By Hyonhee Shin and Joori Roh
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea may seek to revise its military exemption programme for athletes amid calls for stricter rules after the country's football and baseball teams earned the reward with gold medals at the Asian Games over the weekend.
Military service is a highly contentious issue in South Korea, where all able-bodied men must complete about 21 months of service as part of efforts to maintain a deterrent against the North.
Exemptions are offered to athletes who win titles at the Asian Games or medals of any colour at the Olympics, however, and Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min along with his team mates earned that right when they struck gold on Saturday.
Nine baseball players who had not yet completed their service also received the exemption after winning the Asian Games title in Jakarta on Saturday, but they could be among the last athletes to be so rewarded.
Ki Chan-soo, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, an arm of the Defence Ministry in charge of conscription, said on Monday that the rule could be amended.
"We're planning a comprehensive re-examination of the system in the areas of sport and art," Ki told Yonhap.
"We're already running short of military personnel resources so we'll start by looking into whether the exemption programme is fair."
An official at the conscription agency told Reuters that Ki was speaking "in principle" in light of recent media and parliamentary inquiries, and no specific plan for a review had been set up.
The Defence Ministry also said in a statement that it was not considering any change in the system for now but would have intra-agency consultation on the issue.
The incentive was introduced in the 1970s as part of Seoul's drive to become a world sporting power and raise its profile on the global stage but it has come in for criticism in recent years as the country rebalances its priorities.
Some have called for the exemption system to be abolished altogether, questioning its fairness in an era where the South Korean public have been yearning for an end to privilege and lopsided advantages in all walks of life.
The baseball team was at the centre of the latest controversy as it consisted of top professionals and the national league was put on hold during the Games, while other countries such as Japan and Chinese Taipei sent more amateurs than pros.
Others, though, believe the system fosters athletic excellence and boosts the country's image.
"I don't really think it's unfair ... he is one of the most famous South Korean stars in the world," Jang Ji-hoon, who is currently serving in the military, said of Son.
"I just hope that he does not go into the service and develops himself during that time instead."
According to a survey in July by pollster Realmeter, nearly 48 percent supported scaling up the incentive for athletes, while 44 percent were opposed.
Ha Tae-keung, an opposition lawmaker, said the programme should also be expanded to include other professions such as K-Pop boybands.
An artist who takes first or second place in a government-designated international contest can be granted an exemption but the fields eligible for the benefit are largely confined to classical music and dance.
Ha pointed out that the BTS band topped the Billboard 200 albums chart for the second time this year on Sunday with its latest album "Love Yourself: Answer" -- an unprecedented feat in K-pop history.
"The programme should be open to other areas but with a higher threshold, say, number one worldwide, not Asia," Ha told Reuters.
Ha and some other experts have proposed a scheme under which athletes acquire a certain amount of points from international competitions to qualify for exemption.
Lee Kee-heung, president of the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee, expressed support for the idea on Sunday, saying he would raise the issue for discussion.
Advocates say such a cumulative programme would help prevent attempts to evade military service, such as a 2012 case in which then Arsenal striker Park Chu-young gained Monaco residency to postpone enlistment, to uproar at home, before winning exemption at the London Olympics.
"I am a little jealous of Son Heung-min, because I have to go for military service soon," said Kang Min-jae, a 20-year-old South Korean university student.
"I will protect the country instead of him as he contributes to the nation a lot."
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Joori Roh; Additional reporting by Peter Rutherford and Minwoo Park; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)