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Sungjae Im and Si-Woo Kim do not medal at Olympics, fail to exempt themselves from military service

August 01, 2021

South Korea's Im Sungjae watches his drive from the fifth tee in the final rounds of the Olympics.


Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim both didn't medal at the Olympics and thus failed to exempt themselves from South Korea’s mandatory military service requirement.

After a three-under 68 on Sunday to finish at 10-under 274 total, Im finished well out of top-three territory. Kim was even farther back at eight under despite a closing 67.

Given the border tension with totalitarian North Korea, all able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve between 18 and 21 months in the military upon turning 19. The service can be delayed for reasons such as living and working abroad, as is the case for both Im and Kim. But while the complicated rules differ depending on citizen/resident status, the service must eventually be completed. PGA Tour winners Sangmoon Bae and Seung-Yul Noh took time away from professional golf to complete their service, and neither has been able to recapture his form upon returning. The winningest South Korean in PGA Tour history, K.J. Choi, completed his service before turning professional. So did Y.E. Yang, the country’s lone male major winner.

Apart from an Olympic medal, the only other avenue for a South Korean athlete to avoid the military is to win a gold in the Asian Games, where the golf competition is limited to amateurs. The most recent South Korean winner on the PGA Tour, K.H. Lee, won gold as an amatuer in 2010. Sung Kang won his Asian Games gold in 2006. Byeong-Hun An failed in his attempt to win a medal and avoid military service by finishing T-11 at the 2016 Olympics.

At 23, Im could indeed have another chance at a medal in three year’s time. Kim, 26, would seem to be working with a tighter time window. Both players skipped the Open Championship to focus entirely on the Olympics but sought to downplay the military storyline in the run-up to this week’s event.

"I know it's true that if we earn a medal the Korean government will exempt us from serving (in the) military,” Kim said Tuesday, “but I don't really, like, focus or think about the service in the military. My only goal is to win the championship and get [a] medal and be honored.”

Im concurred: “I only focus and think about the winning games, not the military problem. So, yeah, that's it.”