By Eunice Wu
On the first of December, South Korea’s parliament passed the ‘BTS Law’, allowing K-pop entertainers to postpone compulsory military service under a recommendation from the culture minister due to their role in “greatly enhancing the image of Korea”. This was conveniently three days before BTS member Jin’s birthday, on which he would have reached the age South Korean males are legally required to enlist by.
It is important to note that South Korea’s ‘Military Service Act’ already has some exemption laws in place prior to the new ‘BTS Law’, namely for athletes and high-profile entertainers in the performing arts. South Korean athletes were granted military exemption if they reached a certain benchmark of achievement, for example a gold medal in the Olympics. This was to acknowledge their contributions in enhancing South Korea’s national prestige and image. The question therefore lies: do K-pop stars bring the same, if not higher, level of prestige to South Korea as athletes?
Take BTS, the musical act that inspired the law revision in the first place, as an example. They have promoted the Hallyu (Korean wave) to a wider, global scale breaking barriers between the Korean and Western market. BTS have topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart three times respectively with singles ‘Dynamite’ and ‘Life Goes On’, an achievement that is coveted even by Western musical artists. From a cultural perspective, BTS celebrates music as a transcendent language, one that connects people of different races, cultures and backgrounds.
Despite having a largely Korean discography, BTS’s music is able to be heard in countries speaking a variety of languages and dialects, showing a remarkable level of connectivity and resonance. This is beneficial to enhancing South Korea’s national image since BTS’s lyrics and music are profoundly rooted in South Korean culture, which encourages listeners to delve into the origins of their influences. For example, their 2018 single ‘IDOL’ incorporated classical Korean instruments such as the kkwaenggwari (brass gong), gakgung (horn bow), and janggu (traditional drum).
In a patriotic sense, this should legitimise their abstention as it increases people’s pride in their culture. Though, the ‘BTS Law’ touches greater depths than one thinks. According to BusinessInsider, BTS is worth over $3.6 billion a year to South Korea’s economy – bringing in money from merchandise sales and tour tickets, to local tourism. Enlistment of the members would bring about an indefinite hiatus, since the different ages of the band members would likely result in different enlistment periods, meaning it would be years until the group would be complete again. A hiatus would stunt the momentum BTS has seen an exponential growth from for the past few years, impacting South Korea’s tourism among other industries.
One must distinguish between military postponement and exemption, of which the former suggests that enlistment would be delayed but will eventually happen in the future. If we keep this in mind, the ‘BTS Law’ should have a minimal effect in exacerbating the disparities between celebrities and the public. The K-Pop stars in question are not being considered for postponement due to their stardom, but their cultural contributions. The reason why mandatory military enlistment exists in South Korea is for national defence and protection, under the notion of serving the country; then, aren’t K-pop stars such as BTS serving the country by promoting its culture as well?
In response to arguments on the inequality imposed on the public, beginning from November 2018, South Korean civilians are given the right to conscientious objection as a basis for rejecting military service. Moreover, they are allowed to defer enlistment until 28 if they are eligible, which is only two years less than what the ‘BTS Law’ entails. It seems that the public’s rights are not far off from celebrities’. On the ground level, the ‘BTS Law’ simply preserves the momentum of fame of K-pop stars instead of idolising them.
Regardless if you support the ‘BTS Law’, it is undeniable that BTS have reached an unprecedented level of success for a K-pop group and military postponement may just be the South Korean government’s way of recognising this. May K-pop groups such as BTS continue to thrive, with hopes that the ‘BTS Law’ proves its efficacy.
Image: Jann Shi via Flickr