What happens when K-pop stars have to enlist in the military?
For the past few years, South Korea has been pondering the status of male K-pop stars like BTS 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 every year, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. Thus, the group would generate the same economic value as 26 medium-sized South Korean companies. Additionally, the group is estimated to attract hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists to South Korea, while helping to promote 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. Football player 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 difficult, but I tried to enjoy it.
The subject is more sensitive when it comes to BTS, who received a first reprieve in November 2020, when the Seoul parliament granted them permission to perform their compulsory military service at 30 years old – against 28 usually. Jin, the oldest member of the group, will reach that age on December 4. This is why the Hybe agency, which manages the group, calls on the South Korean government to look into the BTS affair 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 military service exemptions to K-pop singers like BTS.
Some may remember the case of Steve Yoo Seung Jun. In 2002, this key figure of 90s K-pop took American citizenship, automatically renouncing his South Korean citizenship, 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 difficulties in 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.
This story was published via AFP Relaxnews
(Main image: BTS; Feature image: Mark Ralston/ AFP)