Debate heats up on BTS’ military service: Should they be exempted?

Published October 7, 2020, 12:11 PM

by Jonathan Hicap

K-pop superstars BTS have stated early this year that they were ready to fulfill their military service but Korean politicians are wrangling over the issue since the idol group topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart last month.

The future of Big Hit Entertainment, BTS’ agency, also relies on the outcome on whether BTS members will be exempted from military service or not as they are the main source of the agency’s income.

Politicians are offering different solutions to BTS’ military service from exemption, alternative service to delaying their enlistment up to age 30. Under the law, all able-bodied Korean men should enlist by the age of 28 and among BTS, Jin, the oldest, is the first candidate for military service.

Lawmaker Rep. Noh Woong-rae of the Democratic Party, to which Korean President Moon Jae-in belongs, is batting to give BTS special treatment by giving them an alternative service instead of the regular military service.

“Military duty is sacred, but not everyone has to hold a rifle. Engineers, classic artists [and athletes] have alternative programs, but pop culture artists are not covered,” said Noh, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily.

He cited BTS’ topping the Hot 100 chart that, according to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, can generate up to 1.7 trillion won ($1.43 billion) in economic effect.

“We are expecting to see 60 trillion won [$51.7 billion] worth of economic gains over a decade — 6 trillion won alone for this year — from the K-pop stars of BTS. When BTS topped the Billboard Hot 100, we saw about 1.7 trillion won in economic effects,” Noh said.

He added, “Their role in boosting Korea’s prestige to the world is impossible to measure. We must start a serious discussion on offering special arrangements for military conscription to its members.”

The lawmaker said BTS can be used for Korea’s campaign to promote the disputed Dokdo Island in the world. The report stated that a special volunteer program for BTS will require the revision of Korea’s Military Service Act, the law that governs conscription. Currently, alternative programs cover classic artists, athletes, engineers, scientists and technology researchers.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the People Power Party (PPP) said the selection should be done in a fair manner.

“Can an idol singer delay his enlistment if he is chosen by the culture minister? Is this a dictatorship? The ruling and opposition parties must form a consultative body to create a fair standard,” he suggested.

On the other hand, military service exemption is granted to winners of 28 international music competitions, nine international dance contests and seven domestic competitions for a total of 42 contests. Korean athletes who win gold, silver and bronze medals in the Olympics, and gold medals in the Asian Games are also entitled to military service exemption.

Kim Jong-cheol, affiliated with the Justice Party, opposed granting BTS military service exemption, saying, “BTS members themselves have repeatedly stated that they will diligently carry out their military duties. It could also cause an unnecessary controversy on the issue of fairness among other young men,” according to Yonhap News. He proposed reducing the military service period to six to eight months.

Last month, a petition was filed on the Blue House website seeking to grant BTS exemption from military service and for them to do their basic military training in Dokdo Island.

Another option for BTS is to delay their military service until age 30, according to a proposal by Proportional Rep. Jeon Yong-gi of the Democratic Party.

“Deferring military service is a totally different issue from granting exemptions. We need to provide the option to postpone enlistment for those in other fields whose careers flourish in their 20s,” Jeon said last month, according to the Korea Times.