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No military exemption for BTS under new government proposal

Exemptions from mandatory military service to be reduced due to shortage of eligible population

K-pop group BTS will not be exempted from military duty, the government said Thursday, announcing a new amendment to the military service law.

All able-bodied young Korean men are required to serve in the military for about two years, with limited exemptions offered for those with outstanding achievements in sports and arts that “raise the national profile,” under the Military Service Act.

There have been criticisms that the exemption system is unfair in excluding pop musicians, such as the members of BTS, which has topped the Billboard 200 albums chart more than once.

Idol Group BTS (Big Hit Entertainment)
Idol Group BTS (Big Hit Entertainment)

Announcing a revision to the military service law, the government reiterated its position that BTS and other pop stars will still be subject to military service, as it seeks to reduce the exemption system due to a shortage of people eligible for national service.

“We came to review this system to reduce the number of exemptions in the first place, so we did not at all consider expanding exemptions,” Lee Nam-woo, chief of the Defense Ministry’s personnel welfare office, said in the joint briefing by a number of ministries on Thursday.

“We also believe that military duty will not hurt the talents of popular performers so critically that they cannot perform anymore.”

In the announcement, Lee said the government would reduce the quota for the exemption system and enforce stricter conditions for eligible sports and arts personnel.

Before the joint briefing, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon explained that it was “inevitable” to scale down the exemption system.

“There have been many controversies over the exemption system,” Prime Minister Lee said after a Cabinet meeting where the revision plan was passed.

“We could not overlook this problem any longer and we found it inevitable to reduce the exemption system.”

The controversies he cited concern whether the government can maintain the policy in light of a low birthrate that reduces the population eligible for military duty, the fairness of the system and whether the expert personnel who are placed on alternative duty are serving at appropriate places to produce the expected results.

The Military Service Act allows for special duties to enable qualified people to continue their careers while carrying out military service, such as researchers and specialist technicians.

Military service exemptions are given to qualified athletes and artists: who win a gold medal at the Asian Games or medals of any type at the Olympics, artists who win second place or higher at certain international arts competitions and top placers at an arts competition in South Korea.

Under the amendment, the government will incrementally reduce the number of people eligible for exemption -- not including athletes and artists -- from 2022 to 2026, by which time those receiving exemptions will be reduced by 20 percent, from the current 7,500 to 6,200.

The quota for athletes and artists will not be reduced, as only an average of about 45 receive exemptions annually, the government said. Instead, it will come up with stricter conditions by reducing the number of competitions or games that qualify for exemptions.

For athletes, stricter, more transparent rules will be applied in selecting players for national teams.

While the exemption has so far been granted only to those actually involved in a competition, all members of a winning team will be entitled to exemption under the revised law.

It is not unusual for Korean national teams to field members to take part in a winning game for even a minute, as that would qualify the player for exemption from military service.

“In some cases, people would joke about ‘1-minute play for military exemption,’ and the whole exemption system and the national team players would be ridiculed. We sought to prevent that,” a Defense Ministry official said.

The government formed a task force of related ministries for the revision of the Military Service Act in December last year. This is the first time that an agreement has been reached since discussions began in 2002, according to Lee.

By Jo He-rim (
Korea Herald daum