Compulsory military service, the thorn in the side of K-pop

(ETX Daily Up) – South Korea has been questioning the status of male K-pop stars for compulsory military service for several years. If the question will soon be debated in the Seoul Parliament, it divides a country still legally in open conflict with its northern neighbor. Decryption.

The rule is simple: all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 must serve in the South Korean military for at least 18 months. It becomes difficult to apply when it comes to Jin, Jimin, V, RM, J-Hope, Suga and Jungkook, the seven members of the phenomenon group BTS. These twenty-somethings are supposed to do their military service in the next few years, or even in a few months in the case of Jin, or Kim Seok-jin of his real name.

Some, however, are advocating for them to be exempt due to the prominent role of BTS, and K-Pop in general, in Seoul’s influential diplomacy. The boy band would bring in more than 3.6 billion dollars in annual economic benefits to its country, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. It would generate the same economic value as 26 medium-sized South Korean companies. In addition, the group would attract hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists to South Korea, and contribute to the influence of the Korean language on the international scene.

Possible arrangements

So many reasons which would justify, for certain South Korean politicians, that the eight musicians concentrate on their career, and not on their military service. “Not everyone needs to pick up a gun to serve their country,” Democratic Party MP Noh Woong-rae said in October 2020. Many South Koreans also agree. 59% believe BTS members should be exempt from military service, according to a Gallup poll cited by The Korea Herald. Any K-pop singer giving a good image of the Asian country in the world could also benefit from this arrangement.

Olympic medalists and classical musicians have already obtained an adjustment or postponement of incorporation for their military service. Footballer Son Heung-min was allowed to do so over a three-week period, after winning the 2018 Asian Games with South Korea’s U23 team. “A good experience”, as he explained in a video on the website of his club, Tottenham Hotspur. “The guys were nice. It was a tough period, but I tried to enjoy it.”

The topic is more sensitive when it comes to BTS members. They had obtained a first reprieve in November 2020, when the Seoul parliament authorized them to perform their compulsory service at 30 years old, against 28 in normal times. An age that Jin, the oldest musician in the boy band, will reach on December 4th. This is why the Hybe agency, which manages the group, calls on the South Korean government to look into the BTS case as soon as possible. The parliamentary committee responsible for defense issues is due to study this issue in November.

good citizens

However, some take a dim view of giving special treatment to Jin, Jimin, V, RM, J-Hope, Suga, and Jungkook. In particular, they fear abuse if the South Korean government begins to grant exemptions to K-pop singers. The case of Steve Yoo proves them right. In 2002, this essential figure of K-pop of the 90s had taken American nationality, automatically renouncing that of South Korea, to escape conscription. This ruse had scandalized public opinion and the Ministry of Justice, which had forbidden the singer to return to his native country. The Seoul High Court eventually lifted this ban in 2019.

The weather may no longer be clemency since the conservative Yoon Seok-youl came to power last March. This former attorney general, a novice in politics, won by a short margin against his rival from the Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung. He managed to stand out by attracting the good graces of young Koreans, although they are disillusioned by the explosion of real estate prices and difficult access to employment. During his campaign, Yoon Seok-youl notably proposed granting special grants to men who had completed their military service. An initiative all the more surprising since the new South Korean president had been declared unfit during his youth for health reasons.

Regardless, the members of BTS have always expressed their desire to be good citizens. “I believe that military service is a duty. I am ready to serve at any time,” Jin said in February 2020. “As a South Korean, it’s natural.” The next few months will tell if he will hold the same pitch as his 30th birthday approaches.