BTS law controversy: should the K-pop superstars be exempt from military service? The pros and cons Korea is debating over Jin, V, Jungkook and the rest of the boy band's mandatory army enlistment

Asia's Tech News Daily

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

All the members of BTS recently applied to defer the start of compulsory military service – a deferment only potentially possible thanks to a legal amendment widely credited to the band’s global success.

Passed in December 2020, the so-called “BTS law” would allow K-pop entertainers who have received government medals for their achievements to defer their compulsory military enlistment to when they turn 30, rather than the standard 28 for other K-pop idols, and all other Korean males. This would mean BTS, who received medals in 2018, could remain active until December 2022, including when their oldest member Jin turns 30 next year.

But much to fans’ consternation, this is by no means certain. Following a public backlash, South Korea’s National Assembly gathered on November 25 to discuss the issue, with lawmakers remaining staunchly divided. While military exemption for athletes and artists is currently possible, whether that luxury should be extended to K-pop musicians remains a core issue of societal debate.

Though BTS’ global impact is undeniable, why exactly is the South Korean government considering reforming enlistment regulations, and what’s stopping them? Here’s a look at the arguments for and against military exemptions

For: Domestic music achievements

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

K-pop group BTS receive Album of the Year for Love Yourself Tear. Photo: Mnet Asian Music Awards

The list is endless when considering BTS’s achievements in the musical industry, both domestic and international. They currently hold the top five spots in the list of bestselling albums in South Korea, with “Map of the Soul: 7” taking first place with more than 4.6 million copies sold. In 2019, they won all four daesangs at the Mnet Asian Music Awards, making them the artist with the most “grand prizes” in the awards’ history. They repeated this feat in 2020, sweeping all the daesangs at both the Melon Music Awards and the Mnet Asian Music Awards.

For: International recognition

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Jin, Suga, V, Jungkook, RM, Jimin and J-Hope of BTS at the American Music Awards in November 21, 2021. Photo: Reuters

In the global market, the band has collected their fair share of “first” titles, becoming crucial figures in the global K-pop wave. Most recently, they became the first Asian artist to win artist of the year award at the American Music Awards (AMAs), beating popular artists like Ariana Grande, The Weeknd and Taylor Swift. In 2017, they became the first Korean act to win a Billboard Music Award, taking home the Top Social Artist award every year since then and breaking the six-year winning streak previously held by Justin Bieber. They’re also the first and only K-pop group to have won the Billboard Top Duo/Group award.

Most notably, they became the first K-pop act to be nominated for a Grammy Award in 2021, and were nominated again in the same category, Pop Duo/Group Performance, for the 2022 Grammys.

For: Cultural and political impact

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Popular K-pop group BTS has received recognition from the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Photo: YNA/DPA

The worldwide sensation’s impact doesn’t just end with music – they’ve made waves culturally and even politically, receiving recognition by the South Korean government. The President Moon Jae-in congratulated the group himself after their win at the AMAs, writing a lengthy note of praise on Twitter.

Not only this, they were even awarded the South Korean Order of Cultural Merit – awarded by the president for outstanding achievements in cultural and artistic fields – becoming the youngest recipients. They also received a “letter of appreciation” from South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

BTS was appointed a special presidential envoy for future generations and culture, allowing them to attend the 76th United Nations General Assembly. Photo: AP

In 2020, the group was awarded the General James A. Van Fleet Award by the The Korea Society, again becoming the youngest recipients. The award is given to those who promote US-Korea relations, and has been awarded to notable figures like former US president George W. Bush and former Korean president Kim Dae-jung.

Earlier this year, President Moon Jae-in appointed BTS as a special presidential envoy for future generations and culture, allowing them to attend the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York to deliver a speech and perform.

Against: Ongoing debate on whether pop artists should be offered exemption

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

Coldplay and BTS perform during the Annual American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theatre on November 21. Photo: Reuters

Opinions in the government remain divided on whether the band should be exempt from mandatory duty. Currently, classical musicians who win music competitions and athletes who win gold medals in the Olympics or the Asian Games can forego military service, but there is debate on whether that should apply to mainstream pop musicians like BTS. Some members of the National Assembly, including presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, have argued that BTS, with their significant impact, are more than qualified for exemption, however, some members have opposed the idea.

Notably, male members of the South Korean public have also expressed their opinions, with some supporting the exemption, and others being against, deeming it “unfair” to allow the group to forego conscription, as reported by Korea JoongAng Daily.

Against: Shrinking population

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

South Korea faces a contracting birth rate. Photo: Xinhua

The National Assembly also stressed the need to consider situational variables before passing the law to allow the group exemption. A core factor currently is Korea’s shrinking population, which gives the government less incentive to allow more military exemptions, reports Kyunghyang Shinmun.

Against: Lack of concrete criteria

compulsory military service, compulsory military enlistment, oldest member Jin, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter

BTS receives an award for artist of the year at the 49th Annual American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theatre on November 21, 2021. Photo: Reuters

While BTS’ international recognition is unprecedented, members of the National Assembly have expressed uncertainty and reluctance in setting a meaningful precedent to be applied to future stars. “We could acknowledge those with No 1 on the Billboard Chart, but to make further criteria for the UK charts or the Japanese Oricon charts, or No 2 on the Billboard Chart would be difficult,” reported Seoul Shinmun.

This issue also applies to BTS’ economic impact. Their significant addition to the South Korea’s economy is undeniable, but some have argued that this alone is not enough for exemption. Assembly member Kim Byeong-gi stated that then “all the male sons of the Samsung conglomerate family should not go to the military either”.

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