The Korea Herald


[Newsmaker] Clashing ideas on military exemption for BTS

Supporters say K-pop artists should be granted exemptions; men in 20s unhappy about special treatment

By Jo He-rim

Published : April 12, 2022 - 16:09

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BTS pose during the 64th Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 4. (Yonhap) BTS pose during the 64th Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on April 4. (Yonhap)

Whether the members of K-pop sensation BTS should be granted military exemptions has become the talk of the town, with the final date for the enlistment of the seven-member group’s oldest member, Jin, near the end of the year.

In South Korea, nearly all able-bodied men in their 20s are obliged to serve in the military for about 18 months. There is an exemption and alternative service system where athletes and artists recognized to have promoted national prestige -- winning designated international awards or national contests -- are granted an exemption.

While this system has largely limited the awards to the pure arts sectors, opinion has grown that global K-pop phenomenon BTS should also be granted the benefit of being excused from military service, as it has won several Billboard Music Awards and been nominated at the Grammys.

K-pop sensation BTS receives the artist of the year award at the 49th American Music Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday (US time). (Reuters-Yonhap) K-pop sensation BTS receives the artist of the year award at the 49th American Music Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday (US time). (Reuters-Yonhap)

Devaluation of pop culture?

Supporters claim that limiting the military exemption treatment to only those who win awards in the pure arts sector constitutes “discrimination” against pop artists. Opponents say it just goes against equity to excuse celebrities from performing their national duty.

The polls show the public is largely divided. In the latest survey by Gallup Korea, nearly 59 percent of 1,004 Koreans aged 18 and older responded that K-pop artists should be able to serve alternative military duty, or be granted exemptions if they contribute to elevating the country’s global standing.

On the other side, 33 percent replied that exemption or alternative service should not be given to pop artists. Eight percent declined to respond.

The survey released Friday was conducted from April 5 to Thursday.

South Korea’s Military Service Act stipulates that enlistment exemptions are offered to artists who win second place or higher at an international arts competition and top place at an arts competition in South Korea. Also excused are athletes who win titles or medals of any type at international sport events, such as the World Cup or the Olympics.

Because these arts competitions do not include global awards in the pop art industries, those in the entertainment industry, including singers and actors, have to take time out of their careers for about two years to serve in the military.

This limited treatment has been criticized by K-pop fans, who view it as a devaluation of pop culture.

For instance, the renowned South Korean pianist Cho Seong-jin was exempted of his military duty after he won the XVII International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015.

Son Heung-min, who plays as a forward for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League, and also captains South Korea national team, has also been relieved of his national duty after winning a gold medal at the Asian Games in 2018.

BTS’ feats, including becoming the first Korean act to top the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, have been hailed by both the government and the people here, but it has not relieved them of the burden of military service.

With BTS’ strides in the global music scene, however, the government appears to be loosening its stance toward the pop culture industry.

In 2020, the government revised the law to allow those excelling in popular culture and the arts -- as recommended by the culture minister -- to defer their enlistment until the age of 30. Normally, the latest age one can put off enlistment is 28. This has allowed BTS’ oldest member Jin to perform for two more years.

But by the end of this year, Jin must enlist if the current law is not amended, as he turns 30 in December. All of the other members are also subject to military service. 

Soldiers enter Seoul Station, in this file photo taken May 10, 2021. (Yonhap) Soldiers enter Seoul Station, in this file photo taken May 10, 2021. (Yonhap)

Men in 20s are not happy

Opponents, however, claim that they are against fairness to grant special treatment to K-pop artists. Men in their 20s, the main demographic group subject to the mandatory military service, are ardent opponents.

Park Min-young, a man in his 20s who served as a youth assistant for President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol during the presidential campaign period, said “granting exemption (to BTS) without reason will attract criticism that it goes against principles.”

“As of this year, over 90 percent of men who took the military’s physical exam are found to be suitable for active service. And the criteria that led to exemptions, such as tattoos or academic backgrounds are also being discarded nowadays,” he wrote on his Facebook.

“So I wonder how many people would agree to making new criteria to excuse a certain group of people from the military service.”

Park added that BTS members have already expressed their will to serve in the military, and claimed that fans are also unhappy to see politicians trying to get BTS involved in their political agendas.

Some others who served in the military also say it is just unfair to exempt K-pop stars from their national duty when others had to spend their years to protect the country.

“What is the exact criteria for exempting the service for K-pop stars? If one such case is made, then all the other fandoms would rise to demand exemption for their idol groups,” one online user claimed on an online community site.

“Also, not only songs, but dramas, movies and variety shows have also played roles to promote South Korea to the world. This could mean singers, idols, songwriters, actors and directors should also be exempted.”

Wave of change coming

While the final decision is still under discussion, the outlook appears to be positive for BTS, as the incoming government and future ruling party is largely in support of the exemption.

Ahn Cheol-soo, the chairman of the presidential transition committee drawing the framework of the incoming government, has said BTS is “well-qualified” for alternative service, as the boy band has contributed much to the country’s benefit.

“It is reverse discrimination to exclude the popular culture sector in the exemption system, when the pure arts and sports industries are granted special treatment,” Ahn said.

Rep. Sung Il-jong of the People Power Party, who is also a member of the parliamentary committee for national defense, also hinted that a bill he has proposed to qualify pop artists for a military exemption or alternative service may pass at the National Assembly as early as this month.

“The ruling Democratic Party of Korea is more enthusiastic (about BTS’ military exemptions). I do not think the ruling and the opposition parties hold different views on this matter because it is related to fairness and the national interest,” Rep. Sung said in a radio interview Tuesday.

When asked about the possibility of the bill passing at the National Assembly this month, Rep. Sung said the government made a request to “take care of it soon.”

By Jo He-rim (