The South Korean parliament on Tuesday passed a revision to the country’s existing military service law that can allow K-pop artists, including BTS, to postpone their military services until the age of 30.
Under the current revision, Korean pop stars who have won government awards and can get a recommendation from the Ministry of Culture Sports and Tourism are eligible to defer their military services until they turn 30.
The bill was passed by a huge majority in the South Korean parliament, with only two out of the 270 votes cast against the amendment. The President of South Korea is expected to sign the bill into a law in the next couple of weeks.
The bill has been unofficially referred to as the ‘BTS law’ as it helps the iconic K-pop band to defer conscription. While the bill covers all K-pop bands that are eligible for a recommendation, BTS can be said to have been the direct catalyst for the change. The amendment comes exactly three days before Kim Seok Jin, the oldest member of BTS, turns 28. Had the bill not been passed, Jin would have had to mandatorily enlist himself for military service.
The Military Service Act 1949
South Korea is one of the few countries that follows mandatory conscription. Since South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea, the country considers military drafting as crucial for national defence.
Under the Military Service Act 1949, which became effective in 1957, it is mandatory for all South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve in the country’s military for 18 to 20 months. While it is mandatory for men, women can enlist themselves for active service or voluntary work.
If a person receives a notice of enlistment and fails to enlist without any justifiable reasons, they can be imprisoned for up to three years. Over the years, hundreds of men have been imprisoned for evading the mandatory military draft.
In 2018, however, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ordered the government to bring alternative services for conscientious objectors. A few months later, the government passed a legislation that allowed civilian service in prisons for three years.
Were there any exemptions before?
Despite the mandatory military service for all able-bodied men, South Korea provides exemption to athletes who win gold at the Asian Games or medal of any colour at the Olympics. Over 42 athletes have been able to avoid military service in South Korea so far.
English football team Tottenham Hotspur’s forward Son Heung-min and his teammates in 2018 were granted exemption from military service after they won the Asian Games football tournament against Japan. Son had to only complete three weeks of mandatory military service, which he finished this year in May.
Artists who come first or second in South Korea’s 27 listed global contests can also get exempted from conscription. Pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who won the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 2009, was granted exemption.
However, no such exemptions had been provided for K-pop artists before.
One such victim of mandatory military drafting was Super Junior, a 13-member Korean pop boy band. The second oldest member Heechul enlisted on September 1, 2011, and the youngest member Kyuhyun enlisted on May 25, 2017. It took over six years for all the members of different ages to complete their service. However, by the time everyone completed their service, the group was reduced from 13 members to 10.
Crucial time for BTS
The South Korean government’s decision to pass the ‘BTS law’ comes at a particularly crucial time for the boy band. BTS has been drawing global attention ever since their debut in 2013.
Last week, the band managed to receive its first ever proper Grammy Award nomination for the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for its first English song Dynamite. BTS will also be the first K-pop band to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
Ever since its release in August, Dynamite has been topping the Billboard charts for weeks. Following the release of their new album Life Goes On, BTS has become the first-ever group to rule Billboard’s Artist 100, Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts at the same time. The single Life Goes On is also the first ever non-English language song to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
BTS contributes enormously to the South Korean economy and image. Dynamite topping the charts added an estimated 1.7 trillion won ($1.5 billion) into South Korea’s economy.
Over the past few years, BTS fans, dubbed as ARMY, have been appealing to the South Korean government to exempt the K-pop band from mandatory military service. Even the former Prime Minister of South Korea, Lee Nak-yon, in 2018 had requested the military to “come up with a more reasonable measure by reflecting the public’s growing demands”.
However, many lawmakers had been against exempting Korean pop groups. According to The Guardian, a lawmaker had said, “If you win a classic music competition such as in violin and piano, military exemption is granted. However, winning a pop music competition, say the Billboard albums chart, gets you nothing.”
In 2019, BTS member Jin had acknowledged getting drafted to the military and has said, “As a Korean, it’s natural. And some day, when duty calls, we’ll be ready to respond and do our best.”
Exemption for Korean pop artists is a contentious issue in Korea. Even in a recent poll released by E-Today, a local news outlet, 53% of the respondents wanted special treatment for BTS and 47% opposed it.
While several felt that it is unfair to name the bill using BTS’ name, most of the BTS ARMY has lauded South Korea’s ‘BTS law’ and have been calling it an early birthday gift for Jin.
Yo yo yo!!! The New BTS Law is passed in SKorea! Which means Jin’s military service is postponed till he is 30! ARMY REJOICE! 👏 pic.twitter.com/jllHshXhYW
— feel sad? stan jin i mean kim seokjin (@anjinkananaman_) December 1, 2020