FFor the past few years, South Korea has been pondering the status of male K-pop stars in relation to the country’s mandatory military service. While the issue will soon be debated in parliament in Seoul, it divides the country, which still has a difficult relationship with its northern neighbor.
The rule is simple: all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 must serve in the South Korean military for at least 18 months. But the rule seems difficult to apply when it comes to Jin, Jimin, V, RM, J-Hope, Suga and Jungkook, the seven members of the hit group BTS. These twenty-somethings are expected to do their military service in the next few years, or even months in the case of Jin, whose real name is Kim Seok-jin.
However, some argue that they should be exempted due to the prominent role of BTS, and K-Pop in general, in Seoul’s global diplomatic influence. The boy band is estimated to contribute more than $3.6 billion to the country’s economy each year, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. Thus, the group would generate the same economic value as 26 medium-sized South Korean companies. In addition, the group is also estimated to attract hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists to South Korea, while contributing to the promotion of the Korean language internationally.
So many reasons that, for some South Korean politicians, justify the need for musicians to focus on their careers, rather than their military service. “Not everyone needs to pick up a gun to serve the country,” Noh Woong-rae, a senior ruling Democratic Party official, said in October 2020. And many South Koreans share that view. In fact, 59% believe BTS members should be exempt from military service, according to a Gallup Institute poll cited by The Korea Herald. Any K-pop singer who helps build the positive image of the Asian country in the world could benefit from this type of arrangement.
Olympic medalists and classical musicians have already benefited from various adjustments or postponements of their military service. Footballer Son Heung-min, for example, was allowed to perform his military service for a reduced period of three weeks after winning the 2018 Asian Games with the South Korea U-23 team. “It was a good experience,” he said in a video on his club’s Tottenham Hotspur website. “These guys were nice. The three weeks were tough, but I tried to enjoy it.”
The subject is more sensitive when it comes to the members of BTS. They obtained a first reprieve in November 2020, when the Seoul parliament granted them authorization to perform their compulsory military service at age 30, against the usual 28. Jin, the oldest member of the group, will reach that age on December 4. why the Hybe agency, which manages the group, calls on the South Korean government to look into the BTS file without delay. The parliamentary committee responsible for defense issues is due to examine the issue in November.
However, some people are not happy with the idea of giving special treatment to Jin, Jimin, V, RM, J-Hope, Suga, and Jungkook. In particular, they fear the system could be open to exploitation if the South Korean government starts granting exemptions to K-pop singers. Some may remember the case of Steve Yoo. In 2002, this essential figure of K-pop of the 90s took American nationality, automatically renouncing his South Korean nationality, to avoid being called. This ruse outraged public opinion, as well as the Ministry of Justice, which banned the singer from returning to his native country. The Seoul High Court finally lifted the ban in 2019.
But the time for leniency may now be over, as conservative Yoon Seok-youl became the country’s president-elect in March. The former attorney general, new to politics, narrowly won over his Democratic Party rival Lee Jae-myung. He managed to stand out by winning the favor of young Koreans, however largely disillusioned by soaring real estate prices and the difficulties of finding a job. During his campaign, Yoon Seok-youl offered to give special grants to men who have completed their military service. This initiative is all the more surprising since the new South Korean president was declared unfit for military service during his own youth, for health reasons.
However, BTS members have always expressed their desire to be good citizens. “Military service is natural duty and when duty calls, I will respond anytime,” Jin had said in February 2020. The next few months will tell if he still feels the same as he approaches his 30th birthday.
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