South Korean baseball team wins ‘Military Exemption Bowl’

September 29, 2014
South Korean players had a good reason to look so relieved. (Yonhap)

South Korean players had a good reason to look so relieved. (Yonhap)

“You guys have to go to the military if you lose?”

That’s been the running joke for the South Korean men’s teams during World Baseball Classic and other major international competitions over the years, and the South Korean men’s baseball team just got away with one by defending its Asian Games title.

The South Korean squad defeated Chinese Taipei  6-3 on a rainy Sunday night.

A lot of Koreans are less than thrilled about this gold medal. They think players will enjoy greater benefits than they deserve — exemption from the country’s mandatory two years of military service, and it has led to fierce discussion about abolishing such rewards to athletes.

“I wish they lost the game,” 29-year-old baseball fan Park Tae-yang said. “I do not understand why Korea, in the 21st century, still has to give military exemption for athletes on the grounds that they help promote the country.”

Such harsh feelings against the national team are also based on the fact that South Korea is the only country that sent professional baseball players, who appeared desperate for a military exemption, and let them compete against teams consisting mostly of amateur players.

Starting with a 15-0 rout against Thailand, South Korea defeated Chinese Taipei 10-0 and Hong Kong 12-0 in its group stage matches, all ended before the ninth inning with the application of the “mercy rule.”

The host country also defeated China 7-2 in the semifinals and again beat Chinese Taipei 6-3 in the final.

Players and coaches also admit that their strongest motivation to fiercely play against their relatively weak opponents comes from the privilege to be exempted from military service. Manager Ryu Joong-il even admitted the benefit of military exemption is “worth at least 4 to 8 billion won ($3.8 million to $7.6 million),” per player, and possibly more to their respective teams.

Ryu’s selection of players drew criticism from the beginning as his roster mostly included those who had not served their military duty, even though there were better alternatives who had done so. Teams also lobbied hard to get certain players in for obvious reasons.

At second base, for example, Oh Jae-won of the Doosan Bears was chosen over Seo Geon-chang of the Nexen Heroes. Seo leads the Korea Baseball Organization in hits and runs scored, and he is second in stolen bases and fifth in batting average — better offensive numbers across the board than Oh. The decisive factor here was that Seo has already served his two years in the military, and Oh hasn’t.

The law was first implemented in 1973 by former President Park Chung-hee who thought it was necessary to promote Korea to the world and enhance the country’s prestige. But many observers now believe times have changed.