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The Peninsula

Of Conscripts and Athletes: Origins of the Exemption System

Published November 1, 2018
Category: South Korea

By Sanghyun (Raphael) Lee

Recent developments have placed a spotlight on the guidelines that the South Korean government has used to determine military duty exemptions for the last 30 years. Some critics point out that the government has already reached the goals that it had set out to attain through the exemption system: broader recognition of South Korea by winning medals and prizes in international competitions. Moreover, with the country still technically in a state of war, conscription is viewed as a vital component of retaining military readiness. Simultaneously, re-imposing blanket conscription intuitively feels out of step with the country’s socio-economic and cultural trajectory.

Here is a review of how the rules were first established, an important starting place for the much-needed policy discussion.

During the height of the Cold War, North Korea appeared to be outpacing South Korea in the race to win international recognition as the sole legitimate government on the peninsula. While both Koreas were excluded from the United Nations until 1991, Seoul felt threatened by the prospect of Pyongyang utilizing its broader international recognition to isolate the South during a hot conflict. This was not an unreasonable fear given contemporary events: international student protests affected the U.S. government’s ability to wage war against North Vietnam and the United States was beginning the process of extending diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China.

In this backdrop, Park Chung-hee may have felt acutely threatened when North Korea attracted further international attention with its first gold medal win at the 1972 Munich Olympics – a feat that South Korean athletes had yet to achieve. Immediately after, the administration identified sports as a vehicle for promoting the country’s international status, and the first exemption guidelines were promulgated the very next year.

However, these underlying concerns and conditions have radically reversed in the past 30 years. The Cold War is officially over and the North Korean political model is universally discredited. Measuring the economic weight of the two Koreas, the South has been a member of the OECD since 1996 while the North’s market failure is widely known. Even in terms of soft power, Hallyu has only begun its proliferation around the world. The urgency of struggling for recognition via-a-vis the North has dramatically lessened. Additionally, South Koreans are now being acknowledged on the international stage in a multitude of fields beyond sports.

Furthermore, the standards for exemptions were changed several times over the years, creating ambiguities. When the system was first introduced, it covered top athletic graduates from Korea National Sports University and medalists in international competitions. Later, qualification for the privilege became higher, however, exemptions were subsequently expanded to cover a broader spectrum – the exceptions. For instance, members of the national soccer team received the privilege after they advanced to the semi-finals of the World Cup – but not based on any previously established metric.

More recently, questions have been raised on why Hallyu stars who contribute so heavily to promoting Korea’s brand across the world are not eligible for exemptions. BTS being a prime recent example. Similar arguments can be made for e-sports stars.

Given the abovementioned changes in the geopolitical environment and South Korea’s new found confidence on the global stage, existing guidelines for military duty exemptions should be reviewed. In particular, as the available number of men who can serve in the military keeps decreasing and remaining conscripts take on a heavier burden, the young men who are asked to serve their country deserve a clear explanation on what the exemption system seeks to achieve today.

Sanghyun (Raphael) Lee is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea Armed Forces photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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