BTS exemption would be ‘difficult’ according to Defense Minister, as military service debate continues on

The issue of BTS’s military service has been a subject of debate for years now, with the group being tossed every which way for everything from political pandering to petty fanwar messes. Generally, I’ve chosen to ignore a lot of that noise, but things appear to be coming to a head now as Jin’s 30th birthday inches closer.

A few days ago, a fourth military exemption bill for pop stars was proposed, using the order of merit as the carrot.

The bill, the fourth of its kind, mandates pop celebrities, who have received an order of merit from the government, should be given a chance to apply for alternative military service. Under the current Military Service Act, military service exemptions are given only to international award-winning athletes and classical musicians for their roles in elevating the country’s reputation overseas.

Recently though, the defense minister was pushed to address it and clarified that it would be difficult to expand the exemption system.

Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup has maintained that it would be “difficult to expand the exemption system” for members of boy band BTS who are set to serve their mandatory military service. During an interpellation at the National Assembly on Tuesday, Lee said that due to “aspects of fairness on fulfilling mandatory military service, it is difficult to extend the alternative program system to BTS.”

Somewhat surprisingly given how the general public usually are about military service, at one point it seemed almost likely that they’d get handed an exemption, but as the clock ticks down that likelihood appears to be waning.

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On one hand, military service for celebrities is a bit of show in itself, serving as a way for them to do everything from polish their reputation as a citizen to whitewashing recent crimes/scandals. Realistically, barring a desperate situation, it’s not like most celebs would be on the front lines anyway since it would be horrid for propaganda purposes if nothing else. BTS have also obviously contributed a ton to Korea’s coffers and soft power, definitely more so than almost all athletes and classical musicians. Additionally, one could even argue about the morality of conscription itself.

On the other hand, a big part of celebrity service is showing that the rich, famous, powerful are not above anybody else. We know that’s unrealistic, but people understandably enjoy the façade of equality. And that’s where exemptions come in, though barring some kind of change in the status quo, BTS’s specific case does seem a bit shaky. Usually these exemptions come from representing Korea in some capacity, and while BTS have absolutely done a lot for Korea, the motivation for HYBE wasn’t that and was primarily driven by their bottom line.

Or as music critic Lim Jin Mo recently put it:

During an appearance on MBC’s “100 Minute Debate” on Tuesday, renowned music critic Lim Jin-mo said that although he “agrees that BTS has achieved immense records and that they should be rewarded,” the members still should not be exempt from military service. “I’m thrilled to see pop culture icons gaining more social recognition, but when you think about it, the pop culture field is based on profits from investment. This means that the biggest reward for them is receiving love from the public,” Lim said. “That’s enough for them. No matter how much they’ve contributed to society and overseas, giving them the privilege to skip military goes against fairness.”

For me, though, I think it’s useful to think about this without considering BTS. Because yes, while they might be the topic at hand currently, it would be naïve to think that basically creating a cultural/corporate exemption wouldn’t be yet another avenue to be abused/bribed by those with the means to do so. You’d like to think better of companies, but reality shows you shouldn’t.

Surprisingly though, I don’t feel all that strongly one way or another. An exemption for basically a capitalist venture seems out of line, but the Korean public sentiment seems to be on their side, and they are the ones that would have to deal with any fallout that results from this. I guess I’m saying given the credible arguments at play, it’s difficult to be outraged or overjoyed whatever is decided and the saga coming to an end will be the real relief.

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