After the final whistle blew, South Korean soccer superstar Son Heung-min cried, wrapped the goalkeeper in his arms, and the two of them tumbled to the pitch. He had just captained South Korea to a 2-1 win over Japan in the Asian Games Final, and he described the victory as “the best day in [his] life.” It wasn’t just national pride: Yes, Son got a shiny gold medal, but he also earned an exemption from having to spend almost two years in the military.
Son, who plays for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League, entered the tournament knowing that, without a gold medal, he would have to surrender 21 months of his athletic career—and almost two years of his new contract—to South Korea’s mandatory military service. Who knew that, instead of seven nerve-shredding Asian Games matches, he could’ve just eaten a shit-ton of fried chicken?
On Sunday, the Incheon District Court ruled in favor of a 22-year-old college student who had been accused of eating fried chicken in an attempt to gain so much weight that he would be declared unfit to serve.
According to The Korea Herald, prosecutors argued that the unnamed man intentionally gorged himself on chicken and booze before the physical exam, and that he also made sure to slouch when his height was measured, ensuring that his body mass index (BMI) would be even higher. (If your BMI is 33 or above, you’ll probably score a cushier-by-comparison public service job, instead of being stuck on foot patrol in some remote location near the DMZ).
At the time of his exam, his BMI was 36.8 (well above the threshold for what is considered ‘obese’) but he argued that he’d just been a big boi for his entire life. A judge agreed with him after learning that the man had been obese, medically speaking, since he was ten years old. Judge Shim Hyun-joo also said that, since the man weighed 102 kilograms (225 pounds) as a high schooler, it would be difficult to conclude that he had done anything to intentionally gain weight.
In South Korea, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve in the military for at least 21 months, and the only ones who are exempt from that duty are those who "raise the national profile” by winning any kind of medal—gold, silver, or bronze—at the Olympics, winning a gold medal at the Asian Games, or placing first or second at one of two dozen contests that have been approved by the government. (Cho Seong-jin, who won an international piano competition, does not have to serve. Despite winning a Billboard Music Award, becoming the first Korean group to top the US Billboard Album chart, and appearing on Saturday Night Live, the seven members of BTS still do.)
The 22-year-old fried chicken aficionado isn’t the first man who has been accused of trying to eat his way out of conscription. Last September, the Military Manpower Administration announced that it caught 12 college students sharing weight gain tips on social media before their own military physicals. According to CNN, some of them started downing protein powders, while others drank a “thick aloe beverage” to try to game the weigh-in. “The Military Manpower Administration, via thorough investigation, will do our best to root out military service evasion crime and make an example of the violators so that a fair and just military service culture can take root,” the agency said in a statement.
Although their efforts didn’t work—in addition to facing criminal charges, most of them just earned themselves repeat physicals—others have been luckier. In 2017, 59 men successfully avoided being drafted, and 21 of them did so by forcing themselves to either gain or lose weight. (Some of the others either “feigned insanity,” got a tattoo, lied about their education history, broke their own bones, or underwent knee surgery.)
Still, choking down protein shakes or ordering KFC take-out seems way easier than becoming a soccer superstar.