (since he came back to Korea) so hopefully he can keep it up and make the move soon.
Hong Hyeon Seok
Not a K League transfer but HHS is getting increasing recognition for his form both for country and for KAA Gent. Is a transfer to a bigger league on the cards?