Army duty can make or break a star’s reputation

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Army duty can make or break a star’s reputation

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Some Korean celebrities saw their popularity soar after serving in the military or taking part in military-themed reality TV shows, including (from left) Chun Jung-myung, Cha In-pyo, Yoo Seung-ho, Moon Hee-jun and Hyeri. [JoongAng Ilbo]

“If I could, I would like to serve in the military now so that I could set foot on Korean soil honorably,” said singer and actor Yoo Seung-jun on May 19, opening up about avoiding military conscription 13 years ago when he chose to become a U.S. citizen.

His comments flooded Korean media, sparking debates over whether or not it is time to forgive the celebrity.

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As seen in this 2012 file photo of actor Hyun Bin completing his military service, celebrities completing their duties are under intense media scrutiny. Hyun chose to join the Marines, which is notorious for its tough training, after which the heartthrob attracted even more die-hard fans. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Yoo, one of the most beloved singers in Korea between the 1990s and early 2000s, suddenly became the nation’s No. 1 enemy after he avoided entering the Army and was banned from setting foot on Korean soil upon the request of the Military Manpower Administration.

It is mandatory for all able-bodied males in Korea to serve for around two years before a certain age.

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There are celebrities whose popularity plunged, with some never really recovering their former reputation, including (from left) Psy, Yoo Seung-jun, MC Mong, Rain and Se7en. [JoongAng Ilbo]

In an allegedly unscripted interview from Hong Kong, streamed live through an online broadcaster, a sobbing Yoo pleaded with South Koreans to understand that he made his decision due to the circumstances he was under at the time.

But the Korean public has not been all that forgiving. Other allegations that suggest Yoo has suddenly decided to seek forgiveness in order to avoid paying taxes in the U.S. and China - where he has been acting in the meantime - surfaced, leading Yoo to hold another online interview a week later.

Still, the headlines in the Korean media remained cold.

Although most men would agree that the idea of spending more than two years of their youth with other men in a military barracks is hardly enticing, dodging that responsibility is heavily frowned upon.

For Korea’s showbiz industry, Yoo’s case stressed that entering the military may mean being forgotten, but that avoiding duty will also leave an indelible mark on one’s reputation that may be impossible to recover from.

Although it has become somewhat a trend since the turn of the millennium for male entertainers to willingly serve, with some even entering while at the top of their career, there are still cases like those of MC Mong, who allegedly attempted to dodge the military and gained a herd of haters for years to come.

Insiders at entertainment agencies say that concerns about an uncertain future are what keep male celebrities from entering the Army.

Students can take two years off and go back to school after serving in the Army, and workers can go back to work, they say.

But that is not the case for entertainers. There is no guaranteed job security.

“After two and a half years, I would be almost 30. I also have to consider that the life of a dancing singer is quite short,” Yoo said in a media interview in 2002, right after he was banned from coming into Korea.

The end of a career?

“What do you think of me? / You asked / But it’s hard for me to answer.”

Most Koreans in their 30s and 40s have heard these lyrics from Kim Min-wu’s “It’s Just Love.”

Kim debuted with the song in the early 1990s and topped the charts, beating veteran singer Cho Yong-pil to No. 1. His other songs were also hits, and he soon became an A-lister in Korea.

However, in 1991 he entered the Army, and when he came back in 1993 the Korean music scene had changed forever with the launch of pop group Seo Taiji and Boys and rock group N.EX.T. There seemed to be no spot for Kim, a ballad singer, so he retired.

Today, the 46-year-old is a car salesman.

“Kim Min-woo’s case was a shock in the industry,” an entertainment source said.

“That’s when male entertainers began to think that, if possible, they should avoid going into the Army.”

Industry observers say the military conscription of male entertainers became a good enough story for newspaper headlines since then.

For instance, when actor Cha In-pyo gave up his U.S. green card and joined the Korean Army in 1994, it was one of the top stories on the main news programs of terrestrial channels in Korea.

An insider in the Army said whether or not male entertainers served their military duty was not that big a social issue until the ’80s.

“We didn’t know if Cho Yong-pil or Sobangcha [an ’80s boy group] served in the military or not, and we didn’t care either,” he said.

Sources within the Military Manpower Administration said this was also related to the percentage of people who did not go into the Army at the time.

Stigma attached

According to the administration, the percentage of men born in the 1950s, who entered the military in the 1970s when they were in their 20s, was 33.8 percent. The figure for those born in the 1960s was 30.5 percent, while for those born in the 1970s it was 18.3 percent.

In other words, in the 1980s - when men born in the 1960s were supposed to go into the military - one third did not serve at all. Not spending time in the Army, therefore, was hardly stigmatic. It was rather common.

It was only in the 1990s that exemption from military conscription started to be considered a privilege.

Ban Jae-young, a 45-year-old office worker born in the 1970s, said it was during his time that “being exempt from military conscription means you were the son of God,” referring to how only those with power or wealth got away with not signing up.

That is why actor Cha’s choice made headlines. He could have enjoyed the “privilege” but chose not to. When he did, he was at the top of his career, playing the rich “Prince Charming” in the hugely popular MBC romance drama “Love in Your Arms.

Unlike singer Kim Min-wu, who pretty much disappeared from the public eye after going into the military, Cha continued to play “perfect guy” roles in successful MBC dramas like “Star in My Heart” and “You and I.”

But the percentage of men who did not enter the military dropped further for those born in the 1980s and 1990s to 9.8 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively, meaning it became something everyone does, and not doing it caused suspicion.

As a result, social scrutiny over dodging military conscription - or attempted dodging - became even more intense in the early 2000s. Besides Yoo Seung-jun, actors Song Seung-heon and Jang Hyuk were also accused of attempting to evade mandatory duty.

In singer Psy’s case, he faced the criticism that he did not engage in his responsibilities fully during his military years - during which he served as a public service worker, an alternative given to people with special circumstances.

He decided to go into the military again, fulfilling four years and seven months of duty. He could have chosen to serve as a public service worker the second time he was conscripted, but he picked the Army instead, gaining public praise.

A new opportunity

Since Psy, several cases where male entertainers decide to sincerely fulfill their military duty have emerged.

It has reached the point where a celebrity enlisting is not even major news. For instance, actor Yoo Seung-ho joined the Army quietly in 2013. It was a shock as he was just 20 at the time. Most Korean male celebrities delay military conscription until their late 20s or early 30s.

In fact, some stars who joined the Army have unintentionally become the people’s favorite through their service, with some even overturning their previously obnoxious images.

Case in point: Singer Moon Hee-jun of former boy group H.O.T.

Moon’s nickname was “Million Haters,” mostly from rock fans criticizing the former K-pop star for trying to be a rock musician. But when he was seen serving in the military dutifully in 2005, more people came to like him.

He even gained the nickname “Bodhisattva Moon,” referring to how he was so generous and tolerant under the harsh military life. He has been making many appearances on entertainment shows since completing his service.

Actor Chun Jung-myung also benefitted from serving in the Army. Word of mouth that the pretty-boy actor was one of the toughest and most disciplined leaders in his barracks spread, and his popularity also soared.

And so did his value.

Before going to the Army in 2008, he was paid 10 million won ($8,990.60) per episode, according to sources. But after coming out, he was paid 22 million per episode. His talent agency said Chun was in three commercials before going to the military, but signed up for 15 ads his first year back.

“I hope all of the male entertainers with our company go to the Army when the time is right,” said Nam Seung-myeong, one of the executives at Red Line Entertainment, Chun’s agency, adding that “today, going to the military is not only a duty, but also an opportunity.

The girls join in

There are even girls who have benefitted from the military, although it is more for an Army reality show.

Hyeri of the band Girl’s Day appeared in MBC’s military camp reality show “Real Men” and has catapulted to stardom since then.

According to her talent agency, Dream Tea Entertainment, calls for her to appear in commercial gigs rose 300 percent and the pay for those gigs also doubled from 1.5 million won to 3 million won. Members of her online fan community also rose from 60,000 to 70,000.

“Calls for entertainment gigs rose from about 20 a week to 40 a week [since the show],” said Na Sang-cheon of the company.

Still, there are male stars who have served but had their image negatively affected by their behavior within the barracks. In 2013 singers Se7en and Sangchu made headlines for going to massage parlors during their service.

Since then, making sure stars in the Army behave well and stay out of trouble has become one of the major responsibilities of talent agencies.

“On Saturdays and Sundays, people working for entertainment agencies line up from early morning” to check up on their stars, said a source in the military.

One insider at a talent agency, who wanted to stay anonymous, said, “we are concerned that due to the sudden change of their surroundings they will get stressed and get in trouble,” adding that they “visit every weekend to try to help them stay out of trouble.”

Another source said that nowadays there are group chat rooms on Kakao Talk, a mobile messenger, in almost every barracks where the agencies “keep track of how their stars are doing in the barracks in real-time.”

BY YU SEONG-UN AND KIM MIN-GWAN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]
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