Army exemption comes with medal

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Army exemption comes with medal

When the young Taegeuk Warriors take the field against Brazil early tomorrow morning and then against Japan or Mexico in the medal match, the stakes will be very high for the Korean football players.

The young Taegeuk Warriors have never won a medal in the event, and the pressure to represent the country is enough to motivate any Olympic athlete. But in Korea, an added incentive has the potential to change the course of many of these footballers’ careers - bringing home a medal earns them exemption from military service.

Under Korean law, the military exempts able-bodied male athletes from mandatory service if they win an Olympic medal or an Asian Games gold medal.

Korean men must serve for 21 months before the age of 38. This has disrupted the careers of many athletes and has been a sensitive issue for the Korean public.

The ordinance on the special military exemption for athletes, revised as recently as 2008, was put in place to encourage athletes to enhance national prestige by winning major sporting events. But there has been a long-standing controversy over the fairness and implications of the policy.

Park Ji-sung, the longtime Manchester United midfielder who recently moved to QPR, blazed the trail when he earned military exemption for advancing to the semifinals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, back when the law granted exemptions for players advancing from the tournament’s group stage.

With his 20s cleared for football, Park went on to become an international star, scoring 27 goals in 205 games with the Red Devils.

Members of the current Olympic squad could see similar benefits to their football careers if they earn exemptions with a medal.

Park Chu-young of Arsenal, 27, is one of three wild card players of the Hong Myung-bo squad. He has been at the center of the controversy surrounding athletes and mandatory military service. Park was left off the national football team during crucial World Cup qualifiers for allegations that he was dodging service to continue his football career in Europe.

Some members of the Hong squad have admitted that military exemption is on their minds.

After the quarterfinal match versus Great Britain, the popular Korean song “The Private’s Letter” was played in the locker room. The song is about a newly conscripted soldier expressing mixed feeling about leaving to serve in the military.

“I don’t know who turned it on exactly, but I think it was to encourage us by reminding us of the benefits of the military exemption,” said Lee Bum-young, a goalkeeper who denied a decisive penalty shot by Great Britain on Sunday.

Coach Hong admitted that the military exemption is an issue his players will have to deal with, but said it will not put too much pressure on them.

“They have learned [how to cope with the pressure] through the Asian Games,” he said at a media conference yesterday.


By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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