By Hyonhee Shin and Yeni Seo
SEOUL (Reuters) – A surprise decision by South Korean boy group BTS to take a break from live broadcasts has reignited the debate over compulsory military service in a country that sets global pop culture trends while facing to a decades-old Cold War threat.
Military service is extremely controversial in South Korea where all able-bodied males between the ages of 18 and 28 are expected to serve for approximately two years as part of defense efforts against a hostile North Korea.
Over the years, special categories of men have been granted exemptions – either allowed to postpone service for a certain time or allowed to perform shorter service – including men who win a medal at the Olympics or Games Asian and classical musicians and dancers who win a first prize. in some competitions.
Under a 2019 law review, globally recognized K-pop stars were allowed to defer service until they turned 30.
Parliament is currently debating a new amendment that would allow K-pop stars to undergo only three weeks of military training.
For BTS and especially for the oldest member of the group, known to fans as Jin, the outcome of the deliberations in parliament will be momentous.
While the group’s management company has long portrayed the seven members of BTS as eager to do their duty, the reality of two years of full-time military service becomes ever clearer as time goes by.
Jin, 29, has postponed service for as long as he can and faces the looming prospect of a full stint – that is, two years out of public view – when he turns 30 year.
For Jin and his bandmates, waiting for parliament to rule has been extremely stressful and is the main reason why they are taking a break, said Yoon Sang-hyun, the lawmaker who proposed the amendment to include a three-week training for K-pop stars.
“Members cited exhaustion and the need for rest as the main reason, but the real reason was Jin’s military service,” Yoon told Reuters.
The extent to which BTS has raised South Korea’s profile in the world through “soft power” should be taken into account when considering their military service, Yoon said.
“BTS did a job that would take over 1,000 diplomats,” he said.
Since their debut in 2013, BTS have become a global sensation with their upbeat hits and social campaigns aimed at empowering young people.
BTS became the first Asian group to win Artist of the Year at the American Music Awards last year, and they met with US President Joe Biden at the White House in May to discuss hate crimes targeting Asians.
Choi Kwang-ho, general secretary of the Korea Music Content Association, a coalition of K-pop agencies that includes the group’s Big Hit management company, said the wait for a decision was excruciating.
“Young artists were tortured with hopes that never came true,” Choi said.
A Gallup poll in April showed nearly 60% of South Koreans backed the bill exempting global hit K-pop stars from full military service, with 33% opposed.
The group and its management company avoided debate, but in April Big Hit manager Lee Jin-hyung told a Las Vegas press conference that some members of the group were having “difficulties” because of “uncertainties” on the parliamentary debate. He called for a decision.
Jin, when asked hours later about Lee’s comments, said he let Big Hit handle the issue, but added that what Lee said reflected his point of view.
K-pop isn’t the only industry hoping for a change in the rules. President Yoon Suk-yeol’s new administration is considering exemptions for some engineers and researchers in computer chips and other technology fields.
The Ministry of Defense stressed a constitutional requirement for all citizens to do their duty to defend the country.
“Adding pop culture artists as part of the arts and sports personnel eligible for exemption requires careful consideration in terms of fairness,” a ministry official said.
Some young men are also questioning the advisability of special treatment for BTS.
Seo Chang-jun, 20, said he understands why the Olympic winners got an exemption, but he’s not sure about BTS.
“The Olympics are a national event where all Koreans cheer for the same team, but not everyone is a fan of BTS. Many people don’t care,” he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Yeni Seo and Minwoo Park; Editing by Robert Birsel)