On Friday, October 13, Korea’s military exemption policies were called into question during a parliamentary audit. The specific focus of this discussion was on the exemptions granted to qualified athletes and musicians.
The recent Asian Games has reignited the debates over the fairness of exemptions after the national e-sports team won a gold medal and was automatically relieved from their 18-month mandatory service.
Both the ruling and opposition parties called on the Military Manpower Administration (MMA) to reconsider the current system that grants elite athletes and classical musicians the privilege of not serving in the military, unlike usual able-bodied South Korean men.
The military exemption policies were created in 1973 to promote national prestige. It said that young men who won gold medals at international sports events, including the Olympics and Asian Games, as well as classical musicians who win top prizes from prestigious competitions, are given exemptions from conscription.
However, this policy didn’t apply to BTS, the mammoth cultural figures of South Korea today, although they are considered to have promoted the national image under the current system.
Lim Byung Heon, a representative from the ruling People Power Party, said in the audit that the current exemption policies are full of loopholes. He chose the recent Hangzhou Asian Games as an instance and stated that a lot of team sports players were exempted from conscription after winning gold medals in games that are considered less competitive. He argued that some didn’t even play the game and yet were rewarded with exemption solely for belonging to the winning team.
Lim called for a thorough review of the system, pointing out the controversies surrounding some gold medalists.
There are suspicions that the Asian Games were used as means to provide military exemptions to players. Baseball and soccer teams tended to pick players among those who haven’t fulfilled their military service.
— Lim Byung Heon
Ahun Gyu Baek, a representative from the main opposition Democratic Party, also called for a revision in the current alternative service system, citing the struggle of a shrinking number of male soldiers owing to the country’s plummeting birth rate.
(I) have called on (the MMA) to revise the alternative service system to handle the declining manpower resources, but it has not yet come up with alternatives.
— Ahn Gyu Baek
As an aging society, South Korea is seeing a serious decline in its young population. The number of 20-year-old Korean men, which totaled 333,000 in 2020, is expected to fall to 226,000 in 2025 and 143,000 in 2040, according to an official estimate.
Lee Ki Sik, the MMA Commissioner, acknowledged that the current draft system has to be reconsidered for all the issues cited and stated that the MMA would be taking appropriate measures to restore the original purpose of the system.
Given the purpose of creation of the current reservist system in sport and art, people may have questions whether the current system is serving its original purpose. (MMA) will give a comprehensive assessment on the supplementary military service system to decide which areas needed to be retained, removed or reduced in order to operate it in line with its original purpose.
— Lee Ki Sik
The discussions are still at a very preliminary stage, and it is unclear how the system might change and what it would mean for the elite professionals in the “arts and culture” sector.