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[Newsmaker] Dispute continues over military exemption for K-pop stars
Debate heated up over whether successful K-pop stars should be exempted from Korea’s mandatory military service during a public hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul on Thursday.

Chaired by Rep. Ahn Min-suk of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, the hearing saw a panel of lawmakers and culture critics call for reform of the country’s military exemption rules in order to give international K-pop stars like BTS military service exemption.

Pop culture critic Ha Jae-geun said exempting pop stars from military service is in the national interest, as K-pop enjoys popularity around the world and generates mounting value across industries. 

BTS (Big Hit Entertainment)
BTS (Big Hit Entertainment)

“Currently, military exemption is widely considered a favor and that’s why there are disputes over fairness. A paradigm shift is needed to better understand why there are demands for giving K-pop stars military exemption,” he said. “We should ask if it’s really in the national interest to make these (persons of) national pride just stand guard as soldiers.”

Ha argued the government should allow K-pop stars to postpone their enlistment until the age of 30, as many of their careers peak in their 20s.

All able-bodied young South Korean men are required to serve in the military for nearly two years, as the country is technically still at war with North Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a treaty.

And the idea here is to allow the stars to continue their career on the international stage to help the country’s image instead of serving in the military and having their careers cut short.

Rep. Kweon Seong-dong of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party said the military exemption law, which was introduced in 1973 and is largely beneficial to classical music artists and athletes, no longer reflects how pop culture is perceived today.

“When the law was introduced in 1973, those in popular art were disregarded as mere entertainers while fine art had the moral high ground,” the lawmaker said.

“It was unthinkable at that time that popular art could elevate the country’s status on the global stage. But things have changed over time and popular art and fine art have switched their positions, with the former being more beneficial to the country in terms of national image as well as economics.”

Columnist Choi Chang-ho, however, said the change could backfire.

“From the perspective of social psychology, people want to believe in fairness in society -- a just world. Without this, the world becomes a confusing place,” Choi said, as he explained that giving special treatment to artists could upset the public.

“Given the divide between the North and South, and in terms of the peace process, BTS members who actually want to serve in the military should do so and become peacekeepers, which would be better for both the group and Korea’s image,” he added.

In an interview with CBS News in April, Jin of BTS said it is “natural” as a Korean to do military service, and when duty calls the group, they will be ready to respond and do their best.

Choi also argued that it is hard to set clear rules to evaluate their international achievements, pointing to the credibility issue of the different music charts around the world using different criteria, including the most famous Billboard charts.

The hearing comes nearly a month after the government announced new conscription guidelines in November, in which K-pop stars are not exempt from military service.

The decision came on the heels of growing calls for BTS and other K-pop groups to be given military exemptions for doing the nation proud, as BTS’ Jin turns 28 in December 2020. Celebrities aged over 28 can no longer postpone enlistment.

Despite growing talks, however, expanding military service exemptions remains a thorny topic.

Last year, South Korea’s baseball team at the 2018 Asian Games caused controversy at home despite winning a gold medal after two professional players were accused of using the event to avoid military service.
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