Military service conundrum for overseas Korean athletes 

Military service conundrum for overseas Korean athletes 
Bae Sang-moon
PHOTO: Facebook

A recent legal battle over the military duties of golfer Bae Sang-moon here brought back to surface years-old debate about how much consideration should be given to South Korean athletes playing overseas postponing the mandatary services for the sake of their careers.

Early Wednesday, the Daegu District Court backed the Military Manpower Administration, the local conscription agency, on its decision not to extend an overseas travel permit for Bae, currently staying in Canada to participate in the PGA Tour Canada.

The MMA had filed charges against Bae for violating the Military Service Act, which stipulates that any person subject to military conscription and whose travel permit has expired must return to Korea.

The public's interest erupted at the news, and the 29-year-old golfer became one of the most frequently searched keywords on Naver and Daum, Korea's biggest search engines.

Within hours, Bae ― once hell-bent on postponing the enlistment ― threw in the towel.

"I respect the decision of the court, and will honour it humbly. I feel that returning home and fulfilling my military duties as soon as I can will help me mature further as a golfer," said Bae, who has two PGA wins under his belt.

He reiterated that he never intended to dodge his services and wanted only to improve his career.

The golfer's case showed that military services remain a thorny issue for Korean athletes playing overseas.

Since the 1950-53 Korean War ceased in an armistice, the two Koreas remain technically at war. As such, all able-bodied Korean men are required by law to serve in the military for at least 21 months between ages 18 and 35.

The service period varies according to branches: 21 months for the Army and the Marine Corp., 23 for the Navy and 24 for the Air Force.

Spending two years in the barracks is taxing for anyone not looking to pursue a career in the military, but it presents a bigger challenge for athletes as it coincides with the prime of their careers.

As an option for athletes to continue their playing careers, Korean law allows them to join Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps. The KAFAC teams ― covering most major sports including football, baseball and basketball ― compete in division 2 leagues or with college leagues.

This allows players to hone their athletic skills during their service, although the limited roster means only a handful of players are able to benefit from the system.

But for players competing overseas, a two-year absence from their respective leagues posts hurdles in their careers.

Choo Shin-soo, an outfielder for the Texas Rangers, is one Korean athlete who recently wrestled with his military duties. In 2010, the then 28-year-old baseball player was running out of options as the military duty loomed over him.

The two-year absence would have severely affected his career, as he was on the verge of blossoming into a star.

His then-team, the Cleveland Indians, was also concerned. Choo confirmed in a TV interview the rumours that the Indians suggested Choo apply for US citizenship.

Fortunately for Choo, his concern was taken care of when the Korean national team won the gold at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games later that year.

Korea's conscription law states that those who have contributed significantly to the nation through athletic or artistic skills are exempt from military duties, although they must go through four weeks of combat training.

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