Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 04, 2022
BTS announcing the start of their conscription provides a crucial precedent for South Korean compulsory military service
From Army to Army: BTS steps up to military conscription In October 2022, the long-standing will they–won’t they argument finally ended when members of the band BTS announced, through group representatives, that they would each perform their mandatory military service of two years. This announcement not only closes a long-drawn debate but, perhaps, sets down a crucial precedent for the South Korea of 2022. As a nation at war with its neighbour, South Korean law mandates that all “able-bodied” men between 18 and 35 must perform compulsory military service. Initially, to create sporting success, the list of exempted has grown through the years. Classical and traditional musicians and dancers, who have won one or more of five domestic and 37 international competitions, joined medal-winning athletes in those being allowed a complete or partial exemption from military conscription, for their efforts in enhancing national prestige. In addition, exemptions are also allowed for those with debilitating diseases. The question of whether BTS should serve has not just been buzzing among the “BTS Army” (a term used to refer to the larger BTS fan group) but also within Korea’s actual Army, with Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup informing lawmakers that he had asked officials to study the possibility of a survey to map the polarised public opinion on the theme. The issue has also been a topic of difference between the ruling party People Power Party and the opposition party, the Democratic Party of Korea, who are for and against conscription for BTS, respectively. Last month, opposition lawmaker Kim Young-bae also proposed a bill to create an alternative form of conscription in recognition of BTS’s economic and social contributions.

Classical and traditional musicians and dancers, who have won one or more of five domestic and 37 international competitions, joined medal-winning athletes in those being allowed a complete or partial exemption from military conscription, for their efforts in enhancing national prestige.

With the oldest band-member Jin turning 30 this December, the question of whether the compulsory draft should be applied to BTS and whether the band’s contribution to South Korea’s economic and soft power allowed an exemption was no longer just public discourse, but an important legal decision. Indeed, BTS had already been thrown a lifeline in 2020, with a change in Korean law extending the maximum service age from 28 to 30 for those allowed to defer their service. But, more crucially, BTS is not the first band to face this dilemma. Previous bands in this position have either gone for a hiatus or brought in new members to replace those in service. However, none have had the global economic, diplomatic, and cultural success BTS has had. At the time of announcing their break in June 2022, the BTS effect was vital not just in South Korea but also globally. BTS was bringing in significant indirect revenue, encouraging tourism. They were, perhaps, on the way to becoming a top standalone industry in Korea, at par with the traditional chaebols. Culturally, BTS was closely linked to the rise and global popularity of “Hallyu”, and diplomatically, BTS was everywhere from the UNGA to the White House, with Korean lawmaker Yoon Sang-Hyun being quoted as saying, “BTS has done a job that would take more than 1,000 diplomats to do”. In addition, only days before the announcement, BTS performed at a concert to support the city of Busan’s bid for the World Expo 2030. The concert is estimated to have been viewed by more than 50 million people. On the other hand, conscription has not enjoyed the fan following and enthusiasm that BTS has had.

Many argue that the law is unequal, with many in the higher echelons of Korea’s political and business spaces not serving.

Many critics of conscription argue that it has had a negative effect on Korean society – taking away half of the labour force at its prime. Conscientious objection was considered a crime as recent as 2018, but even the alternative to it isn’t much different from a prison sentence. Conscientious objectors are expected to work in the country’s prison system for double the stint of military service, and their details are maintained in a public database. For those who have used unconventional ways to avoid service – such as renouncing citizenship or having ten teeth removed—the public has not been kind. Many argue that the law is unequal, with many in the higher echelons of Korea’s political and business spaces not serving. Allegations of bullying and sexual abuse within barracks have also been rife. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, BTS’s decision perhaps saved the administration much strife in deciding not just the future direction of the draft but also Korean society. As South Korea grapples with the lowest fertility rate globally, sharp socioeconomic inequalities domestically, and continues to engage with its capricious neighbour, who continues to tease nuclear attacks, the viability of conscriptions remains at stake.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, BTS’s decision perhaps saved the administration much strife in deciding not just the future direction of the draft but also Korean society.

Ironically, BTS’s stint in the Army could be the boost the army needs, with many of its Army perhaps amenable to the forces after BTS’s stint. This is something that the Korean Defense Ministry has not been oblivious to, with the Defence Minister saying, “There would be a way to give them a chance to practice and perform together.” In August, he was quoted saying that if BTS members do join the Army, it was likely that they would be allowed to continue practising and to join other non-serving members in international group tours. However, these statements raise questions on whether the “entertainment soldier” system could return. Removed in 2013 over questions of unfairness, the entertainment soldier system assigned entertainers to duties such as “producing radio and TV material promoting the military”. This move is also perhaps a reminder that soft power isn’t all. While it is true that South Korea has immensely benefited from Hallyu’s global soft power credentials, it also contends with the fact that Hallyu won’t solve its military problems or economic crises. The year 2025, when BTS reconvenes, would perhaps be a very different period, not just for the band, but would also be a test for whether Hallyu and Korean soft power have long-term stability and appeal.
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Contributor

Sitara Srinivas

Sitara Srinivas

Sitara Srinivas was a Junior Fellow with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. She focuses on soft power and the Women Peace and Security Agenda.

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