Eight South Korean swimmers earned something even more valuable than gold medals with their victories at the recently completed Asian Games: assurance that their careers won’t be interrupted by the nation’s requirement that every able-bodied man spend 18 months in the military at some point between ages 18-28.
South Korea awards military exemptions for athletes, musicians, and other performers if they capture top prizes in certain competitions — namely, an Olympic medal of any color or Asian Games gold. No South Korean men achieved those heights at the 2018 Asian Games or Tokyo Olympics in 2021, but they came out in full force earlier this week in Hangzhou, China.
Kim Woomin, 22, triumphed in both the 400 free (3:44.36) and 800 free (7:46.03), Hwang Sunwoo outdueled China’s Pan Zhanle in the 200 free with a South Korean record of 1:44.40, 23-year-old Baek Inchul took the 50 fly title (23.29), and 21-year-old Ji Yuchan touched first in the 50 free (21.72).
“Not just for swimmers but as an athlete, I think exemption from military service removes a hindrance to an athlete’s life, allowing him to have a longer career,” Baek said.
On top of the four individual champions, Kim (1:44.50 split) and Hwang (1:45.04 split) also teamed up with 25-year-old Yang Jaehoon and (1:46.83 leadoff) and 22-year-old Lee Hojoon (1:45.36 split) to clinch South Korea’s first-ever 800 free relay win in an Asian record of 7:01.73. Lee Yooyeon, 23, and Kim Gunwoo, 22, picked up gold medals as well by swimming in the prelims of the 800 free relay.
“If I’m always focused on the process and get good times and standings when it’s time to compete, the military exemption will follow from that,” Kim said. “So I just focused on the race without thinking much about it.”
After collecting 200 free medals at the past two World Championships, Hwang is a favorite to reach the podium at the Paris 2024 Olympics. But the 20-year-old rising star no longer needs to rely on that result to avoid military service.
Lee Juho came agonizingly close to earning a military exemption. The 28-year-old backstroker brought home four medals — silver in the 200 back, silver in the men’s 400 medley relay, bronze in the 100 back, and bronze in the mixed 400 medley relay — but it didn’t clear the high standard necessary for a military exemption.
South Korea finished second in the swimming medals table, beating out Japan for the first time ever. South Korea’s 22 total medals marked a new national record, crushing its previous-best 13 from the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. The nation only won six medals in total at the 2018 Asian Games.
Military exemptions are a point of contention in South Korean culture. Fewer than 100 exemptions were handed out last year — not even K-pop sensation BTS gets special treatment. The debate was reignited this week when League of Legends star “Faker” received a controversial military exemption for claiming gold as a part of esports’ debut at the Asian Games.