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Should BTS be exempted from military service?

BIGHIT MUSIC announced on Weverse and official platforms that all members of BTS will go through with their military commitment. BTS plans to return in 2025 after fulfilling their service.

According to CNN, military service is mandatory in South Korea where almost all able-bodied men are required to serve in the army for 18 months by the time they are 28 years old.

However in 2020, South Korea’s parliament passed a bill allowing pop stars–particularly those who “excel in popular culture and art”–to defer their service until the age of 30.

The eldest member Jin turns 30 this year which prompted the group’s decision. BTS’s agency HYBE announced Jin will apply for enlistment once he completes his solo release schedule at the end of October.

“The members of BTS are currently moving forward with plans to fulfill their military service,” HYBE said in a statement. “Other members of the group plan to carry out their military service based on their own individual plans.”

BTS’s fans, Army, have had a range of responses since the announcement.

6-year Army member Celeste Koyama told AsAmNews she is understanding of the announcement and willing to wait until the group comes back. She said she was not surprised.

“I didn’t see why they wouldn’t,” she said. “All the other K-pop idols before them have enlisted.”

9-year Army member Lily Niswonger who has grown with the group, admits she’s sad but also was not surprised. “Personally, I don’t think BTS wouldn’t not do it,” she said to AsAmNews. “They got to go on their own terms, and not forced to end what they’ve been working on so hard.”

While some U.S fans may feel upset at the decision, Koyama added the importance of understanding the context and the cultural norms of the country.

“If BTS were exempted and they didn’t do their service, they’d probably get a lot of hate for that because it’s kind of a social expectation for South Korean men to serve, even though [BTS has] made such big contributions to the economy,” Koyama said.

Niswonger also added, “If you are not from Korea specifically and you’re not a man, then I don’t think you can speak to it.”

Niswonger said there should be qualifications for deciding an exemption. She asked the question of what characterizes “stardom” or “fame” to a point where an artist can be exempt from military service; did it rely on album or company sales? What would be the rubric for future cases like this?

From 2015-2019, Dispatch Korea recorded over 70,000 Korean men completing alternate military service. According to AllKpop, after basic military training, these men enlist as “art-sports service agents” and work through their own specialties to finish their service period.

Military exemptions have been in discussion amongst South Korean officials. In May, South Korea’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Minster Hwang Hee said during a news conference that the rule should change. Hee reportedly said the system has given other high-contributing individuals “more chances to serve the country,” so there should be no reason to exclude the popular art-culture field.

Military Manpower Administration Commissioner Lee Ki-sik said to the Korea JoongAng Daily that the decision on conditions of exemption should be made soon.

Ki-sik told the Daily that “pop culture artists…may garner feelings of discrimination, discrepancy and discouragement among the younger male generation who are fulfilling their military duties.”

According to The Korea Herald, earlier this year, a Gallup Korea survey found that over half of its 1,004 Korean participants (ages 18 and up) responded that K-pop artists should be able to do an alternative military duty or be granted an exemption. Around 30% of participants said there should be no exemption from service.

Koyama agreed saying that BTS and other idols should have the option of exemption. She said there should be accommodations following the changing economy because of K-pop’s international popularity.

“BTS are people too. They need to do whatever they need to do and their fans will always be there for them or at least, they should,” Koyama said. “And that’s for any celebrity, while it’s their career and job, it’s not their entire life. They need to be able to do other things with their lives.”

“’Yet To Come (The Most Beautiful Moment)’ is more than a track from their latest album,” HYBE’s statement read. “It is a promise, there’s much more yet to come in the years ahead from BTS.” 

Happy Lunar New Year! Time is running out to support our Lunar New Year Fundraising Drive through this link. The campaign ends Sunday. AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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