BTS and military service exemption are things that have been connected in the past, but I ignored it at the time because I didn’t take it seriously. I figured it was just one grandstanding politician and it would fade from the news cycle, and for months I thought I was right. However, it’s come back with a vengeance recently, as politicians are broaching the issue again and using BTS’s name to get attention, while the press are definitely trying their best to make the connection stick (1/2/3/4/5).
Basically, some politicians are pushing exemption policy reform and have singled out BTS as an example of why things need to change, claiming it’s unfair that celebrities like them are not exempted when they contribute similarly to Korea as those who do get exemptions.
Kim Joon Ro of The Bareunmirae Party is preparing the ‘BTS Act’, which aims to give military exemption to artists that have received global recognition. Kim Joong Ro stated, “If they are fulfilling the duties of multiple diplomats then they deserve it. Look at BTS. They’re the best out of the best national representatives.” Ahn Min Suk of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism agreed to exemption policy reform and stated, “BTS has served the nation well by ranking No.1 on the Billboard chart.”
Other politicians … well, they agree that reform is necessary, but want to go in the other direction.
Politician Kim Byung Ki believes all military exemption policies should be completely removed and those who qualify for an exemption should fulfill the national duty by the age 50 in other methods of service such as an instructor.
As it currently stands, there are many ways to earn an exemption.
According to the relevant law, last updated in January 2015, an athlete who wins gold, silver or bronze at an Olympic Games and gold at an Asian Games is exempt from the service. Others are classical music and dance contests, including the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition, the Carl Nielsen International Music Competition, the Helsinki International Ballet Competition and the Seoul International Dance Competition. All together, the list includes 29 global classical music competitions, 12 global ballet and dance ones, and seven Korean traditional music and art competitions. As of May, 449 people had benefited from the exemption law for their contributions to raising the national image on a global stage and enriching the culture and sports sectors.
But there isn’t an exemption for basically being a famous celebrity overseas, and netizens are … not happy about the prospect of one being added. And I’m not talking about netizens who are into pop music and stuff — you know, the ones who generally don’t represent Korean sentiment at large and nobody should really take all that seriously. Rather, this is definitely one of those national-level issues that you’d rather not be on the wrong side of public outrage over.
Military service is a sore subject for many Koreans, as obviously nobody wants to drop everything and sacrifice two years of their youth, especially considering what a toxic (and deadly) environment it can be. While I’m not completely unsympathetic to people who say the exemption rules should be changed to include impactful celebrities, trying to draw that arbitrary line in the sand is obviously complicated, and litigating any argument about whether BTS deserve it or not shouldn’t be the story.
To state the obvious, if you’re a fan of BTS, an exemption probably isn’t what you want to root for. Like even if they get an exemption, you should hope they serve cause it’ll likely be better for their careers in the long run. Anybody who has followed Korean entertainment at all is familiar with celebrities getting into massive scandals for trying to dodge service or even when they do serve but not in the right way, and Bang Sihyuk comes off as a smart enough dude to know that. Thankfully, while there are international fans who ignorantly call for BTS to be exempted, their Korean fans are generally not doing so because they know better. There were petitions going around, but they were never anywhere near being relevant enough to justify it being a story included in the news cycle.
That’s kind of where this gets fucked up, as what should be the story is that BTS themselves have never asked for an exemption (hell, they may be one of the few who haven’t), yet opportunistic politicians are making them the face of a clusterfuck of an issue in order to generate attention so they can advance their own agenda, to the point of labeling this mess the ‘BTS Act’/’BTS Law’. The press have predictably seized the opportunity given and has been all too happy to run with the mess, even adding their own narratives to it as well.
Regardless of what one thinks about BTS or their fandom, the core issues at the center of this isn’t something anybody should be in favor of. While I’m not concerned for BTS’s future or anything, with something as touchy as this, the reality is that all it takes is making a wrong quote at the wrong time or having something dug up from the past for things to snowball into a major problem, even if it’s a witch hunt and the ones at the receiving end didn’t do anything wrong. As such, hopefully the people pushing this get called out for what they’re doing and any BTS connection gets squashed, but I’m beyond being optimistic when it comes to stuff like this.