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Bill reignites controversy over BTS conscription

Top K-pop stars, record-setting athletes could be excused from military

BTS (Big Hit Entertainment)
BTS (Big Hit Entertainment)


A fresh bill proposing military exemptions for K-pop artists and athletes has reignited controversy.

On Tuesday, Rep. Sung Il-jong of the main opposition People Power Party said he had proposed a bill that would excuse men from military service if they promoted national prestige. The exemptions would apply to top K-pop stars, such as the members of boy band BTS, and athletes who set national records.

The regulations were revised in December to allow leading pop culture artists to postpone service until the age of 30, instead of 28. The change enabled BTS’ oldest member -- Kim Seok-jin, 28 -- to continue performing for two more years.

The latest bill would enable him to avoid conscription altogether.

Currently, classical musicians who win awards in international or national contests are exempt. As K-pop stars gain global recognition and receive international music awards, people are asking whether they too should be eligible for exemptions. BTS has won several Billboard Music Awards and was nominated for a Grammy.

The bill also aims to excuse athletes who set records for South Korea.

The current law only excuses Olympic and Asian Games medalists. Some took issue with the law after high jumper Woo Sang-hyeok didn’t qualify for an exemption despite setting a national record at the Tokyo Olympics. He finished fourth, without a medal.

Rep. Sung said, “The current system only benefits those in elite-oriented classical art as well as sports (in which) medals are highly likely. The revision of the law is aimed at securing equity.”

Online communities showed mixed reactions to the news about the bill.

“No one can improve national prestige like BTS, honestly,” read one comment. “Over the last three years, BTS has enormously changed how the world views Korea and they have a great impact on the economy.” The comment received more than 100 “likes.”

BTS brings about $5 billion into Korea every year, according to data from the Hyundai Research Institute. A government survey of 8,000 foreigners worldwide showed that BTS came in second when respondents were asked what came to mind when they thought of Korea. President Moon Jae-in was first.

But the bill also faces backlash.

Draft exemptions are a thorny issue in this society, where celebrities, sportsmen, politicians and their sons have often been exempted from military service on questionable health grounds.

One commentator said, “If they promote national prestige, it is right to postpone military service. But I don’t agree with complete exemption.” That comment gained more than 600 “likes.” Another person wrote, “Military service is, after all, a social penalty.”

Hong Wan-pyo, 32, an accountant, said, “It is a waste of time that BTS should spend two years in the Army. But it is also equally a waste of time that ordinary Korean young men should spend their two years.

“No one knows what ordinary men would have achieved if they hadn’t gone to the Army.”

According to a survey conducted by the Korean Broadcasting System last year on whether military exemptions should be granted to pop culture artists, 47 percent of respondents were opposed to the idea while 44.7 percent were in favor. Among respondents serving in the military, 50.9 percent said they were against it.

BTS has consistently stated that “military service is a natural obligation.” The oldest member, Kim, told the press that he and his bandmates had discussed the matter many times and all planned to enroll in the military someday.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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