South Korea Mulls Letting Pop Stars Defer Military Service After China Attacks BTS

South Korean band BTS presents the award for Best R&B Album during the 61st Annual Grammy Awards on February 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

South Korea is considering allowing its male pop superstars to defer mandatory military service in light of the unprecedented international fame of boy band Bangtan Sonyeondan (BTS), the military revealed on Tuesday.

The resurgence of the conversation around the two-year mandated military service — which all men between the ages of 18 and 28 must complete — follows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), through its state media arms, attacking BTS after its lead rapper RM praised the sacrifices of South Korean and American forces in the Korean War. Beijing, citing unnamed “netizens” in the Party-controlled social media sphere, claimed that applauding the South Korean side of the Korean War explicitly insulted China, which fought on North Korea’s side.

The Korean War is still technically active, though an armistice agreement between North Korea, China, and America resulted in the end of active hostilities in 1953.

Exemptions for mandatory military service exist in South Korea, but only for more traditionally upscale arts or for outstanding athletes, whose careers often demand dedication for a short window of their youth. With the ascent of South Korea’s pop industry, or K-pop, in the last decade, both fans and members of the South Korean government have mulled the possibility of allowing pop icons to skip military service in extraordinary circumstances. When the issue of BTS potentially having to break up for two years at the then-height of their career in November 2019, the South Korean Defense Ministry replied, “classical music, unlike pop music, has an objective standard such as competitions. Pop music lacks [such standards].”

The Defense Ministry still appears closed to the musicians never having to join the military. According to the newswire service Yonhap, however, BTS members may be able to defer their service past the age deadline, in part due to what is considered an extraordinary contribution to the rise of South Korea’s cultural profile around the world.

“Defense Minister Suh Wook earlier said that an exemption is not under consideration for the seven-member group, though a deferral could be an option,” Yonhap reported. “In a parliamentary audit report, the Military Manpower Administration said it is pushing to revise the military service law to allow popular culture artists to delay their military service if there is a recommendation from the culture minister.”

“The revision is aimed at boosting the national image by guaranteeing popular culture and art activities, the manpower agency said in the report, adding that the revised bill will be submitted to the National Assembly this month,” Yonhap added.

BTS became the first Korean musical act to have a single, “Dynamite,” debut as No. 1 on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart. A second single, “Savage Love,” also debuted at No. 1 this week, pushing “Dynamite” to No. 2. The band, one of the most successful music acts in history, is estimated to be worth over $4 billion to the South Korean economy on its own.

The return of the mandatory service discussion occurred a day after the CCP claimed that Chinese supremacist “netizens” were outraged with the band over remarks its members made upon receiving an award for their efforts to expand ties between South Korea and America. Receiving the Korea Society’s James A. Van Fleet Award — its youngest recipients ever — BTS member RM said, “The Korea Society’s 2020 Annual Gala is especially meaningful, as this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. We will always remember the history of pain that our two nations shared together and the sacrifices of countless men and women.”

As the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) caused much of that “pain,” state-run propaganda outlet Global Times condemned RM for his “one-sided attitude” towards the war.

“Many Chinese netizens pointed out that the speech plays up to U.S. netizens, but the country played the role of aggressor in the war,” the Global Times whined, claiming that multiple international corporations had pulled cooperative promotions with BTS in response. The biggest company named, Samsung, clarified that its BTS-branded products in China had simply sold out, defying the Global Times narrative that Chinese BTS fans were abandoning the band.

The Military Manpower Administration applauded RM. The head of the agency, Mo Jong-hwa, called his comments “quite encouraging” and said of Beijing, “it is quite uncomfortable that some Chinese net users made such (negative) comments on the matter.”

Yonhap noted that the overwhelming popular sentiment on the controversy in South Korea was one of outrage towards China, not towards the band: “Most fans of the K-pop megastar appeared furious, claiming that RM’s innocent remarks have been misunderstood and wrongly politicized.”

Prior to the controversy, some members of South Korea’s ruling left-wing Democratic Party had already publicly demanded military service exemptions for BTS. Lawmaker Jeon Yong-gi announced he would present a bill to help “outstanding artists” receive deferrals of service last month.

“Deferring military service is a completely different issue from exemptions or special cases,” Jeon said. “We need to give the option to postpone military service, so twentysomethings can flourish in new kinds of careers.”
Jeon’s bill would also allow the government to rescind exemptions if an artist commits “acts that impair the national dignity.”

Mandatory military service has precipitated catastrophic public relations cycles for BTS’s predecessors. Before the band’s rise, Big Bang — the first Korean entity to make Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list in 2016 for making $44 million that year — faced a similar dilemma, as all members approached age 28 as both the band and its individual members peaked in fame.

In 2017, Vogue referred to the lead vocalist of the band, G-Dragon, as “the undisputed king of K-pop.” By February 2018, G-Dragon had disappeared into South Korea’s military apparatus, as had most of the members of his band.

In one of the band’s final interviews before their military-mandated hiatus, they declared the service “the duty of every Korean man” and expressed agreement on joining as close to together as possible.

The first in the band to enlist, rapper T.O.P., entered the service in 2017. Controversy marred his service — the military removed him from active military service early in his tenure after being caught smoking marijuana, so he completed his obligation through civilian public service. T.O.P. suffered a drug overdose, reportedly taking anti-depressants, a day after being indicted for marijuana use. He issued a profuse apology upon his return to full civilian life in 2019, emphasizing he was “not proud” of his service.

Three of the remaining five members of Big Bang — G-Dragon, Taeyang, and Daesung — completed their military service without incident in 2019, as well. The fifth, however, Seungri, was arrested and charged with prostitution, illegal gambling, and foreign currency trading while the other four were out. The alleged crimes occurred at a luxury Seoul club, Burning Sun, which Seungri had an ownership stake in.

Seungri quit the band before the return of his bandmates from the military. As he could no longer postpone military service, Seungri enlisted while facing criminal charges, meaning he is facing a military trial.

The newly returned Big Bang, without Seungri, has yet to release any music.

Also stalled in their careers — and potentially hurt by the prospect of mandatory military service — is the once highly popular K-pop band SHINee. The band never recovered after the suicide of one of its members, Jonghyun, in December 2017. Jonghyun was scheduled to begin mandatory military service in 2018.

“Becoming famous was probably not my life. They tell me that’s why I’m having a hard time … Why did I choose that?” the singer wrote in his suicide letter.

Prior to his death, Jonghyun described military service as frightening.

“I haven’t served in the army yet, so I am scared about doing something new. There is also the fear of having to be away from society for two years,” he said in a 2015 interview.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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