Should BTS be given military exemption? Reactions suggest answer isn’t so clear cut

SEOUL-- With the National Assembly apparently moving toward potentially offering the singers of K-pop group BTS exemptions from their mandatory military service, supporters and skeptics remain divided over whether it is right and fair to give the pop icons preferential treatment just because of their international success.

The topic made headlines this week when Rep. Sung Il-jong of the People Power Party, who serves as executive secretary for the parliamentary defense committee, told MBC radio Tuesday that he and his Democratic Party counterpart recently discussed the need to swiftly review the pending bill that would provide legal grounds for BTS and other prominent pop celebrities to receive military exemption, similar to Olympic medalists and award-winning classical musicians.

"Since it is a matter related to fairness and national interest, I don't think there will be any disagreement between the ruling and opposition parties," Sung said, suggesting that the two main parties have a positive stance on the bill.

The bill could potentially be passed during a special parliamentary session set to convene this month, before President Moon Jae-in's term ends in May.

Sung's remarks came two days after Hybe, the entertainment agency behind BTS, asked parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue as soon as possible during a press conference in Las Vegas, where the group performed two concerts.

Jin, the oldest member of the group, faces enlistment by December.

By law, all able-bodied South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve in the military for about two years in a nation that is facing a nuclear-armed North Korea across the world's most heavily fortified border.

The discussion surrounding BTS' military exemption first emerged in September 2020, when it became the first K-pop group to debut at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart with "Dynamite." Even President Moon then thanked the singers for elevating "pride in K-pop."

Politicians also reacted swiftly, with several lawmakers then submitting motions to revise the military service law to allow pop artists who have elevated national prestige to defer their military service. In December of that year, the National Assembly passed a bill that would allow globally recognized male pop culture artists to postpone their mandatory military duties to allow them to better manage their careers.

Under the current laws, Olympic medalists and international award-winning classical musicians have been exempted from the military service duty in recognition of their roles in elevating the country's reputation overseas.

For example, South Korean footballer Son Heung-min, who plays for the English Premier League's Tottenham Hotspur, secured an exemption in September 2018, when the Korean national team defeated Japan to win the gold medal at the Asian Games.

Those who support the pending bill argue that the current program limited to athletes and classical musicians needs to be revised to properly recognize the impact of South Korea's pop culture in elevating the nation's global stature.

In 2018, the Hyundai Research Institute estimated that BTS alone generated an economic effect of 4.14 trillion won (US$3.54 billion) for the South Korean economy annually.

"If someone asks whether BTS' achievements equal that of an Olympic gold medal, I would say they do," one person wrote on Twitter in support of the military service exemption, adding, "Everyone should know it unless they are fools."

Another person said BTS "has an enormous amount of impact on the nation's economic interest."

Skeptics, however, argue that providing pop stars military exemption just for being successful goes against the current social climate demanding greater fairness and justice across society, especially among young men in their 20s.

In show business, Psy of the 2012 global hit "Gangnam Style" was redrafted into active duty in 2007 after he was found to have neglected his duties while carrying out an alternative civil service. Former Korean American singer Yoo Seung-joon has been legally barred from entering South Korea since 2002, when allegations emerged that he dropped his Korean citizenship in order to avoid serving in the military.

"What kind of public contribution have these guys made? Did they save our country from war?" one person against the bill wrote on Twitter. Some have even expressed the need to abolish the current waiver program for athletes and musicians altogether.

Other skeptics pointed out how the pop culture industry, when compared with international sports or classical music competitions, lacks standardized means of measuring accolades other than sales and how the bill, without clear guidelines, could create confusion in terms of who is eligible and who is not.

"For how many weeks should BTS conquer the Billboard chart in order to be exempted?" one Twitter user quipped in reaction to the ongoing discussions.

Source: Yonhap News Agency