BTS’ decision to enlist in national service ends 4-year debate over draft exemption for K-pop stars

BTS' agency Bighit Music announced on Oct 17 that the seven band members are going to fulfil military service. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL – With their decision to enlist for national service (NS), South Korean boy band BTS have ended a four-year heated debate on whether illustrious pop stars, like Olympians and award-winning classical musicians, should be exempted from military duties.

The band’s agency, Bighit Music, announced on Oct 17 that the seven members are “currently moving forward with plans to fulfil their military service”, beginning with Jin, the oldest of the group. He is due to enlist by December.

Many observers welcomed the decision, with lawmaker Chung Jin-suk of the ruling People Power Party calling NS a “sacred duty imposed on every young Korean” and saying it is “in the right direction to reduce (special exemptions) as much as possible”. 

JoongAng Ilbo newspaper praised the band’s “brave decision” in an Oct 19 editorial, saying it was “as mature as their musical achievements”. 

The paper also noted that BTS have “never asked for favouritism”, and it was politicians who kept stirring up controversy. 

Under a compulsory conscription system, all able-bodied men in South Korea must serve in the army for at least 18 months by the age of 28. Exemptions are rare and granted only to athletes and classical artists who “promoted national prestige” by winning certain international awards and competitions. 

Wrestler Yang Jung-mo was the first to get such an exemption after winning a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 – three years after the system was introduced to encourage athletes to bring medals home from major competitions overseas.

Footballer Son Heung-min and pianist Cho Seong-jin were also relieved of their national duties for striking gold. 

The system, however, does not recognise the achievements of K-pop stars who are now globally known and win major international awards. 

In 2018, when BTS became the first K-pop act to top the Billboard 100 chart, lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung ignited a huge debate when he argued that “there is a problem with fairness” if someone who wins first place in an international classical music competition gets NS exemption but someone who tops the Billboard chart does not.

While the band members have maintained that they will serve the nation when the time comes, calls for exemption have only grown as their fame and popularity exploded globally and generated billions of dollars worth of economic value to South Korea every year. 

The previous Moon Jae-in administration appeared to support NS exemption for BTS, with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism noting that it would be a “national loss” if the group were to suspend their activities. 

Jin, who turns 30 in December, was granted a two-year deferment in 2020, when the Military Service Act was amended to allow K-pop stars to postpone NS until they turn 30. 

South Koreans remain split on this issue, though, and even the National Assembly is unable to reach a consensus after numerous rounds of debate. 

NS exemption is a touchy subject in South Korea, and surveys show that many people in their 20s, who are sensitive to issues of fairness and decry any kind of special treatment for anyone, do not favour an exception for BTS.

A poll by Gallup Korea in April showed that while 60 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women supported NS exemptions for K-pop stars, opposition was high among men aged 18 to 29, with 40 per cent of them voicing objection.

The Ministry of National Defence is also against granting exemptions, urging prudence and citing concerns about the shrinking pool of recruits due to the country’s declining birth rates. 

The administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, also appeared to be more cautious about the BTS conscription issue and shunned a decision. 

After all, Mr Yoon’s campaign promise to bring justice and fairness back to the country appealed mostly to young men angry with the previous government’s double standards and unfair practices.

Meanwhile, calls for the NS exemption scheme to be changed or even abolished continue. 

While applauding BTS’ “courageous decision” in an Oct 19 editorial, Hankyoreh newspaper raised the need to re-examine the country’s NS exemption system, which is “outdated and out of sync with conditions today”.

Mr Andrew Kim, 26, who is currently serving NS, said: “The fairest way is to not grant any exemptions. Winning any medal or trophy, no matter how big, should not keep you away from serving the nation because that is every Korean’s duty.”

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