South Korean Politician Calls For Military Draft Exemptions For More Globally-Recognized Stars

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BTS accepts an award onstage during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas.

For decades, every South Korean man has been expected to serve in the country’s military as part of the ongoing tension with North Korea following the Korean War armistice of 1953. For most male Korean celebrities, this has typically meant putting their career on hold; for many, it has come amid the peak of their career and resulted in lost momentum. However, a member of South Korea’s National Assembly recently expressed a desire to make it easier for some entertainers and other globally-recognized stars to be exempt from their national service requirement.

On July 25, Ha Tae Kyung of the Bareunmirae "Righteous Future" minor opposition party appeared before the National Assembly Defense Committee to call for amendments to the criteria that currently determine who receives special exemptions. The call came amid petitions to the government, in which people have requested that septet BTS are exempt from mandatory military service due to their immense success internationally, and their historic No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with their album Love Yourself: Tear. The Korea Times reports that petitions were already appearing on the Blue House's site regarding BTS as early as January, though at least one is from December. There are similar calls by South Koreans to similarly reward internationally-renowned athletes, such as soccer players Son Heung-min and Cho Hyun-woo. Ha used these petitions as the basis of his proposal, though they have few signatures and the comment sections on each are full of people debating why BTS should or should not serve. “There are requests for BTS to be exempt from mandatory military service, so I examined the list of international competitions that determines the exemptions and found that there is a problem in terms of fairness,” stated Ha, reports Soompi.

Currently, however, it is an impossibility so the politician urged the government to reassess what sort of achievements could lead to exemptions. "I looked up the special cases of military service, but current military law shows BTS is not qualified," said Ha, per a Korea Times report.

Ha reportedly urged the committee to update the guidelines to take into account the modern, globalized state of South Korea’s arts and entertainment; according to him, K-pop stars, actors, b-boys, athletes, and others who represent the country well internationally should be considered for exemptions. Currently, only classical musicians and dancers, and world class athletes who represent South Korea on a global stage and achieve high results receive exemptions from fulfilling the roughly two years of mandatory service.

Ha’s call for amendment was responded to by Military Affairs Director Ki Chan Soo, who said that the fields are selected through the committee’s work with the Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. He added that the issue will be reviewed, but added that “it is difficult if there is no national consensus” regarding who should be exempt in what fields.

The debate came at a time when South Korea’s military draft laws are in flux; in June South Korea's constitutional court simultaneously ruled that objecting to serve violated the country's constitution, but that conscientious objectors needed to be offered an alternative substitute of community service. Prior to the decision, men who refused to serve faced up to three years in prison and risked social stigma that could affect their personal and professional lives. Currently, those who are unfit physically or mentally for active duty are able to fulfill their draft with service. 

This article was updated on July 27 to better reflect Ha's referencing of petitions.