K-pop supergroup BTS has turned the world of entertainment on its head since its debut in 2013. However, as it has been with many other celebrities in South Korea, the mandatory military service of BTS members has been a recurring point of debate in the country. Today, South Korean music label BIGHIT MUSIC announced that the boy band will be going ahead with mandatory military service, starting with its oldest member Jin. Where then, does it leave the band and its fans?
According to Associated Press (AP), Lee Ki Sik, the commissioner of South Korea’s Military Manpower Administration, told members of parliament on 7 October 2022 that it’s “desirable” for the seven BTS members to enlist for mandatory military service to ensure fairness in the system.
Just a few days before Lee Ki Sik’s remarks, the country’s Defence Minister, Lee Jong-sup, had made a similar statement about the possibility of BTS entering military service. Although there has been no concrete development, the country’s culture minister, Park Bo Gyoon, has said the ministry’s position on the matter would be finalised soon.
Here’s all we know about the mandatory military service in South Korea and how it can impact BTS
Why is military service mandatory in South Korea?
South Korea is technically still at war with North Korea. This is because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice and not a formal declaration of an end to the war by either side.
In December 2021, the then South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that South Korea and North Korea, as well as their backers, the US and China, respectively, agree in principle to a formal end to the war. However, he added that talks are yet to begin.
The situation along the 38th parallel north latitude of the Korean Peninsula, which passes almost along the border separating North and South Korea, is always very tense. With a nuclear-armed North Korea ever testing ballistic missiles, South Korea has no option but to always remain on high alert.
Moreover, the conscription system in South Korea stems from the need to always be on the guard from threats from the North. As such, under South Korean laws, all able-bodied men in the country who are between 18 and 35 years of age must serve 18-21 months in the military.
Military service is so significant in South Korea that its constitution mentions it as one of the five primary duties of a citizen. However, all Korean men can avoid conscription till they turn 28. Once this age is reached, they must serve in the armed forces, as per the rules.
Not everyone likes conscription
Conscripts have to pause their professional careers or education when under mandatory military service. Further, attempting to evade mandatory military service, which is something the privileged often attempt, is looked down upon in Korean society. But the break from careers and education is also not appreciated by many.
Some in South Korea, including celebrities, allegedly go to great lengths to avoid conscription. An example is MC Mong, a famous TV celebrity and hip-hop star who got 10 teeth removed in 2004. He was later accused of undergoing the dental surgery to avoid conscription. Though he denied all accusations, a TIME magazine report said his career was affected.
Before him, K-pop idol Yoo Seung-jun renounced his citizenship in 2002 to avoid getting drafted. The result? People became furious, and he was permanently banned from entering the country.
There are others, such as members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose beliefs make them conscientious objectors to war. As such, they cannot enlist for military service. For long, they were at the receiving end of both societal and government retaliation. Around 19,000 were thrown in jail and, during the tumultuous military rule in the 1970s, many were even killed for evading the draft.
A controversial alternative option is now in place for them which lets them, or anyone in their position, serve a longer period of 36 months in South Korea’s prison system.
TIME says that the 36 months have been criticised by Amnesty International for being the longest period of civilian service in the world.
Where does BTS fit in?
RM, Suga, Jin, J-Hope, Jimin, Jungkook and V, the seven members of the K-pop group, were brought together in 2010 by Bang Si-hyuk, the founder of Big Hit Entertainment (now Hybe). The group was initially known as Bulletproof Boy Scouts before becoming Bangtan Boys and, eventually, BTS.
What they have achieved over the years is unprecedented in the world of entertainment, specifically in South Korea’s history. They are the best-selling band ever from South Korea, the first South Korean act to reach the No.1 spot on both Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts, and have been nominated for two Grammy Awards, among numerous other accolades.
They have addressed the United Nations General Assembly three times and are seen as global ambassadors for social issues and causes such as mental health, equality and climate change. They are the face of some of the world’s most prestigious brands — from luxury lifestyle to sports — including Louis Vuitton and Formula E.
Recognising this massive impact that BTS has had on the global scene, the South Korean government honoured them with the Order of Cultural Merit in 2018. The group, thus, became the youngest recipient of the honour.
Keeping in mind the contribution of the BTS to the nation’s prestige, the South Korean government passed a bill in December 2020, extending the mandatory military service age for pop icons and other musicians to 30 years.
Thus, according to the revised Military Service Act, a pop culture artist may postpone their military service until the age of 30 if they were “recommended by the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism to have greatly enhanced the image of Korea both within the nation and throughout the world.”
This, however, does not mean that they are exempt — a privilege granted only to athletes, classical and traditional musicians, as well as ballet and other dancers, who have brought prestige to the country by winning top honours in competitions. This is why some of the most famous K-drama actors and movie stars in the country have also had to enlist for mandatory military service by putting on hold their careers during the period.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the exemption rule, which has been in place since 1973, is Son Heung-min — the South Korean football icon who plays for Tottenham Hotspur. Son and all members of the South Korean national football team got exemptions when they won the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games.
Those who are exempt have to undergo only three weeks of military training or four weeks of national service, followed by 544 hours of voluntary work whenever they can over a period of 34 months while continuing their professions.
Who will be the first BTS member to be drafted?
The bill helped prevent BTS from becoming eligible for military service at the time. However, two years down the line, it is back in the news.
Jin is the oldest member of the boy band. He turns 30 in December. As such, he is the first BTS member to be eligible for mandatory military service, as his age-related postponement granted to all pop stars expires in 2022.
Jin will be entering his military service, possibly sometime in early 2023, and he has stated that he will initiate the process as soon as his schedule for his solo release is concluded at the end of October. He will soon be followed by Suga, who will turn 30 in March 2023.
What about the younger members, you ask? “The other members of the group plan to carry out their military service based on their own individual plans, and both HYBE and the members of BTS are looking forward to reconvening as a group again around 2025 following their service commitment,” said the music label.
Can BTS be exempt from military service?
The government has for quite some time been reconsidering the possibility of exempting BTS and other K-pop groups from mandatory military service. BIGHIT MUSIC, however, announced on 17 October 2022 that the members of BTS are currently moving forward with plans to fulfil their military service.
While Reuters reported that the government of President Yoon Suk-yeol was seriously considering an exemption for K-pop stars, the K-pop boy band has decided that it would be a good opportunity to serve their country, especially since it also allows each individual to embark on the solo endeavours they’ve been working on.
“Since the creation of BTS over ten years ago, the band has risen to international success, broken records, and catapulted K-Pop into the global stratosphere. BIGHIT MUSIC has focused to the milestone moment when it would be possible to respect the needs of the country and for these healthy young men to serve with their countrymen, and that’s now. Group member Jin will initiate the process as soon as his schedule for his solo release is concluded at the end of October. He will then follow the enlistment procedure of the Korean government. Other members of the group plan to carry out their military service based on their own individual plans,” said BIGHIT MUSIC in an official release.
Before this announcement, a report stated that a lawmaker named Yoon Sang-hyun proposed an amendment that would let K-pop stars undergo only three weeks of military training.
Yoon told Reuters that the “real reason” behind BTS members taking a break was Jin’s military service.
“BTS has done a job that would take more than 1,000 diplomats to do,” he told Reuters, citing why he supports the exemption.
Defence minister Lee had in August 2022 initially said that officials will examine if there is a need for a survey to gauge the mood of the public regarding BTS’ military service. However, the survey was later ruled out by the ministry.
Lee had also said that his ministry will take into account factors such as the economic effect of BTS as well as military service and national interests.
“I think there will be a way to give them time to practice in the military and to allow them to perform together if there is an overseas performance scheduled,” he said.
“Since many people value the fact of serving in the military itself very highly, it could be more helpful for their popularity,” Lee added.
There have been a number of proposals in the past calling for a complete exemption for BTS members from mandatory military service, but none have been put to vote in the National Assembly. A chief reason is the wide-ranging disagreements between lawmakers over the issue, as well as it being a very sensitive topic for Korean society.
For instance, the AP report cited a survey according to which around 61 percent of the respondents supported exemptions for entertainers, including BTS. However, there was also another survey where a majority, 54 percent, said they want BTS members to serve in the military.
As for Jin, he had said in 2020, “As a South Korean young man, I believe military service is a natural course. And as I have always said, I will answer the country’s call whenever it comes.”
“As part of the HYBE family, we support and encourage our artists and are beyond proud that they will each now have time to explore their unique interests and do their duty by being of service to the country they call home. “Yet To Come (The Most Beautiful Moment)” is more than a track from their latest album, it is a promise, there’s much more yet to come in the years ahead from BTS,” said BIGHIT MUSIC.
(Main and Featured image: BTS_official/@bts_bighit/Twitter)