Photo Credit: EMMA MCINTYRE/GETTY IMAGES
Earlier this week, Big Hit Music, world supergroup BTS’ management company, released a statement that Kim Seok-jin, the oldest member, is going to initiate the process of compulsory military enlistment. This came as a huge surprise for the BTS ARMY– fans of the boy band– and sparked online debates about the impacts of this decision.
South Korea has a mandatory military enlistment of two years for all 18-28 year old non-disabled men with no special circumstances. Whether celebrities and cultural icons who bring prestige to the country should be excluded from this system has been a debate for many years. An act passed in 2020 postponed the enlistment age from 28 to 30 for all entertainers who are awarded recommendations from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. Seok-jin, who is now 29, is said to have rescinded his request for an extension and will be enlisting right after the release of his solo project at the end of October.
There have been instances of arts and sports personnel being given exceptions; however, due to ‘pop culture’ not being used as part of the language of the act, there is debate on whether K-pop artists should receive these exceptions. Some lawmakers agree that entertainers should be eligible for exceptions considering the fact that their work furthers and popularizes Korean culture, but the defense ministry disagrees in light of the tense political situations that surround South Korea. In a Gallup poll that was conducted, about 60% of the population voted in favor of exempting BTS from their mandated service while approximately 33% voted against it. Reuters reports the thoughts of young men who have the most reason to be opposed to the exemption — “Seo Chang-jun, 20 years old, said he understood why Olympic winners got an exemption but wasn’t sure about BTS: The Olympic Games are national events where all Koreans cheer for the same team but not everyone is a BTS fan. Many people aren’t interested in them”
A discussion on how much money South Korea stands to lose has also come up. BTS has been contributing around $3.6 billion to the economy every year and is a significant reason for tourists to visit. Fortune Magazine also reports that they have contributed about $1.1 billion from exports of merchandise and consumer goods. While this heated debate goes on, Big Hit Music announced that it was “the perfect time, and the members of BTS are honored to serve.” While most ARMYs flooded the web with messages of support and love, Knetizens also showed relief that BTS would now stop being treated as political agenda – “BTS never said they wouldn’t go, they always said they would enlist. It was the agency that was worried about sales and the government that wanted to use them that kept talking about this. They weren’t even going to exempt them honorably and just made a whole controversy”. A silver lining amongst all of this for BTS fans is that the defense ministry suggested that there would still be a way for the band to perform together through their individual enlistments.