Will BTS’ blood, sweat and tears exempt them from military service?

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KUCHING, June 7: The controversial debate on military service has been brought back to the table as South Korean boy band BTS announced their break on live shows.

Since 2013, BTS debuted and grew to become global sensation with their album drops and activeness in promoting youth empowerment through their songs and social campaigns. BTS were the first Asian band to win artist of the year at the American Music Awards last year, and they visited the White House to discuss hate crimes against Asians with U.S President Joe Biden in May.  

Military service is one of South Korea’s top debate subjects where men aged between 18-28 are to serve for about two years as parts of efforts to defend against hostile North Korea. Over the years particular categories of men have won exemptions – either allowed to put off service for a certain time or allowed to do shorter service – including men who win a medal at the Olympics or Asian Games and classical musicians and dancers who win a top prize at certain competitions.

In 2019, a revision of law resulted in allowing recognised K-pop starts to hold their call to duty till they turn 30. Currently, the parliament is debating on revising the law that would give them the ability to serve for just three weeks of military training.

The parliament’s output on this debate has increased in significance as BTS oldest member, Jin is reaching his 30s soon. While the band’s management company has long presented the seven BTS members as keen to do their duty, the reality of two years of full-time military service is coming sharply into focus as time ticks by.

Citing a report from Reuters, For Jin and his band mates, waiting for parliament to decide has been hugely stressful and is the main reason they are taking a break from performing, said Yoon Sang-hyun, the lawmaker who proposed the amendment to include three-week training for K-pop stars.

“The 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 had raised South Korea’s profile around the world through “soft power” should be taken into account when considering their military service, Yoon said.

“BTS has done a job that would take more than 1,000 diplomats to do,” he said.

‘HARD TIME’

Choi Kwang-ho, secretary-general of the Korea Music Content Association, a coalition of K-pop agencies including the band’s Big Hit management company, said the wait for a decision was excruciating.

“The young artists have been tortured with hopes that never come true,” Choi said.

A Gallup poll in April showed nearly 60% of South Koreans supported the bill exempting globally successful K-pop stars from full military service, with 33% opposed.

The band and their management company have steered clear of the debate but in April Big Hit official Lee Jin-hyung told a news conference in Las Vegas that some band members were having a “hard time” because of “uncertainties” over the parliament debate. He called for a decision.

Jin, asked hours later about Lee’s comments, said he was letting Big Hit handle the issue though adding that what Lee said reflected his view.

The change in rules is not only directed towards the K-pop sector but towards certain other sectors. The new administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol are having considerations in including some engineers and researchers in the computer chip and other tech fields.

The Ministry of Defence pointed to a constitutional requirement for all citizens to do their duty to defend the country.

“Adding pop culture artists in the scope of art and sports personnel who are eligible for the exemption requires careful consideration in terms of fairness,” a ministry official said.

Some wonders why BTS deserves special treatment.

Seo Chang-jun, 20, said he understood why Olympic winners got an exemption but wasn’t sure about BTS.

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

BTS and everybody else will have to wait a little longer -TVS


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