Photo: BTS. Credit: HYBE Entertainment.
As the world-beating K-pop septet is getting older, the military service question gets more pressing. The presidential transition committee 대통령직 인수위원회 recently stoked the controversy further by having its chairman Ahn Cheol-su 안철수 visit the headquarters of HYBE Entertainment, BTS’s production company, while floating the idea that the group may be invited to perform at the inauguration. (The committee quickly backtracked when the implicit quid pro quo drew the international ire of BTS fans.)
BTS has a solid case for earning an exemption from military duty. Sports stars are exempted from serving if they medal in the Olympics, or win the gold medal in the Asian Games. (Technically, it is not a complete exemption: the athletes must undergo three weeks of basic training, continue competing in their sport for the duration of the regular service, and participate in several hundreds of hours in volunteering and community service.) Yet the sports exemption has seen some flexibility when the achievement was unexpectedly outstanding. The famous Red Devils 붉은악마 of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, who made a magical run to the semifinals, received an exemption although the soccer competition is not the Olympics.
The idea behind the exemption is that the athletes have served their country in a different way by showcasing South Korea’s excellence on the highest international stage. Then why not BTS, the most internationally acclaimed Korean pop artists in history? Most Koreans apparently agree: in a Gallup Korea poll from April 5 to 7, 59% said internationally accomplished pop artists should receive exemption. Notably, 81% of the men in their 30s - who would have just completed their service - were in favor. On the other hand, in a survey by Chosun Ilbo 조선일보 conducted among those who are currently serving or about to enlist, 68.2% opposed the exemption for pop artists.