South Korean men have been required to perform military service since 1957. Every male between the ages of 18 and 28 must serve, usually for nearly two years. Women are not conscripted -- but they may voluntarily enlist. In an effort to win more athletic competitions, dictator Park Chung-hee decided in 1973 that athletes could get deferments. Current regulations say that athletes who win medals in the Olympics or gold medals in the Asian Games are considered Grade 4, required only to complete basic military training. Athletes are then required to compete in sports for 42 months, and after that they’re on reserve status. Recently, Son Heung-min, a star of the English Premier League, and the rest of the South Korean national soccer team earned military service exemptions after winning the gold medal in the 2018 Asian Games.
Thank you for your athletic service:
- Renowned classical musicians have also earned exemptions in the past. In recent years, some have argued that exemptions should also be given to actors and members of K-Pop bands if they garner enough international acclaim.
- In 2018, the South Korean Constitutional Court found the Military Service Act to be unconstitutional, allowing conscientious objectors to perform civilian forms of military service instead.
- In North Korea, conscription has been the norm since 1950. All men and some women serve in the military from age 17 until they turn 30. The children of political elites are exempt.