The unexpected decision by South Korean boy band BTS to discontinue live performances has reignited debate about mandatory military service in a country that sets global pop-culture trends while facing a decades-old Cold War threat.
Military service is highly contentious in South Korea, where all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve for approximately two years in order to defend the country against a hostile North Korea.
Men who win a medal at the Olympics or Asian Games, as well as classical musicians and dancers who win a top prize at certain competitions, have won exemptions over the years, allowing them to put off service for a certain period of time or to do shorter service.
Globally recognised K-pop stars were allowed to postpone their service until the age of 30 under a 2019 revision of the law.
Parliament is currently debating a new amendment that would allow K-pop stars to serve in the military for only three weeks.
The outcome of the parliament debates will be significant for BTS, particularly for the band’s oldest member, known to fans as Jin.
While the band’s management company has long portrayed the seven BTS members as eager to serve, the reality of two years of full-time military service is becoming increasingly clear as time passes.
Jin, 29, has postponed his service as long as he can and faces the prospect of a full stint – two years away from the public eye – when he turns 30.
Waiting for parliament to decide has been extremely stressful for Jin and his bandmates, and is the main reason they are taking a break from performing, according to Yoon Sang-hyun, the lawmaker who proposed the amendment to include three weeks of training for K-pop stars.
“The members cited exhaustion and the need for rest as the main reasons,” Yoon told Reuters. “But the real reason was Jin’s military service.”
Yoon believes that the extent to which BTS raised South Korea’s profile around the world through “soft power” should be considered when considering their military service.
“BTS has done a job that would require over 1,000 diplomats,” he said.
BTS has become a worldwide sensation with their upbeat hits and social campaigns aimed at empowering youth since their debut in 2013.
Last year, BTS became the first Asian band to win artiste of the year at the American Music Awards, and in May, they met with US President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss hate crimes against Asians.
Choi Kwang-ho, secretary-general of the Korea Music Content Association, a coalition of K-pop agencies that includes the band’s Big Hit management company, said the wait was agonising.
“The young artists have been tortured with unfulfilled dreams,” Choi said.
According to a Gallup poll conducted in April, nearly 60% of South Koreans supported the bill exempting globally successful K-pop stars from full military service, while 33% opposed it.
The band and their management company have stayed out of the debate, but Big Hit official Lee Jin-hyung told a news conference in Las Vegas in April that some band members were having a “hard time” due to “uncertainties” about the parliament debate. He demanded a decision.
When Jin was asked about Lee’s comments hours later, he said he was letting Big Hit handle the situation, but that what Lee said reflected his opinion.
K-pop is not the only industry hoping for a rule change. President Yoon Suk-new yeol’s administration is considering exemptions for some computer chip and other technology engineers and researchers.
The Ministry of Defence cited a constitutional requirement that all citizens perform their constitutional duty to defend the country.
“Adding pop culture artistes to the list of artists and athletes eligible for the exemption necessitates careful consideration in terms of fairness,” a ministry official said.
Some young men are also perplexed by the special treatment for BTS.
Seo Chang-jun, 20, said he understood why Olympic winners were given an exemption but was sceptical of BTS.
“The Olympics are national events in which all Koreans cheer for the same team, but not everyone is a fan of BTS.” “They don’t pique the interest of many people,” he told Reuters.