Son Heung-min is special.
The 26-year-old Korean forward has elevated himself to the top of world football with a combination of speed, technical ability, creativity, and flair. He’s a regular for Tottenham Hotspur, a club that has finished third, second, and third in its past three English Premier League seasons. He’s scored spectacular goals in the Champions League and the World Cup. He is a three-time Asian Footballer of the Year and a two-time Premier League Player of the Month.
Yes, he is special. And he has a problem.
In South Korea, all able-bodied males under the age of 28 must complete a minimum of 21 months of military service. There are some exceptions to this rule, but none of them apply to Son. His predicament is a result of both bad luck and his own decisions, but the problem remains.
Thus this month Son is flying halfway around the world, from London to Indonesia, at the start of the Premier League season to play for Korea as one of the three older players allowed on the U-23 national team in the Asian Games, a tournament that he’s far too good for. He’s doing this to earn a military exemption so that his spectacular career isn’t cut short in its prime. He’s doing this now because he had put his club career and personal growth ahead of getting a military exemption. Tottenham are letting him go during its season because the Spurs want him to get that exemption as much as he does.
If Son and Korea win this tournament, he will have achieved what he needs to earn that exemption.
If they lose? Well, then it gets complicated.
After the Korean side were all-but eliminated from the 2018 World Cup by losing to México 2-1 in their second group stage match, Son — who scored Korea’s only goal, an absolute peach — broke down in tears when he saw President Moon Jae-in consoling his teammates in the locker room.
“I really didn’t want to cry,” he said at the time. “But after I saw my teammates in there, I couldn’t stop. I feel sorry for them, especially those who were having their first World Cup. They did a great job.”
Son wasn’t just lamenting his team’s elimination from the tournament. He knew the loss signified another failed attempt at earning an exemption from military service.
With an at-times belligerent nuclear nation flexing its muscles fewer than 40 miles from their capital city, most South Koreans understand the necessity of this requirement. According to Korean football journalist Roy Ghim and a study by Japanese academic Masaki Tosa, nationalism and collectivism prevail in Korea, especially in sports. So it is all hands on deck when it comes to their northern neighbors. This is true even of national soccer team stars who just returned from a massive upset over Germany in their final match at the 2018 World Cup, an inspired performance from an already eliminated team.
Aside from national security, some Koreans also see military service as a question of equity. The average Korean has to halt his personal and professional life to serve in the military, live in a barracks, and make do with a stipend of 310,000 won (around $275) a month. Why should athletes get special treatment? What makes them “special” anyway?
In the past, the Korean government has given exemptions to truly outstanding athletic performances. In 2002, the Korean national team made the semifinals of the World Cup on home soil, dispatching Italy, Portugal, and Spain along the way. The squad’s hard-working, band-of-brothers ethos captivated the nation, with supporters spilling out into the streets, sharing in collective joy, momentum building after each successive victory. Such was their impact that each player on the team received a one-time exemption from military service.
After the 2002 World Cup, the government created a law awarding military service exemptions to national teams who made the World Cup round of 16 or the World Baseball Classic semifinals. However, the 2006 World Baseball Classic squad, which won bronze, were the only Koreans to reap the benefits, as the government withdrew the law in 2007. Korean citizens criticized the law for favoring “glamour sports” — soccer and baseball — over elite athletes who played lower-tier sports.
Currently, the military exemptions law applies to the following individuals:
- Anyone who wins a medal at the Olympics. Bronze, silver, or gold. Any color will do.
- Anyone who wins gold at the Asian Games, a sort of budget version of the Olympics that draws barely any media coverage.
- Anyone with a full-body tattoo. (Korean military regulations stipulate that tattooed men cannot serve their country because they create “abomination among fellow soldiers.” The government has also begun to crack down on tattoos — which carry a gangster stigma — as a means of service dodging.)
Korea’s 2010 World Cup team tested the boundaries of the current law, as the squad managed to advance to the round of 16 by securing a draw with Nigeria in the final group stage fixture. The Korean Football Association tried to seize the moment, recommending military exemptions for the entire squad. FA president Chung Mong-gyu attempted to sway the public.
“We need the public’s opinion,” he said. “I hope we can talk about it more after the World Cup.”
Unfortunately, the nation’s political climate didn’t help. Earlier in 2010, a North Korean torpedo sunk the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 seamen in the process. The 160-mile demilitarized zone dividing the North and the South became a bubbling cauldron. President Lee Myung-bak opted for a hardline strategy in diplomatic relations, responding to increased aggression from his Northern neighbors.
So, Chung’s desired “talks” about exemptions for the World Cup team never really happened. Optically, it was not the moment for military exemptions.
The 2012 Olympic soccer team earned their exemptions by getting bronze in London, winning a high-stakes, third-place match 2-0 over Japan, a nation without mandatory conscription. In a seemingly meaningless consolation match, it was the South Koreans who wanted it more, highlighting a larger distinction between sporting cultures in the two East Asian nations.
An example of how much that medal meant to the Korean squad: With the match decided, manager Hong Myung-bo sent on defender Kim Kee-hee — who had yet to play in the tournament — in the 90th minute, with whispers from fans that he was put on just so he could get his military exemption.
In 2012, Park Chu-young — a promising Korean striker who earned a move to Arsenal after modest success in Ligue 1 — received a 10-year deferment on his service. This was due to a loophole created in the 1970s by dictator Park Chung-hee for athletes to avoid conscription, as he saw athletic achievement as a necessary means to achieve soft power and global public relations. Park met the conditions for this loophole through a three-year stint in Monaco, where he earned European residence.
Public backlash was swift. As the 60-plus-year cold war with the North simmered and the right-wing government remained in power, a messy affair concluded in a contrite public apology from Park. Even Cha Bum-kun — a legendary Korean player who scored nearly 100 goals during an 11-year stint in the German Bundesliga — had to issue a public apology for coming out in support of Park.
Park eventually rendered the point moot, scoring the match winner in that bronze medal win over Japan, earning his exemption through those London Olympics. Nevertheless, conscription rules have hamstrung top Korean footballing talent for the past decade. At the 2013 U-20 World Cup, prodigy Ryu Seung-woo turned heads with an absolute banger from outside of the box against Portugal. Immediately after the tournament, Jurgen Klopp’s avant-garde Borussia Dortmund side — fresh off a Champions League Final appearance — offered him a contract, a dream for any 19-year-old.
Unthinkably, Ryu turned it down. Given the level of competition at Dortmund, he was worried he wouldn’t get enough playing time to warrant inclusion in Korea’s 2014 Asian Games side. And missing out on that tournament would mean no shot at a military exemption.
Son Heung-min is the biggest star on the Korean national team. He is their man of the moment. And he will theoretically have to stop playing soccer to begin his military service before his 28th birthday on July 8, 2020.
For the past few years, as Son has defined himself as the star of this — and possibly every — Korean footballing generation, whispers about him receiving a possible exemption, or perhaps just a deferment, have become more and more prevalent. Which begs the question: If everyone has to do military service — and if Korea’s had legitimate superstars do military service in the past — why is Son’s service in particular such a big deal?
For one, Son is a fantastic footballer. He’s the best Korean in the world right now, and he has the potential to become the best Korean ever. He is currently worth €50 million, according to Transfermarkt. And he still holds the distinction of most expensive Asian footballer of all time, fetching €30 million when he transferred from Leverkusen to Tottenham in 2015.
On the pitch, he’s industrious, and his work rate certainly measures up. However, he’s also incredibly technical with both feet; he’s scored 16 goals with his right foot, 12 goals with his left, and two goals with his head in the Premier League. He’s pacy and he has a preternatural sense of spacing, always popping up in the right place. He seems to glide with the ball, each movement full of purpose and menace. You get the sense he’s always dictating the rules of engagement, running at defenders, making something happen as opposed to waiting for it to happen.
However, it’s not just Son’s on-field product that makes his military service a huge topic of discussion. Son is also an aberration among Korean footballers in that he has the personality, the marketability, and the style to become a global superstar — someone who elevates Korean football in a way no one before him ever has.
Park Ji-sung, the man who currently holds the title of most famous Korean footballer, played seven years at Manchester United, endearing himself to the Old Trafford faithful through his hard work and team-first attitude. Son is certainly humble, but he’s endeared himself to White Hart Lane through his humor, his enormous smile, and his willingness to dab after goals with Dele Alli.
To that end, Tottenham supporters love him so much that they gave him his own chant, which they scream at White Hart Lane (or Wembley) whenever “Sonny” scores:
Nice one, Sonny! Nice one, Son!
Nice one, Sonny! Let’s have another one!
Basically, Son is a world-class talent at the absolute peak of his powers, who can not only win at the highest level, but also delight and entertain notoriously stodgy fans in perhaps the top league in the world. A man who can potentially alter the course of Korean football.
And he’s sacrificing the opening portion of his Premier League season to play against U-21 teams in empty stadiums.
Son Heung-min was not in Tottenham’s squad for their 3-1 victory over Fulham this past weekend. That match was the home opener at Wembley this season, drawing over 58,000 supporters. Instead, he found himself on a threadbare pitch in Soreang, Indonesia, coming off the bench to try to rescue a result for South Korea against the Malaysian B team, watched by almost no one.
It’s difficult to overstate how little these Asian Games matter to everyone except Korea. The Games are a U-23 tournament, but several nations — including powerhouses like Iran and Japan — treat it like a U-21 tournament, caring little about the results and sending their raw youth players to get some experience. The Games aren’t really an event, as it’s difficult to find any true coverage on the internet. (After a search, I could only find the results of South Korea’s group stage matches on the Wikipedia article about the tournament.)
However, this ramshackle tournament means everything to Son and several of his teammates. Each nation’s football team is allowed to roster up to three overage players for the Asian Games. For South Korea, 26-year old keeper Cho Hyun-woo — who made a name for himself during this past World Cup — is there. Barcelona academy graduate Lee Seung-woo is there.
And so is Son Heung-min. As Son is already 26 years old, these 2018 Asian Games figure to be his last stand before he reaches the mandatory service age of 28.
Tottenham have agreed to release Son for the tournament — something that Leverkusen previously wouldn’t do — in exchange for the Korean FA not calling him up for the November international break. Tottenham are most likely willing to make this trade-off because it benefits them in the long term, as losing Son to the military for two years at the peak of his career would destroy his value.
Ironically, Son’s uniqueness and dedication to playing at the highest levels have prevented him from already earning his military exemption. He could have joined the bronze-winning 2012 London Olympic squad, but he turned down the opportunity because he didn’t want to miss time with Hamburg. Leverkusen wouldn’t release him for the 2014 Asian Games — since they’re not a FIFA-sanctioned event — where the South Korean team won gold. He played at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but Korea lost in the quarters to a resolute, bunkered-in Honduras side. And despite the big win over Germany, Korea crashed out in the group stages of the 2018 World Cup.
The Korean side at the Asian Games will need to get their act together quickly. After losing 2-1 to a surprisingly potent Malaysia, Korea needed a result in their final group stage match against Kyrgyzstan to advance in the tournament. They got it — thanks to an impeccable Son volley — but their form and management from Kim Hak-bum leave a lot to be desired.
The Koreans, though likely still the odds-on favorites and generally strong in attack, are shaky at the back. Nevertheless, they were able to dispatch a U-21 Iranian side in the Round of 16 with relatively little fanfare, then on Monday beat Uzbekistan in a 4-3 thriller to advance to the semifinal on Wednesday.
Oddly enough, Son did not play in the first group stage match and only appeared as a second half substitute in the second. Perhaps through some agreement with Tottenham, the South Korea team seems to be keeping him encased in a “break in case of emergency” glass box. They broke that box in the final group stage match, and Son rewarded them with a class goal. It was the match winner in a 1-0 result, where a simple corner kick breezed in to the back post, which Son finished easily.
The goal was pretty, but watching it also gives you an idea of the level of competition at the Asian Games: How can you leave the tournament’s best player that wide open at the back post?
If Korea lose these Asian Games, Son could potentially have one more shot at an exemption: the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He’ll turn 28 on July 8, 2020, but he could request a temporary waiver to play in the Olympics at the end of the month. However, given the presence of nations from other continents, this route figures to be far more difficult and competitive than the watered-down Asian Games.
Son could also seek a 10-year deferment along the lines of Park Chu-young, but based on the blowback Park got in 2012, Son will likely not pursue this path.
Most Korean footballers fulfill their debt to their country by playing for Sangju Sangmu, a second-division K-League team affiliated with the military. Lee — the player who earned co-Asian Footballer of the Year with Dortmund and Manchester United’s Kagawa — completed his service in this manner.
In a cruel twist of fate, Son doesn’t even have this option. All footballers who want to complete their service by playing for Sangju Sangmu must have played in the K-League, South Korea’s professional league, for at least six months. That wouldn’t be an issue, as Son could theoretically transfer to a K-League side six months before beginning his service. However, Son dropped out of Dongbuk High School at 16 to chase his professional footballing dream in Hamburg. Leaving high school means he is ineligible to perform active military duty, which includes playing for Sangju Sangmu. (If he were to serve, it would need to be behind a desk. More on that shortly.)
This piece of Son’s story gets at the crux what’s so unique about his situation: Son has never been limited by the ideas of what a Korean footballer could be, and that in part has defined what makes Son so special. He dropped out of high school and left Seoul for Hamburg, Germany because he wanted to play against the best in the world. He left a comfortable situation in Hamburg for Leverkusen because he wanted to play in the Champions League.
And ultimately, it’s this willingness to be special — and, conversely, that unwillingness to accept the limits of what a Korean footballer should be — that has forced him to attend these 2018 Asian Games in the first place. He didn’t play for medal-winning Korean sides at the Olympics and the Asian Games when he was the proper age because he was too good for his age group. Instead, he wanted to become the best footballer he could and play for the best clubs that he could. He wanted to make it in the Bundesliga and the Champions League.
When the Korean government created the rules for military exemptions, they did so without knowing how special of an athlete they would have on their hands within the next decade. In essence, Korea has decided (quite unintentionally) that their most special athlete isn’t special in the right way. And it’s Son’s desire to be special that could ultimately cost him his career.
If Son ends up having to do his military service, it could also discourage young Korean footballers from trying to follow his path and break the mold. Roy Ghim, an American freelance journalist who has written about the topic of Korean athletes and military conscription, believes that just as the 2002 World Cup team’s success opened the floodgates for Korean players to move to the continent, Son having to serve in the military could start to close them. European clubs could decide that Koreans who go M.I.A. during their prime years just aren’t worth the trouble.
“I can’t stress just how big (the ripple effect will be),” Ghim wrote in a Facebook message. “The halting effect is for the current generation of kids growing up in Korea. They see someone like Son who has sacrificed a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and was unlucky with the timing of his club career (preventing him from) joining the 2012 Olympic and 2014 Asian Games squads to gain military exemption, only to be hauled back to Korea because of the many moving parts and unpredictability of the U23 2016 Olympic and 2018 Asian Games squads in falling short of a proper medal to get exemption — they’re going to conclude it’s not worth going fully into football.”
Since dropping out of high school left him ineligible for active duty, there’s only one option left for Son’s military service: civil service. The national team’s star player — in the prime of his career, no less — would sit behind a desk. In this scenario, Son would staple a lot of papers, fill out a lot of forms, and likely only have time for amateur 3rd-division soccer on the weekends.
(To be fair, I’d pay a not-insignificant amount of money for footage of those matches.)
Certain Korean officials do realize the absurdity of the situation. Current Korean FA president Chung Mong-gyu, like his predecessors, has spoken out about military exemptions: “Korean players face difficulties at their peak as it coincides with their military duty. I’ll discuss with the government about potentially granting more exemptions, pushing the age limit, and expanding player selection for military teams.”
The current political climate is also more amenable to deferments. President Moon Jae-in has recently advocated for increased cooperation with their Northern neighbors.
No matter what happens, Ghim forsees a situation in which the public feels some sympathy for Son.
“I’ll wager that the Korean public will be more sympathetic to Son’s hypothetical deferment bid because he’s more decorated (than Park Chu-young),” he said. “It’s an educated guess, but the public won’t go apeshit this time around.”
Ghim has also spoken with Korean expats who used to serve in the military.
“It’s unscientific polling ground,” he says. “But all of them have been enthusiastic about the idea of Son and other footballers having some flexibility with conscription, à la deferment. Rationally, deferment shouldn’t be a controversial issue. A 35-year-old footballer retiring from the Prem is still 1,000 times more fit than the average 28-year-old conscript.
...Korea is shooting itself in the foot if they aren’t willing to sort this out, and it will be an embarrassing international headline for someone like Son to come back to Korea, only to get a desk job rather than suit up for Sangju Sangmu in between military drills.”
Ultimately, this is the rub: Korea’s military exemption laws exist to reward excellence and the creation of a positive national image on a global stage. According to Tosa’s study, Korea traditionally rewards athletic excellence when it furthers “sports nationalism” and solidarity within the nation. As such, these exemptions reward athletes who advance the nation’s political agenda within a collectivist framework. As Victor D. Cha — the former Director for Asian Affairs for the National Security Council at the White House — put it, “Not only is sport political, but it is arguably more political in Asia than elsewhere in the world.”
Son — with his flair on the pitch, his willingness to put club commitments ahead of country, and his desire to become the best he can be — has made a decision to exist outside of Korea’s sporting framework, to not be constrained by it. And though he’s quite possibly the most excellent Korean athlete in the world today, he may ultimately be punished for that ambition and commitment to excellence.
And though equality and patriotism matter, and though the issue is thorny and complex, how could Son possibly serve South Korea as a patriot better than he does right now? Organized as he may be, there’s no way he provides more value to his country as a civil servant than as a forward. When it comes to the projection of soft power and advancing South Korea’s global image, Sonny the Tottenham star makes a much larger impact than Son Heung-min, effective stapler.
If you want to hear more from Roy Ghim or follow Son’s progress in the 2018 Asian Games, check out the Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors.
Mikeie Reiland is a writer based in Nashville. This article was reported in collaboration with Dat Winning.