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Controversy Re-erupts Over Draft Exemptions for Jocks

Posted March. 26, 2009 10:52,   


A proposed move to grant members of the Korean national baseball team draft exemptions has reignited controversy over the matter.

Rep. Kang Seung-kyoo of the ruling Grand National Party, who is also head of the Korea Baseball Association, said yesterday, “Though players gave the public hope through concerted efforts, they cannot benefit from the special military exemption program,” hinting at a revision of the Military Service Act.

Experts say, however, that exemption rules have been inconsistent in their implementation and changed on an ad hoc basis due to public sentiment. The government and political circles have repeatedly granted favors in response to public opinion only to retract them later.

Korea introduced the military exemption program for athletes in 1994.

Under Article 49 of the Enforcement Decree of the Military Service Act, draft exemptions benefit only winners of silver medals or above at an Olympics or gold medals at the Asian Games.

Such athletes substitute military service, which normally lasts 26 months, with four weeks of basic training followed by service as athletes or coaches for three years in their respective sports.

When Korea advanced to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup soccer finals, the government and the then ruling Uri Party hurriedly revised the law, saying they wanted to grant draft exemptions to players who promoted Korea to the world.

Ahead of the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, politicians legislated a provision stipulating draft exemption if Korea advanced to the semifinals of the tournament. The baseball community had suggested that it could constitute a carrot to encourage players to win.

Politicians thus initiated a drive to offer “gifts” to players performing well in international competitions that attract keen public attention, including the baseball tournament.

The government, however, revised the Military Service Act in Dec. 2007. Under the revision, players could not get draft exemptions for advancing to the final 16 of a World Cup or the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic.

Critics claimed political abuse of the military exemption rule, while others cried foul given that players who stood out in relatively unpopular sports did not benefit.

As the rules on draft exemption are easily changed, the National Assembly and the presidential office have received a flurry of collective appeals demanding such exemptions under the pretext of “promotion of the country to the world.”

Interested parties claim that the exemptions should go not only to athletes in international competitions, including taekwondo, judo, wrestling, archery, ping pong and tennis, but also to winners in international go championships, math and science Olympiads, and Korean celebrities popular abroad.

Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Jang-soo, who served as defense minister under the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration, said, “It’s undesirable for Korea to even decide on compulsory military service based on public opinion and sentiment.”

“Granting of the draft exemption should be strictly limited, and encouraging athletes should be done through other measures such as active service at a military athletic unit or granting of orders of sports merit.”