In a striking parallel to Son Heung-min’s journey in 2018, 22-year-old Lee Kang-in, currently representing Paris Saint-Germain, is on a mission at the 2023 Asian Games. The significance of these games transcends mere glory, as both players were allowed to participate by their respective clubs, thanks to a unique incentive provided by the South Korean government: military exemption for gold medalists.
For Son, 2018 was a race against time, as he was approaching the age of 28, the threshold for mandatory military service. In contrast, Lee Kang-in, at 22, has more time on his side, but the Asian Games still offer the most promising path to reduce military service from 18-21 months to just 544 hours of community service. This exemption also paves the way for a continued career in top European football—a goal that many aspiring South Korean players share, though Olympic medals can also grant this privilege (a feat achieved only once, in 2012).
Lee was so determined to compete at the Asian Games that he included a clause in his PSG contract requiring his release for this tournament. Once in Hangzhou, he expressed his appreciation to his teammates who advanced past the group stage without him.
South Korea made an outstanding start to their tournament campaign by recording victories against Kuwait (9-0), Thailand (4-0) and Bahrain (3-0). They conceded their first goal against Kyrgyzstan but responded strongly by scoring five times themselves; facing China will prove even tougher since both teams boast strong fan bases that support them passionately.
What sets South Korea apart is their unwavering commitment to victory, fueled by the prospect of military exemption. While other teams may use the Asian Games for developmental purposes, South Korea’s players have no room for error—they must win. Failure to do so not only mandates a return from Europe-based players but also makes them less appealing to clubs, who are hesitant to invest in players nearing the age considered their prime.
The backdrop for this military service requirement lies in the unresolved conflict between North and South Korea, technically still at war since 1953. The Asian Games hold significance for North Korea as well, marking their return to the international stage after a four-year absence. They have also reached the quarter-finals and will face Japan.
The challenges for North Korea extend beyond the football pitch, with COVID-19 severely impacting the country’s health system and limiting international connections. Despite these hurdles, they hope to take a bold step toward qualifying for the 2026 World Cup – taking on Japan, Syria and likely Myanmar as opponents in a group full of excitement on and off the pitch.
North Korea’s recent success at the Asian Games – with wins against Taiwan, Kyrgyzstan, and Indonesia – offers great promise for their football future. A potential final match-up against South Korea offers unparalleled potential.
In this high-stakes arena, second place is not an option, and silver is simply insufficient. The Asian Games are more than a sporting event; they are a pursuit of a life-changing exemption from military service and a chance to shape the future of South Korean football.