BTS members face a different kind of army
BTS and its dedicated fan club ARMY have soared to heights never before reached in the history of Korean music, topping charts and storming awards ceremonies in and outside of Korea over the past couple of years. But what about BTS and the actual Army?
During a leadership meeting on Oct. 5, Rep. Noh Woong-rae, a member of the Supreme Council of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), brought up BTS and its record-breaking No. 1 ranking on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on Oct. 2 and floated the possibility of offering the band's seven members an alternative to their required military service as a thank you for their massive economic and cultural impact.
BTS’s historical feat of topping the world’s biggest music chart brought Korea an estimated 1.7 trillion won’s ($1.5 billion) worth of economic effect, bringing the total for this year to 6 trillion won. That number is estimated to hit 60 trillion won over a decade.
“We must start a serious discussion on offering special arrangements for military conscription to its members,” he said. “Military duty is sacred, but not everyone has to hold a rifle [...] Engineers, classic artists [and athletes] have alternative programs, but pop culture artists are not covered."
BTS’s achievements have been praised by the public and experts alike, and even President Moon Jae-in congratulated the members in person. But the recent endorsement from the ruling party has posed a big question — Are BTS's achievements enough to exempt its members from the military duty that binds all able-bodied men in Korea?
Leave for now, or leave for good
Even before Rep. Noh raised the issue, the topic of exempting male K-pop stars from their military duties has been lingering on the music scene.
With the journey to stardom beginning when K-pop trainees are in their early teenage years and usually taking years of training and post-debut promotion before they earn any public recognition, many are only just enjoying their time in the spotlight when the time to enlist comes.
Based on the Military Service Act, Korean men must go through physical examination after they turn 18. They must enlist between the ages of 18 and 28 according to the results of the examination, unless they have extraordinary reasons, or they can face imprisonment.
In February this year, BTS's Jin answered a local reporter's question on his thoughts regarding his upcoming service as the oldest member of the group, that it was “a just duty” and that he will “answer when the country calls.”
But that doesn’t mean he wants to go, according to industry insiders.
“To be frank, no one wants to leave their career for two years, especially at an age where they are at their biological and musical apex,” said an insider from an entertainment agency who wished to remain anonymous. “Only half the number of fans remain after two years of military service, not to mention the singers' own musical abilities that would have been left uncared for during that time. Most of them just go because they know the public backlash that will come if they evade their duties, but deep in their hearts, they wish to stay on the scene.”
And they are right to fear that backlash.
Singer Steve Yoo, also known as Yoo Seung-jun, has been banned from the country since 2002, after the famous singer filed for U.S. citizenship in January that year to avoid serving his two-year mandatory military service in Korea.
Rapper and producer MC Mong has also been bombarded with criticism ever since accusations that he purposely avoided enlisting in 2010. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that MC Mong had not deliberately removed his teeth to avoid military conscription but sentenced him to six months in prison for using other tactics to delay his mandatory duties.
Both Yoo and MC Mong have released music since, but it has not been well-received.
The risk of public criticism related to military service is so high that singer Psy carried out his duties twice to avoid being blasted for not fully completing his service after it was revealed that he had held performances during his first enlistment.
The uncanny debate recommences
While the fate of BTS may have attracted the most interest, it is not the first band to have its fans call for mercy from the government.
The fans of boy band Exo took to the Blue House online petition board asking for the band’s exemption immediately after the board opened in August 2018. Although such fans were mocked as being irrational, their arguments actually display an uncanny likeness in reasoning — the band has contributed to the heightening of awareness of Korea worldwide more than any other citizens who have been granted special exemptions.
According to the Military Service Act, “persons with special skills in the fields of arts or sports” who “perform duties in the field of arts or sports to promote culture and enhance national prestige” may serve their mandatory military service by volunteer work using their special abilities in facilities laid out by the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
The indicator of promoting culture and enhancing national prestige are spelled out by the Enforcement Decree of the Military Service Act, which includes winning competitions in international art — national also, should the field lack such competitions such as traditional Korean music, or gugak — the Olympic Games, the Asian Games or education in national intangible cultural heritage of more than five years.
As of the latest update made to the list on July 1 of this year, there are 28 international classic music competitions, nine international ballet competitions and five national competitions for gugak and traditional ballet that warrant exemptions.
But exemptions don't mean they're completely off the hook. Arts and sports personnel must still go through three weeks of basic training, after which they must complete voluntary work for two years and 10 months. Such work includes performing for or teaching children, or taking part in public campaigns authorized by both the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Military Manpower Administration.
Famed stars who have been designated as arts and sports personnel include footballer Son Heung-min. He gained an exemption after Korea's national football team won the gold medal at the Asian Games in 2018. He served his three-week training in May this year.
Another well-known figure is pianist Cho Seong-jin, who won the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 2009 and the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015.
But a decades-old criterion shouldn’t be the deciding factor for contemporary music, say experts. On Sept. 4, musician and author Gu Ja-hyoung posted an online petition on the Blue House petition board with the title “President Moon Jae-in, please open the path for BTS to be exempt from military duty.” Gu recognized the worldwide potential of BTS in 2017 when he first heard the song “DNA” (2017) on the bus, and has since written three books detailing the band’s musical feats since 2018.
“The law always falls behind pop culture, and the scriptures of the law come in conflict with the notes of music,” said Gu. “They have enhanced national prestige more than anyone else has, by being dubbed The Beatles of the 21st century in the global music market. They’re contributing to national security and the national economy, and to send them to the military would be misplacing precious talent in the wrong field.”
On Sept. 3, Rep. Jeun Young-gi of the DP and 13 other members of the National Assembly put forward a revised bill to Article 60 of the Military Service Act to recognize pop culture artists, along with arts and sports personnel, as eligible to postpone their draft. The bill has yet to be discussed at the National Assembly.
"Pop culture and arts are receiving more attention internationally than ever before amid the global Hallyu trend," read the revision proposal. "[People working in] pop culture and arts see the highest results in their 20s, which is the age they must carry out their mandatory military services, and to fail to adjust when they enlist would not only lead to the loss of opportunity for the young men, but also prove disadvantageous for the national image."
Soldiers fight, singers sing?
While those fighting for the exemption of BTS do so for the sake of legal equality of pop musicians with other arts fields, the opposition argues that it is almost impossible to pin down just one key player in the pop music scene as opposed to other arts fields, making it unfair for members of a certain band to be exempt when many behind the scenes have contributed to their stardom.
“The article on the special exception for mandatory military services was first implemented in 1973, back when pop musicians were deemed as tantara,” said lawyer Choi Jin-nyoung of CK Law Group LLC and former spokesperson for the Korean Bar Association. The term tantara means clownish in Korean and is used to specifically derogates pop musicians.
“But what difference does classic music have from pop music these days? Everyone has heard of BTS at some point, and the presence of BTS has led to people overseas becoming more aware of Korea and the Korean culture than ever before. BTS contributes to promoting culture and enhancing national prestige more than anyone else, but the social stigma against pop music still keeps the field unprotected by the law. The law should treat what’s the same, the same, and there is no reason to differentiate the two fields in this day and age.”
But for argument’s sake, what if BTS’s producer and head of Big Hit Entertainment Bang Si-hyuk were at an age where he was waiting to enlist for his military service? Would Bang have to go but not BTS? BTS may be the band that sings the songs, but Bang is the one who put together the band together in the first place — along with songwriters, music video directors, other staff members and not to forget, the ardent fan club ARMY.
Contrary to other fields of art and sports where the players hold the right to their talent, pop music doesn’t work that way. Even BTS’s latest achievement on the Billboard charts was technically won by ARMY, who streamed and downloaded the band’s songs and bought the concert tickets. It was a collective effort and it would not be fair to award them for something they achieved as a part of a greater team, according to lawyer Park Ha-young of Pyeong An Law Firm, who specializes in military law.
“There are duties of citizens laid out by the law, such as the duties of military and tax,” said Park. “There are special exceptions in the tax law as well, but they’re only there to protect the weak — not to award the powerful. Are they the weak? Is everyone related to BTS going to get exempted as well? If the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 ranking wins them a special exception, it means that the size of fandoms are going to determine whether or not they get exempt — not their individual talents.”
Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Park Yang-woo stated that the matter should be fully discussed at the National Assembly, while Mo Jong-hwa, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, said that he will look into allowing the members of BTS to postpone their enlistment to the latest time possible permitted by the law.
But the fairest method of all would be to get rid of the special exception article altogether, according to Choi Chang-ryul, a politics professor at Yongin University.
“We really don’t need special treatment in this society,” said Choi. “Everyone, every young person in this country is living their lives to the fullest, and the members of BTS did the same. Why should they be rewarded for their efforts and not other people? Their personal achievements and the social byproducts are all good, but that shouldn’t be linked to their legal duties. It accelerates social inequality. Plus, the issue is frequently used as a populist political tool. That should all just stop.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]