Qualified athletes and musicians are given benefits to be exempted from South Korea’s mandatory 18-month military service. However, this year’s Asian Games triggered deeper discussions over the fairness of this benefit.
The 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games recently ended on October 8. Since then, there have been discussions about whether athletes who won gold medals at the Asian Games should be exempted from military service.
On October 13, during the National Defense Committee’s audit of the Military Manpower Administration, there were suggestions from both the ruling and opposition parties that the supplementary military service system should be reconsidered. The Military Manpower Administration will thoroughly review the supplementary military service system.
Representative Lim Byeong Heon of the People Power Party pointed out that among some national teams that participated in the Asian Games, which ended on October 8, there was a high percentage of non-serving athletes. He raised concerns, saying, “Isn’t the Asian Games being used to receive military service benefits?”
He continued by pointing out that there were cases where athletes in team sports did not participate in the games but received military service exemption because the team won.
In some sports, there are cases where athletes who have not participated in a single match despite winning first place in the team are receiving military benefits, raising issues of fairness… This incident should be an opportunity to closely review the entire alternative military service system, including those in the arts and sports.
— Representative Lim Byeong Heon
Representative Ahn Gyu Back of the Democratic Party emphasized the need for an overall redesign of the supplementary military system. He pointed out that military resources are rapidly decreasing, unlike in 1973, when the alternative military service system was first introduced.
Lee Ki Sik, the head of the Military Manpower Administration, expressed the need for a comprehensive review of the current system and mentioned that they will examine the system to determine which areas need to be changed or maintained.
We believe a comprehensive review of the supplementary military service system is necessary… We will examine the supplementary military service system, which is classified into categories such as arts and sports personnel, industrial function personnel, and public health doctors, and check to see what needs to be maintained, abolished, or reduced.
— Lee Ki Sik, Head of the Military Manpower Administration
The supplementary military system allows individuals who meet certain criteria among those subject to active duty enlistment to serve as specialized personnel in specific fields as a substitute for military service. Social service workers, public health doctors, professional research personnel, industrial function personnel, and arts and sports personnel fall under the category of alternative military service.
Concerns have been raised about the alternative military service for arts and sports personnel, who, after receiving basic military training during the day, engage in activities in their respective fields for 34 months while completing volunteer work, effectively being seen as ‘military exemption.’ Controversies have arisen again around the military benefits given to Olympic and Asian Games gold medalists, discussing issues related to opportunities, consequences, and fairness, especially in the context of public music, K-pop, which doesn’t have official competitions like sports.
Some compared athletes who won gold at the Asian Games to BTS, claiming that even members of the world-renowned group—a national treasure to Korea—went to the military. Others claimed that since fewer men are going to the military, the military benefits should be abolished for everyone.