South Korean footballers and military conscription

“Carrick. Rooney. Carrick. Lovely football from Manchester United, and Park has got so much space, he’s one of four breaking for United here but Park could go all the way… and does! They are ripping Arsenal to shreds!”

-Martin Tyler on Arsenal vs. Manchester United: 1-3 Premier League 2009-10

There are only a few moments of the game that can so accurately capture my purest and fondest memories of soccer in my childhood. Park Ji Sung scoring against Arsenal is one of them. Manchester United superfans will remember “Three Lung Park” for his incredible defensive workrate, quickness on the counterattack[i], and for the significant rotational role he played in the club’s successes during the 06-09 era of Sir Alex Ferguson[ii].

“At Milan, he [Sir Alex Ferguson] unleashed Park Ji-sung to shadow me. The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron.”

-Andrea Pirlo on Park Ji Sung in his book, “I Think Therefore I Play”

But for me, I appreciated Park for a whole different reason – the South Korean blood in me swelled with pride seeing him perform at the highest level. He was the player that made my dad erupt in celebration when playing for the national team. He was the reason why I chose unlucky #13 as my jersey number every year. Park Ji Sung’s name still resonates throughout my home to this day, years after his retirement in 2014.

Park’s career as the most decorated Asian football player in history – 19 total trophies including 4x EPL titles, 1x Champions League, 1x World Club Cup[iii] – was largely influenced by the results of the 2002 World Cup. At the time, Park was only 21 years old playing in the J. League for Kyoto Purple Sanga. As a “skinny and weak”[iv] child with dreams of being a professional footballer, he would eat wild frogs his father caught and drink deer blood[v] with the belief it would help him become stronger. The 2002 World Cup was co-hosted by long-time rivals South Korea and Japan, the only tournament to have been co-hosted. While the tournament in and of itself has a slew of controversies[vi] not covered here, Park scored the lone goal against a 9-man Portugal to top Group G and end Portugal’s tournament run, propelling South Korea to the knockout stage for the first time in its history. The players were treated like heroes on the Korean peninsula. Even North Korea’s football association chairman, Ri Kwang-gun, sent his congratulations[vii]. As a result of their successes, South Korea’s defense ministry exempted the World Cup squad (Park included) from serving their mandatory 26-month military service.

Compulsory military service is a defining part of South Korean culture and has long been embedded as a shared experience amongst the South Korean community. All able-bodied men are conscripted for around two-years of service between the ages of 18 and 28. Most professional athletes, such as Park Ji Sung, defer their conscription for as long as they can, but are mandated to complete it at the height of their careers, around age 26 to 28. Park himself was 27 at the time of the 07-08 Champions League final in Moscow. There are exceptions to the rule, however. Olympic medalists, of any color, and gold winners at the quadrennial Asian games are automatically exempted, as well as artists who take first or second in 27 listed global contests.

A strong World Cup finish isn’t included as one of the exemptions. Park and the 2002 World Cup squad were even exceptions to that. President Kim Dae-Jung had personally congratulated the team, quoting it as “the happiest day in the country’s history”[viii]. In response, team captain Hong Myong-Bo requested that “the issue of military … be resolved so that they can prepare themselves without interruption for the 2006 (World Cup).” The following day, the team was exempted. Park signed for PSV Eindhoven the following year and has since served as an inspiration for the youth of Asian football.

“And away goes Heung Min Son, he’s isolated at the moment working against Jorginho – look at the pace – he’s past Jorginho… he’s in the penalty area – HEUNG MIN SONNN! What a goal by the South Korean! His first premier league goal of the season, and it’s worth the wait. Wonderful individuality from Heung Min Son, and what a scoreline! Tottenham 3, Chelsea nil.”

                                              -Arlo White on Tottenham vs. Chelsea: 3-1 Premier League 2018-19

Discontent with the Korean military conscription requirement began to simmer leading up to the 2018 Asian games held in Indonesia. All eyes were on South Korea’s rising star, Heung Min Son, who would be granted military exemption if Korea secured the gold medal.

In 2014, at the previous Asian Games – a U23 tournament with three spots for overseas players – Bayer Leverkusen refused Heung Min Son’s request to leave. Son would have been exempted as South Korea went on to win the tournament over Japan. Son had one shot at the Olympics but was left in tears following South Korea’s quarterfinal exit against Honduras at the 2016 Rio Games[ix]. The 2018 Asian Games was likely Heung Min Son’s last chance.

Korea’s championship game against Japan was the single most important match I’ve ever watched. No number of Champions League finals, title race games, or derby rivalries have ever had near the implications of the result of that match. I set my alarm at 6:45 AM to wake up in time for the 7:00 AM (7:00 PM Indochina Time) kickoff. My cheers woke up my sleeping roommate following Lee Seung-woo’s 93′ minute goal. Heung Min Son’s exemption was fulfilled following their gold medal 2-1 finish.

While Park played an important role defensively and was known for being a “big game player”, H.M. Son’s deadly attacking presence is a breath of fresh air for Asian footballers. His ability to strike the ball from long distances, use both feet, and blow past defenders with his speed has cemented himself as a standout player, used in the same breath as the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Erikson, per Jose Mourinho. Heung Min Son represents the hopes of South Korea for a new generation of soccer stars, and their victory in the 2018 Asian Games will be one moment of the game that will live with me forever.



[i] “Tactics: Manchester United Use Wingers to Great Effect.”

[ii] Cox, Michael. “Roonaldo: How Sir Alex Ferguson Built His Greatest Ever Manchester United Side.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 1 June 2017,

[iii] Walton, Tom. “Top 10 Greatest Asian Players of All Time – Tom Walton – Medium.”, Medium, 12 Sept. 2016,

[iv] “Park Ji-Sung Reveals Disgusting Detail about His Conditioning Regime.” FourFourTwo, 15 May 2018,

[v] editors. “Park Ji-Sung Biography.”, A&E Networks Television, 3 Apr. 2014,

[vi] Magee, Will. “How The 2002 World Cup Became The Most Controversial Tournament in Recent Memory.” Vice Sports UK, VICE, 18 July 2017,

[viii] “S. Koreans Exempted from Military Service.” DAWN.COM, 16 June 2002,