South Korea divided over military service for BTS | BTS

They generate billions for South Korea’s economy and have helped make the country a cultural superpower, but Jin, Jimin, V, RM, J-Hope, Suga and Jungkook – the seven members of K-pop phenomenon BTS – must start swapping their stage outfits for military uniforms?

Less than three weeks before new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol takes office, the country is embroiled in a debate over who, if anyone, should be exempt from compulsory national service – long seen as preparation essential to a potential conflict with its unstable neighbor, North Korea.

While admiration for the group is widespread, South Koreans are divided over plans that will soon be debated in the National Assembly to allow the artists, who are all in their 20s, to skip nearly two years in uniform in recognition for their stellar contribution to the international reputation of the country.

The award-winning group – who have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and landed two Grammy nominations to reach the top of the US and UK charts – have been at the center of exemption speculation since 2020, when they became the first K-pop group to hit No. 1 on the US charts, with their song Dynamite.

That year, Moon Jae-in, who will step down from the presidential Blue House next month, thanked singers for raising the profile of K-pop, while the national assembly passed a law allowing pop stars to postpone their national service until their 30th birthday, with the authorization of the Ministry of Culture.

South Korea requires all able-bodied males between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve in the military for at least 18 months, to defend the country against threats from North Korea, which recently resumed missile launch tests long-range ballistics. Aware that many resent having to be away from work for two years, Yoon pledged to increase their military salaries.

Under current law, only Olympic and Asian Games medalists and globally recognized award-winning classical musicians are exempt or permitted to perform alternative public service. Among them are Cho Seong-jin, the first Korean pianist to win the International Chopin Piano Competition, and Tottenham striker Son Heung-min. He served three weeks after earning a bye, along with his South Korean teammates, after beating Japan to win gold at the 2018 Asian Games.

But momentum is building for change that recognizes the huge contribution of the country’s pop stars. According to a 2018 report from the Hyundai Research Institute, BTS alone is worth more than $3.54 billion (£2.8 billion) a year to the South Korean economy, which is equivalent to the contribution of 26 medium-sized companies. The institute said the group was the reason 800,000 foreign tourists visited the country the previous year.

South Korea, which is technically still at war with North Korea, doesn’t look kindly on celebrities who try to evade military service. Steve Yoo, an actor and singer also known as Yoo Seung-jun, was deported and barred from entering the country after avoiding conscription by becoming a naturalized US citizen in 2002, months before his conscription.

While polls show most South Koreans support an alternative to compulsory military service for BTS, some have expressed concern that without clear guidelines, a change in the law could be exploited by less deserving celebrities. .

All South Korean men “have a duty to fulfill their national defense obligations,” said Choi Hyung-seok, a 32-year-old office worker.

“It is true that BTS promotes national prestige, but the standards for evaluating national prestige are too vague,” he told the Observer. “If famous singers are exempted from military service, starting with BTS, there will probably be many cases of abuse. I think it’s important to have some flexibility so that male celebrities can do their job while serving the country. »

Kim Jong-woo, a university student in the capital, admitted he felt “uncomfortable” supporting an exemption, but added: “It would make South Korea more powerful and attractive, and strengthen the country’s soft power, whether people like Son Heung-min and BTS were able to continue their careers as musicians or athletes, rather than serving in an infantry unit or marching band for a year and a half.

An exemption could alienate large numbers of young men – many of whom voted for the new president – ​​at a time when they increasingly feel left behind by rising house prices and pressure on the government. labor market.

Under current law, 29-year-old BTS singer Jin – whose real name is Kim Seok-jin – will have to report for work by the end of this year, while the other six members, born between 1993 and 1997, have a little more time to focus on their performing career.

The BTS singers previously said they would answer the call of duty when the time comes, but did not comment on the bill pending debate in the National Assembly.

Their agency, Hybe, urged MPs to speak out before Moon’s term ends on May 10. Delaying a vote would lead to “endless discussion”, the agency’s communications director Lee Jin-hyeong said recently.

“The uncertainty weighs on us. Hopefully the deal can be done soon,” Lee said, according to the Herald of Koreaadding that the artists were “struggling to deal with the issue”.

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