Editors’ Note: This piece contains the opinions of the author and doesn’t reflect the opinion of the whole HallyuLife team.
The news just came in: South Korea has officially revised its long-standing Military Service Act, in order to let BTS defer their military service until they turn 30. The previous rule says that all able-bodied South Korean should serve in the military for at least 20 months once they turn 28 years old.
Jin, a member of the BTS, is having his 28th birthday on Friday, December 4, turning 28 being born in 1992, which translates that the eldest BTS member is now due to serve in South Korea’s military.
But BTS fans are calling for the exception of the South Korean band into this rule, mainly citing their huge impact and contributions to the soaring South Korean economy with their works – but many have disagreed and said that they should serve because it is unfair. Instead, what the South Korea National Assembly has done is revised their law in order to give them another 2 years before they go into the military, effectively rescuing Jin at the last minute – maybe a surprise birthday gift as well.
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So, what’s the catch?
Under the revised Military Service Act, K-pop acts that have received government medals or recognition for elevating Korea’s cultural relevance and influence around the world can apply for the deferment of their military service. BTS was awarded the Hwagwan Orders of Cultural Merit medal in 2018, meaning that they do meet that requirement.
The government’s conscription rule has been known to be a sacred rite of passage for all of its young men, and is a source of pride among them as well. BTS members also expressed that they want to serve in the military at some time (right time), and they are happy to go if they must do.
South Korean government has also allowed some exceptions, but the criteria for that have come under heavy scrutinization in recent years, as top athletes like Olympians and other medal-winners are exempted from the military service rule, with the grounds that they enhance national prestige, as well as classical and folk musicians who win certain awards. BTS, clearly doing both, isn’t still entitled to that kind of exception.
But why is this issue ‘important’?
In October, Korea’s Military Manpower Administration said that although it would not exempt top K-pop stars from the mandatory military service, it would let them at least postpone it in order for them to continue performing as well.
BTS can now be considered at the peak of their career, and as the issue of military service looms in, it can break their peak as worldwide phenomenons when they are out of the scene and in the military in almost two years. From topping the U.S. Billboard charts five times, being nominated in the prestigious GRAMMY Awards, and much more high-profile international recognition, it’s no doubt that BTS is now making waves globally with their works, effectively giving South Korea more recognition as well.
Some groups have notably underperformed once a member started their military service, and some even led to long-term hiatus, making them officially out of the radar for some time.
The groups sometimes also debut their sub-units, or some members are promoting as soloists, while waiting for them to be complete once again, which sometimes can take years to happen. Take example the K-pop group Super Junior, where their currently active members rendered each of their mandatory military duties from 2011 till 2019. It is still different than what a complete-member group can do.
Also, what fans are actually worried about is that if there’s something wrong happened while they’re rendering their mandated military service, they might not have their idols back in full shape.
Military drafting and conscription are seen as crucial to South Korea as they see it as one of their defense against their neighbor North Korea. The amount of low birthrate in decades does make the country soon lack enough to maintain its conscripted military fleet of 620,000, defense officials say.
What this simply means is that future male K-pop idols, although not exempted, could have the chance to be at the peak of their careers performing instead of breaking it and going out of the spotlight and serving in the military – but only if they met the current criteria of having an award from the government with the grounds of making a severe impact in the economy – the standard for this however, remains unclear at this point.
But who knows, BTS might go higher in terms of popularity in two years’ time than what they are in now, and by the time that happens, they have to go into the military according to the new law.
For now, I think this could be the best thing the South Korean government can do with regards to the mandatory military service for top K-pop acts, but if they continue to exempt top athletes and classical musicians in the military rule, I guess the government isn’t still realizing that K-pop acts like BTS are an actual cultural asset that they can’t afford to lose.