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[Weekender] Should BTS get military exemption?

South Korea debates whether to exempt K-pop superstars from mandatory active duty

BTS (Big Hit Entertainment-Yonhap)
BTS (Big Hit Entertainment-Yonhap)
As K-pop juggernaut BTS’ global domination continues, South Korea is again debating whether or not to conscript the seven young men for their mandatory active duty.

Talk of special treatment resurfaced on Sept. 3, two days after BTS’ latest single “Dynamite” claimed the coveted top spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart -- a first in the history of Korean music and a “splendid feat” that boosted national pride, according to President Moon Jae-in.

A ruling party lawmaker publicly proposed a revision to the conscription law to allow high-achieving pop stars like BTS to put off enlistment until the age of 30.

All able-bodied South Korean men aged between 18 and 30 must serve active duty for 18 to 21 months. In this country, still technically at war with North Korea, military service is a highly sensitive issue – so much so that the conscription status of public figures and their sons makes headlines upon any hint of unfairness.

Pop stars have often enrolled in graduate studies to postpone enlistment until after the peak of their careers. BTS’ eldest member Jin is currently enrolled in an online graduate program and can postpone his enlistment until after 2021.

Then on Monday, another ruling party lawmaker finally raised the question: Why not just exempt BTS from active duty?

“Not everyone has to take up a rifle to serve his own country,” Rep. Noh Woong-rae said at a party meeting, stressing that allowing BTS to continue what they are doing is in the best interest of the country.

South Korea exempts exceptionally talented people in the fields of classical music, dance and sports from active duty, but so far not K-pop artists.

Classical musicians and dancers are exempt when they win awards at government-chosen competitions. Athletes need to win any medal at the Olympics or a gold medal at the Asian Games to avoid active duty.

While exempt from active duty, which requires communal living and training at military bases, they are still required to fulfill about four weeks of basic training and mandatory 544 hours of community service during the 34-month term, while carrying on with their day-to-day life. 

The law describes it as an alternative service and no major change has been made to this rule since it was first introduced in 1973.

Giving K-pop artists the same special treatment is again proving to be a highly divisive issue, prompting a clear discord along party lines, ministries and the public.

“I don’t think the public and BTS themselves want us to continue debating their conscription,” Democratic Party of Korea leader Lee Nak-yon said at a party meeting Wednesday, advising his fellow party members to say “as little as possible” on the matter.

Lee was clearly putting the brakes on Rep. Noh’s outspoken rhetoric backing a change in the law so that BTS could become the first pop artists to take advantage of alternative service.

“Suppose BTS serves active duty, I think they can do what they do now there, making contributions to this country and elevating its stature,” Lee said.

The defense minister was more direct on the matter, speaking against alternative service for BTS.

“We need public consensus before proceeding to look into it,” he told a parliamentary audit Wednesday. But he conceded a merit-based delay in draft was worth looking into.

At the same audit, the culture minister, however, sounded a different tone, saying the matter needs to be “looked into positively,” adding there were voices in favor of pop artists’ admission to the alternative program.

The public stands split, with those for and against granting pop artists the new privilege standing at 31.3 percent and 30.5 percent, respectively, according to the latest poll commissioned by local outlet Kuki News on Sept. 21.

Those against the privilege argued that there would be no uniform standard to the rule on pop artists’ admission to the alternative program.

“Classic musicians, dancers and athletes have their own competitions – foreign or domestic – to win and prove their exceptional performance to qualify for the service,” a Seoul resident who asked only to be identified by his surname Kim said.

“How are we going to gauge their performance?”

Those in favor of the alternative service spoke of how BTS enhanced Korea’s image abroad and stimulated its economic growth through tourism, among other aspects, but conceded there is a long road ahead.

“We’ll have to come up with a just and fair means based on merit to determine whether certain K-pop artists qualify for the alternative program,” said Han Diane, a freelance writer.

Regarding the issue, the bandmates of BTS have repeatedly said they are willing to fulfill their duty, just like all other ordinary Korean men.

“Someday when duty calls, we will be ready to respond and do our best,” Jin previously said in an interview with CBS’ “Sunday Morning” last year.

“We have nothing to add other than what Jin said himself and the fact that we believe he can postpone his enlistment until 2021,” BTS label Big Hit Entertainment told The Korea Herald.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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