If athletes can dodge military service in South Korea, why can’t pop stars?

Rain had to do it.
Rain had to do it.
Image: EPA/Yonhap
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The final soccer match between South Korea and Japan in the Asian Games which took place last Saturday (Sep.1) was more than just a sports victory for Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min. His exemption from mandatory military service hinged on his team beating Japan. 

Luckily for Son, Korea ended up winning that game, which means he’ll be able to play unimpeded at the English Premier League team without having to worry about being sent away for 21 months to army service. Under Korean law, every able-bodied male must be drafted (although it’s not unusual for the children of the rich and well-connected to dodge conscription). Even the biggest K-pop stars are not exempt

The debate over who gets to be exempt from serving, however, flares up every few years, particularly during big sporting events. But with the exploding popularity of K-pop in recent years, there is growing criticism that not all kinds of talent are recognized fairly. Some are wondering why K-pop stars, who have helped boost the country’s image overseas, are judged by different standards to athletes and classical artists. There are even online petitions (link in Korean) submitted to the presidential Blue House calling for K-pop group BTS—whose album recently topped the US Billboard chart—to be exempt.

“The general public, including young people, wonder what makes topping the Billboard chart different from winning in other international competitions? Winning the former is likely to create bigger added value. But there is no mention of popular culture on the list,” Ha Tae-kyung, a lawmaker, said in July during a meeting at the national legislature.

According to a law (link in Korean) enacted in 1973, men who have “raised the national image on a global stage and enriched the culture and sports sectors” are allowed to avoid military conscription. Son, along with other Asian Games gold medalists and Olympic medalists of any kind, qualify for the exemption, as well as winners of local and global artistic competitions. There are 48 such recognized competitions including the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition, the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, and the Seoul International Dance Competition. As of May, 449 people have qualified (link in Korean) for the exemption on those grounds.

The South Korean government has also granted one-off exemptions on two occasions—the 2002 World Cup when the national soccer team made it to the semi-finals for the first time, and the 2006 World Baseball Classic semi-finals when the national team placed 4th.

On the other hand, some believe that the exemption policy should be abandoned altogether, given the subjective nature of determining who has raised Korea’s profile sufficiently internationally. More than 85% of South Koreans think that the current law governing exemption from military service needs to be overhauled to ensure fairness, according to a government survey (link in Korean) conducted in 2015.

“Some people are born with artistic or athletic abilities, but a large part of that is determined by their parents’ financial status, so I find it unfair that conscription is applied selectively,” said Park Hyung-jun, a 24-year-old male in Seoul.

Amid the widening debate over who gets to be exempt from conscription, the government even said that it is considering abolishing the exemption policy altogether, without providing specifics on how and when.

While the future of exemption from conscription remains murky, one thing is for certain—by the end of next year, the military must provide alternative civilian forms of service for conscientious objectors, according to a court ruling in June

South Korea imprisons more conscientious objectors than any other country in the world. More than 18,700 conscientious objectors have been jailed as of 2016, according to Amnesty International, most of them Jehovah’s Witnesses. Upon their release, conscientious objectors face social and economic disadvantages throughout their lives, as they are barred from working in the civil service and often fail background checks required by private corporations. 

According to an Amnesty International survey in 2016, 72% of South Koreans said they do not understand conscientious objectors, but 70% stated that the country should allow alternative civilian roles (link in Korean) for them.

But many conservative South Koreans still strongly support military conscription. The Liberal Party last month proposed a bill that would force conscientious objectors to serve 44 months for an alternative military service that involves dangerous activities such as mine sweeping (link in Korean).