BTS Break Starts Debate on Military Service in S. Korea

    06 July 2022

    The recent decision by South Korean music group BTS to take a break has restarted a debate about the country's required military service.

    All healthy South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve for about two years in the military. The requirement is part of the country's efforts to defend against a hostile North Korea.

    Over the years, some men have received exemptions that permit them to delay their service in the armed forces or serve a shorter service. These include medal winners at the Olympics or Asian Games and classical musicians and dancers who win top prizes at certain competitions. In 2019, exemptions were added for internationally recognized Korean pop music stars. K-pop stars are permitted to delay their service until the age of 30.

    FILE - Members of the South Korean K-pop band BTS pose for a photo as they arrive for the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, April 03, 2022.
    FILE - Members of the South Korean K-pop band BTS pose for a photo as they arrive for the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, April 03, 2022.

    South Korea's Parliament is now debating a new amendment that would let pop stars do just three weeks of military training. For BTS, especially the band's oldest member, the result of the debate will be hugely important.

    The oldest member is known to fans as Jin. He is 29 years old. He has delayed his required military service for as long as he could. The star is facing the immediate possibility of serving two full years when he turns 30. That would mean two years away from the band and the fans.

    Yoon Sang-hyun is the lawmaker who proposed the amendment to limit training for K-pop stars to three weeks. He said the wait has been stressful for Jin and the rest of BTS.

    "The members cited exhaustion and the need for rest as the main reason, but the real reason was Jin's military service," Yoon told the Reuters news agency.

    Yoon said that BTS members had raised South Korea's image around the world. That, Yoon said, should be noted when considering their military service. "BTS has done a job that would take more than 1,000 diplomats to do," he said.

    Hard time

    Since the group's first performance in 2013, BTS has become a worldwide success with its music and social campaigns aimed at empowering young people.

    BTS became the first Asian musical group to win artist of the year at the American Music Awards last year. In May, they met U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss hate crimes targeting Asians.

    Choi Kwang-ho is secretary-general of the Korea Music Content Association, which represents K-pop music. He said the wait for a parliamentary decision has been extremely painful. "The young artists have been tortured with hopes that never come true," Choi said.

    A Gallup opinion study in April showed nearly 60 percent of South Koreans supported the bill exempting internationally successful K-pop stars from full military service. Thirty-three percent of South Koreans opposed the bill.

    BTS and its representative, Big Hit, have stayed out of the debate on military exemptions. Lee Jin-hyung is with Big Hit. In April, he told reporters in Las Vegas that some members of the band were having a "hard time" because of "uncertainties" over the parliament debate. He called for a decision.

    When asked by reporters about Lee's comment, Jin said he was letting Big Hit deal with the issue. Jin, however, added that he felt the same way.

    K-pop is not the only industry hoping for a change in the military service rules. The new administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol is considering exemptions for some engineers and researchers in the computer chip and other technology fields.

    The Ministry of Defense pointed to a constitutional requirement for all citizens to do their duty to defend the country. Adding exemptions for pop culture artists and sports stars, a ministry official said, "requires careful consideration in terms of fairness."

    Some young men also wonder about the case for special treatment for BTS.

    Seo Chang-jun is 20 years old. He said he understood why Olympic winners got an exemption. But he was not sure about an exemption for BTS.

    "The Olympic Games are national events where all Koreans cheer for the same team, but not everyone is a BTS fan, he told Reuters. "Many people aren't interested in them."

    I'm Ashley Thompson.

    Hyonhee Shin and Yeni Seo reported this story for Reuters. Hai Do adapted the story for Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    exemption - n. freedom from requiring to do something

    stressful - adj. making you feel anxious or worries

    cite - v. to mention something to support an idea or opinion