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BTS-at-arms: What military service means to S. Korean men

Military service, or lack thereof, leaves lasting impact on men living in country divided by war

BTS going on a hiatus was expected.

Like many other male celebrities in South Korea, the band members must fulfill their mandatory two-year military service, with the oldest, Jin, obliged to enlist by the end of this year. It is a fate many K-pop boy bands have faced before.

In a country where military duty is compulsory for all able-bodied men, failure to serve can have consequences ranging from mild awkwardness when the topic comes up in conversation to a drag on job prospects, or in some extreme cases, the torpedoing of one’s career.

There have been nationwide discussions of exempting BTS, the only Korean act to ever top the main Billboard charts, in recognition for its contributions to the country. Yet, any move to make that happen, which would require legislative action, is not making progress -- at least on the surface.

BTS has not openly asked for exemptions. In fact, both the bandmates and their agency Hybe have tried not to give the impression that they would want that. It is widely known in the industry that messy handling of the conscription issue can sink the career of even the most promising pop star. 

BTS (Yonhap)
BTS (Yonhap)


The Steve Yoo effect


Steve Yoo, known as Yoo Seung-joon to Korean fans, was one of the biggest pop icons of 1990s Korea. Now he is the country’s most famous draft dodger.

Steve Yoo’s fall from heartthrob to forever unwelcome changed the way the public and industry insiders viewed military issues of celebrities.

In late 2001, the Korean-born singer left for Los Angeles after vowing to the Military Manpower Administration that he would return to fulfill his military duties. A few weeks later, he paid a visit to the South Korean consulate in Los Angeles to renounce his Korean citizenship, fueling speculations it was to avoid conscription.

What ensued was an entry ban and a messy, decadeslong legal fight by Yoo to be allowed back into the country, with his most recent appeal slated to kick off in September.

Yoo’s case is a reminder of how sensitive the issue of avoiding conscription is in South Korea, which faces a belligerent and nuclear-armed North Korea across the DMZ, as the Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. South Korea’s 600,000-strong military force is composed mostly of enlisted young men, who become eligible for their mandatory service the year they turn 19.

In April, a Seoul court ruled against Yoo regarding the aforementioned entry ban, saying his presence “bestows a sense of deprivation to the Korean soldiers and their family, who are called upon to serve in the military.”

A March survey by local polling group Media Real Research Korea of 3,000 Korean men and women showed that 72.4 percent of the respondents still support the entry ban, even after all these years.

“It’s more that he lied. Every time he appeared on TV, he’d say how it was only natural for Korean men to enlist, and that he’d do the same,” said a 36-year-old salesman surnamed Yoo, who is not related to the singer.

Another respondent, Lee Jong-yong, said, “I actually don’t remember what he said or did. The case has become something of a symbol that shows how sternly the country deals with draft dodging.”

Sometimes even the accusation of dodging one’s service can shatter a promising career. In 2010, an accusation that then-popular rapper MC Mong had extracted nine teeth without valid medical reasons to avoid military service surfaced via local media, followed by a police investigation.

The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled him innocent on the suspicions regarding the removal of teeth, while handing him a suspended jail term for postponing his enlistment multiple times via fake information.

Although the rapper has since released new songs, his once-prominent career as a TV personality and pop star is effectively gone.

In a recent survey conducted by local online community DC Inside, MC Mong took second place as the “celebrity you don’t want to see return,” exceeded in ranking only by Steve Yoo.


Exemptions doled out as prizes


Very few men are exempted from military duty due to various physical and psychological issues. While not as obvious as in the ’90s when people would blatantly say “you become a man only after you go to the military,” some of those exempted say society tends to view them differently.

A Seoul-based office worker in his mid-30s recalls how he was asked why he was exempted from military service in nearly every job interview he had, followed by awkward moments throughout his career when the other person would casually ask, “So where were you stationed?”

While exemptions are very rare among ordinary men, the country has been running an alternative program for exceptional athletes and artists. It effectively gives an exemption to those who are recognized to have promoted national prestige by winning designated international awards or national contests, allowing them to substitute their duties as combat or noncombat military personnel with work in their respective fields for the two years.

Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, for instance, did only three weeks of basic military training and was allowed to continue pursuing his career in the English Premier League for his role in the Korean team’s gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games.

As this system has largely been limited to pure arts and sports sectors, opinion has grown that pop artists, like BTS, should be included in the potential beneficiary groups, while others counter with criticism of special treatment given to anyone in the first place.

An April survey by Gallup Korea showed that more than half of all respondents -- 59 percent -- agreed that exemptions should be granted to BTS and other pop artists. This, however, does not come close to reaching the level of consensus required for such a sensitive issue. 

Conscripted soldiers salute after finishing basic military training at the 36th Infantry Division in Wonju, Gangwon Province, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Conscripted soldiers salute after finishing basic military training at the 36th Infantry Division in Wonju, Gangwon Province, Wednesday. (Yonhap)


Some of the most vocal opponents are men in their 20s, a demographic in which the BTS members -- aged 24 to 29 -- also belong. They are those who have either just finished military service or are about to enlist.

Choi Young-wok, a 20-year-old who recently got his enlistment notice, said granting exemptions to pop artists would likely lead to a sense of deprivation for hard-working young men in other fields.

“Even if (the K-pop stars) were exempted from conscription, what would be the criteria of ‘national prestige’?” he posed.

“Ordinary people devoting their youth (for the country), doesn’t that count as promoting national prestige? Singers pursue their own self-interest, but we are forced to give it up. It is unfair, and would likely lead to further social conflict.”

Chun In-bum, a retired Army lieutenant general, voiced similar concerns during a media interview.

“Celebrities are objects of admiration, and what would the young children think if they don’t go? Those children would likely think, ‘Ah, I will do something so I won’t have to go to the military.’”

Proponents cite more practical reasons. They believe BTS not serving the military is in the best interest of the country.

In one of his last public addresses as the culture minister, Hwang Hee appealed for the “understanding and tolerance” of 20-something men on the issue.

“With debates over BTS members’ enlistment going on, I felt that someone had to make a responsible comment,” he said in a May 4 briefing.

“I feel that (BTS serving in the military) is a loss on the national level in a sense that it widely shows the realities (of South Korea) being unable to retain its cultural assets as a divided nation, and possibly a loss on the level of the entire human race since it forces an international act to cease its activities.

“Please be more considerate (for Korea) to establish itself as a cultural powerhouse.”


So what of BTS’ exemption?


Despite over a year of deliberation, a legislative move to grant military exemptions to BTS -- and pop musicians of that high caliber -- has yet to materialize. Last year, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the ruling People Power Party proposed a bill that would have allowed outstanding male musicians and artists in pop culture to substitute military duties with volunteer work, which is still pending at the National Assembly.

The boy band recently announced that it would take time off from group activities to pursue solo projects, while dismissing rumors that the move precedes their eventual disbandment. With the news, shares of its agency Hybe took a nosedive.

Rep. Yoon last week raised suspicions that BTS’ sudden hiatus was related to their impending military duties, voicing frustration that what has been dubbed the “BTS law” by media has barely been discussed by lawmakers.

“The effects of BTS’ hiatus is enormous, not just on K-pop, but on the South Korean economy in general. ... The National Assembly should not evade law revision, and choose the greater interest of the country. Otherwise the heyday of K-pop may disappear like a mirage,” Yoon wrote on his Facebook page.



By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)
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