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South Korean golfers have added medal motive at the Olympics: military exemption

Sungjae Im of South Korea can avoid mandatory military service if he medals at the Tokyo Olympics. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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South Korea’s Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim will have dual motives Wednesday night when the Olympic men’s golf tournament starts. Winning a medal would be nice, yes, but doing so also means they could avoid a career-halting stint in the South Korean military.

Military service is mandatory for adult South Korean men, who for the most part have until the age of 28 to enlist and serve at least 18 months (women may volunteer to serve but are not required). But since the 1970s, the South Korean government has carved out exemptions to compulsory military service for international athletic achievement. Anyone who wins any medal at the Olympics or a gold medal at the Asian Games can mostly forego their service.

Im is only 23 years old, so he will have another chance to win an exemption at the 2024 Paris Olympics. But Kim is 26, so the Tokyo Games represent his final chance to avoid military service — and the months-long interruption of professional earnings and status that come with it — via Olympic medal.

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The South Korean golfers consider the Olympics so important that both skipped this year’s British Open to prepare for the tournament.

Even if Im or Kim medal at the Olympics, they’re not completely off the hook. They still would have to complete four weeks of basic military training and must continue their professional golf careers for the next 42 months; after that, they would be placed in the reserves and still would have to attend a few days of military training annually for the next six years.

A number of prominent South Korean athletes have been exempted from military service, either by winning medals at the Olympics or Asian Games or by performing well in other prominent international events. South Korean soccer superstar Son Heung Min, who plays professionally for English club Tottenham Hotspur, gained his exemption after leading the country’s national team to gold at the 2018 Asian Games. Min completed his basic training in the South Korean Marines last year while professional soccer was shut down during the coronavirus pandemic.

K.H. Lee, who won a PGA Tour event in May, received his exemption via an Asian Games team gold medal in 2010, while Sung Kang — a 2019 winner on the PGA Tour — earned his the same way four years earlier (golf at the Asian Games is open only to amateurs, so Kim and Im cannot compete in next year’s event in China). Other South Korean golfers — including 2009 PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang, the country’s only golfer to win a major — completed their military service before turning pro.

At other times, South Korea extended exemptions past mere Olympic or Asian Games medals. In 2002, when South Korea co-hosted the World Cup with Japan, the government promised the national soccer team an exemption to military service if it advanced out of group play for the first time in program history; the Taegeuk Warriors not only did so, but reached the semifinals. South Korea’s national baseball team received the same promise if it reached the semifinals of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, which it did.

But the exemptions once again became restricted to Olympic or Asian Games medals after that amid a backlash from the South Korean public, who wondered if too many athletes were receiving them.

Kim, who sits 55th in the Official World Golf Rankings, burst onto the professional golf scene in August 2016 when he won a PGA Tour event at the age of 21. Nine months later, he became the youngest golfer ever to win the Players Championship, one of the PGA Tour’s premier events. But that would be his last victory until January, when he took top honors at the American Express in California.

Im, ranked 27th in the world, has one career PGA Tour win at last year’s Honda Classic, though he also finished second behind Dustin Johnson at the 2020 Masters. Neither he nor Im competed in the 2016 Olympic or 2018 Asian Games tournaments.

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The contentious issue of South Korean military exemptions was back in the spotlight last year when the government amended the country’s Military Service Act to allow the country’s major pop stars — like Kim Seok Jin of K-pop goliath BTS, who turned 28 in December — to defer service until age 30. It’s estimated that BTS alone contributed $4.65 billion to South Korea’s gross domestic product in 2019, and the boy band’s positive effect on South Korea’s image — its “soft power” — might be worth even more.

“When foreigners watch BTS performing, they’re going to see the innovativeness of Korea. They’re going to see how modern the Korean society is,” Lee Geun, president of the Korea Foundation, told NPR in December. “When we are successful in conveying and, you know, creating such images abroad, then the Korean government will have some benefits.”

Im and/or Kim winning an Olympic golf medal might not reverberate quite as much as the latest BTS single, but it still would help raise South Korea’s global image in the eyes of those who support exemptions for the country’s top athletes.

“Compared to other careers, those of athletes are short-lived. That is why the two-year exemption of mandatory military service was so crucial to the athletes,” An Min Suk, then a member of South Korea’s National Assembly, told local broadcaster CBS in 2018.