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South Koreans Cry Foul Over Who Avoids Draft

SEOUL, South Korea — Choo Shin-soo, a star right fielder for the Texas Rangers, and Ryu Hyun-jin, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, have more in common than their Major League Baseball careers and South Korean nationality. Both also made their millions in baseball while exempted from the draft.

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Choe Sang-Hun
, New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — Choo Shin-soo, a star right fielder for the Texas Rangers, and Ryu Hyun-jin, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, have more in common than their Major League Baseball careers and South Korean nationality. Both also made their millions in baseball while exempted from the draft.

By law, all able-bodied men in South Korea must spend at least 21 months in the armed forces, a conscription system seen as crucial to the country’s defense against North Korea. But for decades, top athletes have been excused from that duty if they “enhance national prestige” by winning medals in the Olympics or the quadrennial Asian Games, as Choo and Ryu did.

Now many young South Koreans are questioning the fairness of that practice, calling it an outdated legacy of their country’s dictatorial past.

They wonder why millionaire athletes are given such a privilege while countless low-paid young men have to serve. And if triumph at the Asian Games counts as raising the nation’s profile, what about people who do so in other walks of life — like the K-pop band BTS, the first South Korean musicians to top the Billboard charts, who addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September.

“I think that members of BTS should also get the exemption,” said Song Kyung-taek, whose speedskating gold medal at the 2007 Asian Games excused him from military service. “When South Koreans go abroad, we can mention BTS to explain where we come from.”

Discontent over the program has simmered since this year’s Asian Games in Indonesia, which ended last month. Forty-two athletes, including 29 baseball and soccer players, received draft exemptions by winning individual or team gold medals at the games, where South Korea is routinely a top competitor in many sports.

“This is not fair,” said Park Han-jin, 26, an air force veteran, who was doubtful that the medal haul had much effect on the nation’s prestige one way or the other. “Our country has already won five Asian Games golds each in baseball and soccer alone.”

Draft exemptions are highly sought after in South Korea, where more than 230,000 young men each year, usually between the ages of 18 and 28, have to interrupt their studies or careers to join the military.

From a financial perspective, elite athletes facing the draft have more at stake than most, especially those in potentially lucrative sports like baseball and soccer. Multimillion-dollar contracts can hinge on whether they avoid the draft.

The Asian Games soccer final between South Korea and Japan drew special attention because it was the last chance for Son Heung-min, a star forward at the British club Tottenham Hotspur, to keep himself out of military barracks. Son, 26, had until next July to win an exemption, or he would have had to give up the Premier League for the army.

“It was as if people watched the match mainly to see if Son Heung-min could skip the military,” Koo Hyok-mo, a former army captain, said during a forum last month.

Athletes are not the only ones who can win draft exemptions; they are also granted to classical and traditional musicians who win certain awards. Pop singers have no such opportunity, even though K-pop is a global phenomenon. When members of well-known boy bands report for boot camp, crowds of female fans from across Asia often gather to bid them farewell.

“When I worked in Jordan as a volunteer taekwondo coach, I could see a K-pop craze there and how it was playing a big role in getting local people to like South Korea,” said Kang Tae-gyu, another South Korean who believes pop musicians should be eligible for exemptions.

But the recent backlash over the program has focused on the exemptions for athletes, which over the years seem to have been given out almost according to whim.

They were introduced in 1973 by the dictator Park Chung-hee, who was pushing for South Koreans to bring home medals in major sports — to distract the population from its dissatisfaction over his rule, in the view of some historians. A wrestler, Yang Jung-mo, was the first to receive an exemption, after winning gold in the 1976 Summer Olympics. Another military strongman, Chun Doo-hwan, handed out exemptions more freely as Seoul was preparing to host the Asian Games in 1986 and the Olympics in 1988. To motivate the national teams, Chun offered them to anyone who won a medal of any kind at either event. Once the Seoul Olympics were over, the rules were tightened again, with bronze and silver Asian Games medalists now excluded.

The government started giving out even more exemptions in 2002, as South Korea was putting on another major sports event: the soccer World Cup, which it co-hosted with Japan. The national team was told that it could skip military service if it reached the round of 16. Not only did it do so, it made the semifinals.

On the heels of that apparent success, the government made the same promise to the national baseball team if it reached the World Baseball Classic semifinals in 2006. It did, taking third place. But many South Koreans seemed to think the policy had gone too far, and both the baseball tournament and the World Cup were removed from the draft exemption program amid the ensuing backlash.

This year, much of the public discontent over the Asian Games exemptions revolved around the baseball team. Coaches were accused of recruiting not the most qualified players, but those who were most desperate to stay out of the military.

The head coach Sun Dong-yol vehemently denied the accusation in a news conference this month. As such stories drew bitter commentary, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon promised to make the exemption criteria more “reasonable.”

The Defense Ministry wants to phase out the exemptions, for reasons of its own. After decades of declining birthrates, South Korea is struggling to fill the ranks of its 650,000-member armed forces, and the military essentially wants everyone it can get. Until a few years ago, for example, draft officials excluded men with large tattoos from military service, because tattoos were often associated with organized crime. Not anymore.

Song, the speedskating gold medalist, worries that sports like his, which do not have professional leagues and lucrative contracts, will suffer if the draft exemptions are abolished. The exemptions are a major reason parents encourage their children to pursue such sports in the first place, said Song, who now coaches for the national team.

“When athletes train for the Olympics, they aim for gold medals, not for draft exemption,” he said. “But their parents are different.” Recent surveys have found that many South Koreans want the exemption system reformed, and that some want it abolished outright. But others say that giving relatively few athletes a pass on military service — 220 exemptions have been granted in the past 10 years — has been worth it.

“Athletes who do well as national representatives make people proud,” said Kim Se-yeop, 23. “Although I myself still have to serve in the military, I applaud them,” he said.

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