K-pop group BTS poses with the three trophies they won at the 2021 American Music Awards, including one for Artist of the Year, backstage at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Nov. 21. (provided by Big Hit Music)
Debate surrounding K-pop group BTS members’ military duty is bubbling up yet again. Lee Jin-hyeong, chief communication officer of Hybe, BTS’ agency, brought about another storm when he said during a press conference in Las Vegas on April 9 that he “hopes matters will be straightened out at the National Assembly, as [the group’s] military duty has become an international concern, and as discussion surrounding it has somewhat matured.”
Discourse concerning whether BTS members should be granted special exemptions when it comes to their military duty surfaced in 2018. When the group became the first Korean act to top a Billboard album chart (Billboard 200) with its third studio album, “LOVE YOURSELF 轉 ‘Tear,’” some within South Korea began suggesting that its members should be offered alternative ways to complete their mandatory military service.
Alternative military service for BTS members has become an issue every time the group triumphed in various music awards, such as the Billboard Music Awards and the American Music Awards, and each time, it was hotly debated.
Members of BTS arrive at Incheon International Airport on April 19 following their performances in Las Vegas, US. (Yonhap News)
Article 68-11 of the Enforcement Decree of the Military Service Act stipulates that military service exceptions may be made for “persons with special skills in the field of arts and sports” who wins a prize in competitions acknowledged by the commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, such as the Olympics, the Asian Games, and international arts competitions.
For example, the stipulation was applied to Cho Seong-jin, the first Korean pianist to win the International Chopin Piano Competition, who completed his alternative military service by receiving military training for four weeks. However, pop culture artists such as singers and actors have not been considered for such exceptions.
The National Assembly’s National Defense Committee is currently considering amendments to the Military Service Act, each proposed by Democratic Party lawmaker An Min-suk and People Power Party lawmakers Yoon Sang-hyun and Sung Il-jong. One thing these proposed amendments have in common is that they all include pop culture artists as potential beneficiaries of military service exemptions.
Last November, a subcommittee of the National Defense Committee that evaluates legislation started discussing the amendments, but it wasn’t able to come to a conclusion on them, as the impending presidential election posed limits to how bold it could be on such a sensitive matter. But with the recent resurgence of the controversy surrounding BTS’ military duty, Sung appeared on a YTN radio show on April 11 and said, “Administrators of the ruling and opposition parties talked and decided to come to an agreement on the matter within April.” Still, there’s no guarantee that an amendment to the Military Service Act will be passed.
Members of BTS speak at the opening ceremony for the SDG Moment event held at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 20, 2021. (Yonhap News)
The first point of contention regarding whether BTS members will be considered for military service exceptions is whether the group has contributed to South Korea’s national prestige. Those who oppose alternative military service for BTS members say the singers are different from athletes who represent their countries in international competitions like the Olympics and World Cups, as their activities are commercial rather than for national prestige. A pop music critic who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “[BTS is] not the first Korean act to gain global popularity, as PSY previously garnered great attention in the US with ‘Gangnam Style’ in 2012, and even the original Korean-wave idols Big Bang served in the military.”
“It wouldn’t be fair if BTS was the only group to be exempted from military service,” they said.
On the other hand, those who believe BTS should receive military service exceptions argue that BTS spread the Korean wave in the US and across the world. Moreover, they maintain that the group contributed to South Korea’s national prestige even more than winners of international competitions by attending international conferences like the 75th UN General Assembly held last September as special envoys of South Korea.
A second issue has to do with objective standards and fairness. Opponents of preferential military service treatment argue that it is difficult to set objective standards for areas related to popular culture because there are no credible and representative indicators of the kinds found in the Olympics or art and classical music competitions. Some predict that it could lead to disputes over fairness, due to the likelihood of calls to expand the benefits to other new areas such as breakdancing.
Still other observers said there could be issues over the adoption of ceremonies such as the US-based Grammys or Billboard Music Awards as criteria, as they are events associated with a particular country.
BTS performs at their Permission to Dance On Stage – Las Vegas show at Allegiant Stadium on April 9. (provided by Hybe)
Those who support the benefits argue that if anything, the members of BTS are facing "reverse discrimination."
“In the fine arts, people receive military service exemptions for winning prizes in competitions organized by South Korean newspaper companies,” noted Choi Kwang-ho, secretary-general of the Korea Music Content Association.
“It’s debatable whether all of those competitions can be considered ‘credible’ and ‘representative,’” he suggested, adding that it “results in a situation where singers and actors are singled out for reverse discrimination.”
Choi also noted that South Korean break-dancers — who could be seen as falling in the category of popular culture — are likely to win medals, and enjoy military service benefits, after breakdancing was adopted as an official event at the Asian Games taking place in Hangzhou this September.
Both proponents and opponents of special military service considerations for the BS members are basing their views on different attitudes about “fairness.” In that sense, the divide will be a difficult one to bridge.
“It could stir up another controversy if we were to amend the law just for the benefit of BTS,” said one popular music industry source.
“Our top priority should be to establish thorough standards for military service exemptions that will win popular support without violating fairness and equity,” the source urged.
By Jung Hyuk-june, staff reporter
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