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South Koreans Are Divided Over BTS’ Looming Mandatory Military Service

Pop culture critics say the whole conversation has been politicized, with some officials using it to boost their popularity.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
October 30, 2020, 12:41pm

BTS’ contribution to South Korean culture and economy is massive. Backed by a loyal fanbase known as ARMY, the seven-member K-pop boy band sells out stadium concerts worldwide and boosts exports of Korean products.

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About a month after becoming the first K-pop group to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100, its label Big Hit Entertainment made its market debut, turning founder and CEO Bang Si-hyuk into a billionaire.

BTS’ international stardom, and the cultural and economic benefits that come with it, is rising rapidly, but it could soon be interrupted, as the group is set to face a different type of army — their military duty.

South Korea’s Military Service Act requires “every masculine gender of the Republic of Korea” to perform military service for close to two years. They need to enter the military between the ages of 18 and 28. 

Men can choose to postpone this for a variety of reasons, but need to fulfill the requirement before they turn 30 years old.

Big Hit has mostly stayed silent about its plans for BTS but with oldest member Jin turning 28 this year, the company is now forced to tackle the matter head on.

In a securities registration statement filed ahead of its market debut, the company was transparent about the possible ‘gap years’ with an incomplete BTS.

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“BTS, the main group of the company consists of seven members who were born ranging from 1992 to 1997,” it said, adding that “Kim Seok-jin [Jin] can only postpone his mandatory duty until the end of 2021.”

This means that BTS could be down one member by next year. Other members RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook are also in their 20s and will soon be in the same position.

Every K-pop boy band goes through this. 2PM was a six-member group when its first member left for military service in 2017. They will only be complete again next year. But amid growing interest from fans, businesses, and even the government, BTS is different. There is now a serious call to exempt the band’s members from military service, with some fans and lawmakers expressing their support, and sparking a national debate.

Let the band play

Military service exemptions are granted to men who have contributed to elevating South Korea’s reputation. This includes Olympic medalists and classical musicians but to this day, no pop entertainment figure has been granted this privilege.

Those who support military exemption for BTS argue that the band has brought more honor — and money — to the country than any classical musician or athlete. So why not?

The issue is even seemingly bringing politicians from opposing parties to the same side.

“Not everyone has to take up a rifle to serve his own country,” lawmaker Noh Woong-rae of the ruling Democratic Party said at a party meeting in October, highlighting the “immeasurable economic benefits” that BTS has brought to the nation. “It’s the time to discuss offering special arrangements for military conscription to the members.”

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Earlier, Yoon Sang-hyun, an independent lawmaker, said on Facebook that the military waiver program shouldn’t be limited to athletes and classical musicians, pointing out that the law was made about 50 years ago and doesn’t reflect the reality and the importance of pop culture today.

“The military issue of K-pop idol [groups] is not just a matter of individual issues. It is also a matter of survival of their agencies or labels that deal with hundreds of billions of [Korean] won,” he said.

Ha Tae-keung of the main opposition People Power Party has been calling for an exemption since 2018. “We should consider the issue of equity with other artists and sports personnels,” he said in a Facebook post.

But many are wary of officials politicizing the issue and riding on BTS’ popularity.

“Politicians have that kind of desire to jump on the bandwagon since celebrities draw attention from the public,” South Korean culture critic Jung Duk-hyun told VICE, adding that it is “a sort of populism.”

“Politicians have done that [raising the issue] so that it could help their approval ratings. They are not approaching this seriously and would shift their positions once the table is reversed,” Lee Taek-gwang, another culture critic and professor at Kyunghee University, told VICE.

Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, has urged party members to stop talking about the issue.

“We should be tight-lipped. The people are not comfortable that politicians keep talking about the BTS military issue and the members also don’t want this discussion.”

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BTS members have said that they don’t mind enlisting.

“I believe that military service is a duty. When I am called, I am ready to serve anytime,” Jin said in a press conference in February. “As a South Korean, it is natural,” he said in another interview with CBS last year. “Someday when duty calls, we will be ready to respond and do our best.”

In the past, some K-pop boy groups had members join the military at around the same to minimize gap years, but newer bands have not been doing this so they can release albums as solo artists or in smaller groups. BTS is likely to do the same to prevent a drop in sales for Big Hit.

“[We are] going over the flexible operation of the members who can do economic activities [for the future],” the company said in a statement.

A double standard 

With BTS agreeing to enlist, many wonder why they should be exempted, pointing out an obvious double standard. If BTS’ 20s — their prime years — are too important to carry out the duty, what about all the other young men who have to do it? 

Kim Jong-cheol, the new leader of the minor opposition Justice Party, said he’s a fan of BTS but opposes the special treatment.

“The members themselves already repeated that they will diligently carry out their military duties,” he said on a Facebook post. “It could also cause an unnecessary controversy on the issue of fairness among young men.”

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“[The exemption] is violating the principle of the country. Do you think it is OK to decide the matter through a popularity vote?” Lee, the culture critic, said, adding that BTS’ achievements on Billboard music charts are individual achievements and not ones the country can take credit for. 

Getting exempted may even taint BTS’ reputation, he said, as men who don’t join the military are stigmatized in society.

According to an October study by the National Barometer Survey, South Koreans are divided on the issue. Forty-eight percent of the respondents said that BTS shouldn’t be exempted, while 46 percent thought they should be.

“In South Korea, the military issue is the most sensitive topic. I don’t think that the idea of exempting BTS from the service coincides with the national sentiment,” culture critic Jung said.

Right now, a more popular approach lies somewhere in the middle of the two opposing sides — postponement.

“We can think about giving some benefits by putting off the service and assigning them to suitable positions considering their age and career. I think this is a more realistic alternative for those artists,” Jung said.

The South Korean government seems to prefer this too.

On Monday, Park Yang-woo, Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, said they have started discussing the possibility of postponing military service for select people.

If granted, BTS would still serve their mandatory military service, without pressing pause so early in their burgeoning international career. 

Find Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.