Military service still looms for South Korea’s Son

Tottenham and South Korea star Son Heung-min is riding high in his footballing career at the moment – but a harsh reality may soon intervene.

The 26-year-old from Chuncheon has yet to carry out the two-year mandatory military service expected of all South Koreans, and time is running out.

While he could technically earn an exemption to avoid military service, that is far from an easy task.

Son is currently in Indonesia chasing gold at the Asian Games, which along with winning a medal at the Olympics, is the only automatic way for a South Korean footballer to be excused.

Should South Korea fall in the semi-finals or finals, however, the consequences for Son could be quick and far-reaching.

A military call-up will likely follow in the next 18 months, which would start with five weeks of basic training followed by a further 22 months spent – in all likelihood – living in a giant 40-bed dormitory while guarding a remote outpost on the South Korean border with North Korea.

And the reality is, even being a world-class footballer does not exempt a South Korean from this service.

“The higher the profile, the more difficult it is to get out of these things,” James Hoare, Associate Fellow at Chatham House and an expert on the Korean peninsula, told BBC Sport.

“There is no system in the world that doesn’t have loopholes, but it is seen as such an important part of your commitment to the Republic, that trying to get out of it is not seen very positively.

“Service in the military is both an honour and an obligation. It is seen as proving you are a real Korean and that you have the country’s interest at heart even if you have long hair or magic football boots.

“The military is a very powerful organisation and they tend not to favour the rich or influential if they can avoid it.”

Trying to dodge military service in South Korea can have serious consequences.

When Park Chu-young used a residency permit he had obtained in Monaco as grounds for a ten-year delay on his duties, he was strongly criticised back home, leading to him being dropped from the national team before returning to Seoul to apologise.

In 2015, PGA Tour pro Bae Sang-moon tried to use his residency in the United States to delay his service and continue his professional career, but to no avail.

A court ruled against him and he spent two years as a rifleman in the army, returning to the PGA Tour a shadow of his former self, missing the cut in 11 of the 16 PGA Tour events he’s played since 2017.

Even celebrities like K-Pop music stars or Gangnam Style singer Psy can’t avoid being drafted.

Ironically, Son could have been spared this worry had he played in the 2014 Asian Games, but his club at the time, Bayer Leverkusen, refused his release. South Korea went on to win gold.

Several other South Korean footballers have also managed to escape their duties. The squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup were all honoured with special exemptions, as were the Olympic bronze-winning London 2012 side.

“It’s something we all respect. It’s not fair to say we are famous footballers so we don’t have to do it,” Newcastle midfielder Ki Sung-yueng said back in March.

“Sonny and I can’t just be given special treatment because we’re Premier League players.”

That’s a bit easier for Ki to say, however. As part of the London 2012 squad, his service was slashed to just four weeks. Right now, Son still faces two years.

For his part, the Spurs playmaker has not officially commented on the matter, nor has his club.

He was asked about it by Time magazine prior to the World Cup in June, but said only that he was not thinking about it at this time. His agent quickly stepped in to end the line of questioning.

But Son’s tears in the wake of quarter-final defeat by Honduras at Rio 2016 told their own story. Another chance at avoiding military service had come and gone, and his emotional reaction prompted a petition in South Korea in which signatories said they would be willing to do double the military service if Son could skip his. The petition attracted thousands of signees.

Because of his predicament, then, South Korea’s fortunes at the Asian Games this week are of huge importance to Son.

On the line is nothing less than his footballing career.