In South Korea, it takes extreme circumstances for young men to gain exemptions from mandatory military service. Still, some have set their hopes on doing whatever it takes to avoid conscription — even if it means gaining so much weight that they are deemed physically unfit for the armed forces.
This week, South Korea's Military Manpower Administration said that a group of 12 college students studying classical music in Seoul tried to gain a huge amount of weight before the medical exams that would determine their fitness for military service. The students drank protein powder to put on weight ahead of their appointments, and some even drank a heavy aloe vera juice the day of the exams to appear even heavier than they already were.
The Military Manpower Administration said in a statement that “the classmates shared tips on how to gain weight in an online chat room.” That may be how the military figured out they were gaming the system: Officials reportedly acknowledged using “digital forensic technology” to figure out that it wasn't a coincidence that the music students all put on so much weight before their appointments.
"The Military Manpower Administration, via thorough investigation, will do our best to root out military service evasion crime and make an example of the violators so that a fair and just military service culture can take root,” South Korean authorities said in a statement, according to CNN.
In June, Yonhap News Agency reported that intentional weight gain or loss is one of the most popular ways South Koreans try to avoid the military. Of the 59 men who illegally evaded the draft in 2017, according to the Military Manpower Administration in 2017, 37 percent had used weight as an excuse for why they could not join. United Press International reported that one man gained more than 60 pounds to avoid conscription in 2016. He went from weighing 170 pounds to 234 as part of his effort to be offered a less physically taxing job as a replacement for military service. Other South Koreans have gone so far as to purposely fracture bones, undergo unnecessary surgery or remove their teeth, Yonhap reported.
Of the 12 accused music students, four are currently completing their public service and two have since finished. The six others are waiting for postings to open up at state offices, Agence France-Presse reported.
But the students' initial escape from military service doesn't mean they will evade conscription forever — even if they've already spent time in another public-service role. Officials said prosecutors will determine whether the group can be charged for evading conscription. Depending on what happens next, some of the men could be reexamined and potentially forced to join the military anyway. They could also face prison time.
The most well-known way to get out of the draft is through sporting success: South Korean law gives exemptions to athletes who earn Olympic medals or who place first at the Asian Games. Earlier this year, South Koreans rallied around soccer star Son Heung-min and the rest of the South Korean national team, asking in a petition for the government to exempt them from the mandatory military service.
Although the petition didn't appear to change the government's mind, Son managed to get what his fans hoped for when South Korea won soccer gold at this year's Asian Games, beating Japan and earning lifelong exemptions for the team.