[WHY] BTS and the war on Korea's military exemptions

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[WHY] BTS and the war on Korea's military exemptions



The fame and influence of megahit K-pop boyband BTS seem to only grow with time, but also growing alongside the band's stature is the ongoing debate on whether the members of the band still need to serve in the Korean military.
Just last week, BTS had the honor of visiting the White House for a meeting with President Joe Biden, representing the Asian community and discussing issues of Asian inclusion.
President Joe Biden of the United States and K-pop boy band BTS pose with finger hearts at the White House Oval Office after their closed meeting on May 31. [YONHAP]

President Joe Biden of the United States and K-pop boy band BTS pose with finger hearts at the White House Oval Office after their closed meeting on May 31. [YONHAP]

The White House introduced the band as “Grammy-nominated international icons” who play an important role as youth ambassadors, showing how the band has grown to be more than just a pop group to become role models for many worldwide.
While many Koreans praised the band members for becoming international figures promoting peace, the online comments section on news articles quickly turned into an arena for debate on whether BTS should still serve in the military.
“We are very proud of them, which is why they should be good role models and enlist,” one comment read, while another read, "As someone who’s already finished serving his military term, I suggest the government should really exempt them from duty. Just look at how much they raise our country's image."
The debate began after BTS became the first Korean music act to top the Billboard 200 albums chart with “Love Yourself: Tear” back in 2018. From then on, BTS set more international records as Korean artists, including topping the Billboard 100 singles chart with “Dynamite” in 2020 and being nominated for the Grammys.
While it is mandatory that all able-bodied young men in Korea serve in the military, the government and military are contending with a complicated question of national prestige and merit as a factor in a potential exemption for the band while confronting split public opinions regarding these celebrity exemptions.
And time is running out for some members of BTS.
The National Assembly already once amended the Military Service Act in 2020 to allow top K-pop stars, like then-28-year-old BTS member Jin, to postpone military service until they turn 30.
But that was almost two years ago, and without another change in conscription policy, Jin must report for duty at the end of this year. His younger bandmates, born between 1994 and 1997, have a couple more years until they are called up.
Why did the conscription of BTS members become an issue?
Of course, BTS is not the only boy group in Korea that has faced conscription.
K-pop history is studded with famous boy bands, beginning with H.O.T. and Shinhwa in the late '90s and continuing with TVXQ and Big Bang in the late 2000s, and all of these groups have seen their members — many of whom made their pop debuts in late adolescence — enlist as they approached the previous age limit of 28 for deferring enlistment.
Yet many of these boy groups had already disbanded or lost members due to reasons such as contract disputes with their agencies, and they reported for duty arguably after the height of their popularity had passed.
For example, Kangta of H.O.T. — considered to be the first Korean boy band to enjoy success outside of the country — enlisted in 2008, seven years after the group disbanded, while Changmin of TVXQ reported for duty in 2015, six years after his group broke up over a contract dispute with their management agency.
Compared to these earlier groups, BTS is unique not only for its longevity — the band has now held together for nine years — but also its truly global popularity which extends far beyond Asia.
Not only has BTS clinched two Grammy and Brit Awards nominations, the group became the first Asian pop act to top the Billboard 200 in May 2018 with “Love Yourself: Tear,” topping the album chart again with four following albums — “Love Yourself: Answer,” “Map of the Soul: Persona,” “Map of the Soul: 7” and “Be” — in September 2018, April 2019, March 2020 and November 2020.
The band has won multiple titles at the American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards. Their international stature is evidenced by several high-profile collaborations with well-known Western pop acts such as Coldplay, The Chainsmokers, Lil Nas X, Lauv and Halsey.
Didn’t footballer Son Heung-min already get exempted from serving active duty though?
Son Heung-min during his three weeks of basic training at the Korean marine corps in 2020 after being exempted from the rest of his active military duty as he, along with his teammates, won gold at the 2018 Asian Games. [YONHAP]

Son Heung-min during his three weeks of basic training at the Korean marine corps in 2020 after being exempted from the rest of his active military duty as he, along with his teammates, won gold at the 2018 Asian Games. [YONHAP]

Under the current military conscription law, some men — specifically Olympic and Asian Games medalists and globally recognized award-winning classical musicians — are legally able to bypass the active duty that most of their countrymen must, oftentimes unwillingly, fulfill. Instead, they can substitute their duty with alternative service in their respective fields.
For example, Tottenham striker Son Heung-min, did only three weeks of basic training after getting an exemption after the South Korean national football team beat Japan to win gold at the 2018 Asian Games.
Pianist Cho Seong-jin also got a waiver after he won the XVII International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015.
Yet despite their numerous accolades and unprecedented global reach for a K-pop group, the law is clear that BTS members do not qualify for the kind of exemption granted to Son or Cho.
The main question here is how comparable are the achievements of BTS to those by athletes and artists that have already been exempted for duty for promoting national prestige, and whether an exemption for BTS can also apply to other celebrities that follow in the path of BTS.
So how does the public view the idea of a unique exemption being carved out for BTS?
In a poll by Gallup Korea in April, 60 percent of men and 57 percent of women surveyed said they support an amendment to the military service law to allow some K-pop artists an exemption from the military service.
Opposition was highest among men 18 to 29 and men in their 40s and 60s, with almost 40 percent of men in these age groups opposing an exemption from military service for K-pop artists.

The poll surveyed 1,004 people 18 or over.
However, after a representative from the band’s agency HYBE suggested lawmakers pass a law settling the matter, public opinion has somewhat soured.
“The uncertainty is weighing on us. Hopefully, the matter can be concluded soon,” said Lee Jin-hyung, chief communications officer of HYBE at a briefing held April 9 in Las Vegas.  
He added that the BTS members were “finding it difficult to deal with the uncertainty in the changing guidelines,” and that the members left the decision on military duty to the company.
The remarks caused a backlash against HYBE for urging the government to make a quick decision on exempting band members from their duty.
“The discussion has come to a point where the public feels confused as [changing] the military exemption policy has been pushed by an arbitrary interpretation of public sentiment,” pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun told the JoongAng Ilbo. “The government will need to maintain consistency in its policies to avoid controversies on fairness.”
What do politicians and government officials think about an exemption for BTS?
Views remain highly divided.
In a meeting held at the National Assembly on May 17, Military Manpower Administration (MMA) Commissioner Lee Ki-sik expressed concerns about declining enlistment and touched on the need to review the country’s military service exemption program as a whole to promote fairness.
“[We’ve] been on track to reduce cases of military exemptions until now; however, the issue has been brought up again with BTS,” Lee said. “It’s important that we reconsider whether this kind of program is appropriate bearing in mind fairness and equality […] which are key topics of conversation among young people in Korea.”
The basic stance of the MMA is that it’s difficult to issue any more exemptions as enlistment numbers are already falling short due to the declining birthrate.

While Korea’s military remains one of the largest in the world with about 3.3 million troops, comprised of 555,000 active soldiers and 2.75 million reservists, the country’s demographic crisis led the government to loosen physical and other eligibility requirements in recent decades, thereby expanding the proportion of young men it conscripts from about 50 percent in the 1980s to more than 90 percent today.
Former Culture Minister Hwang Hee, whose term ended on May 12, had a different view.
In a press briefing held before leaving office on May 4, he said that globally recognized pop artists like BTS should be allowed to substitute their mandatory military service with alternative programs, giving hope to those in support of BTS being exempted from active military duty.
“It’s time to create a system that incorporates popular culture art figures as artistic personnel,” Hwang had said, referring to the existing program that allows global award-winning athletes and classical musicians to do alternative service instead of serving as active military.

He even directly mentioned BTS, saying, “I thought somebody should be the voice of reason at a time when there are conflicting pros and cons ahead of the enlistment of some of the BTS members.”
Some argue that the policy of exemptions from military service is an outdated relic of times when Korea was poorer, lesser known and military manpower was plentiful.
“Special exemptions for those who raised the country’s profile were created in the early 1970s, when there were fewer opportunities to promote Korea abroad,” said Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Byung-kee, in a Nov. 25 defense subcommittee meeting at the National Assembly.
What does the future hold for military service?
Perhaps what’s at the core of these debates is the fact that, if given a choice, most Korean men would prefer not to enlist in the military.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Korea Women’s Policy Institute, 82.5 percent of men in their 20s approaching enlistment said they believe “it is better not to go to the military,” with 65.3 percent of respondents saying they think military service is “a waste of time.”
Unpopularity aside, conscription is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
One of the lasting scars of the 1950-53 Korean War, when North Korea invaded the fledging republic in the South with a numerically superior army and vastly better equipped force, was the permanent militarization of both sides of the peninsula.
North Korea’s sizable standing army — which counts 1.28 million active troops and 600,000 in the reserves — forces South Korea to maintain a massive military in case hostilities resume.
But no institution can survive isolated from the society it serves, and the Korean military is no exception.
In recent years, the Korean government has tried to make military service more palatable to younger generations of men by shortening the service from 21 months to 18 months for most branches of the armed forces, permitting the use of mobile phones during off-duty hours, and even committing to improving food quality in response to complaints about meals in the barracks that arose last year.
As such, while military duty is likely to remain a time-consuming and onerous rite of passage for Korean men, it will perhaps not be as Spartan or harsh as its longtime reputation suggests.

BY MICHAEL LEE, KIM JEE-HEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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