(SEOUL, South Korea) — Jin, the eldest member of K-pop sensation BTS, was dispatched Tuesday to a front-line military training division north of Seoul.
Jin, 30, is heading to the military after delaying conscription two years beyond the maximum age limit. This was possible due to a change of law designed to buy time for pop artists to carry on with their careers.
Since Jin himself and his entertainment agency had asked fans not to come to see him off at the training division for safety concerns, only a handful of BTS fans were present at the scene. Instead, an ad balloon from fans flew in the air, wishing Jin safe military training.
All seven BTS members will take part in the military, and the billboard-ranking K-pop boy band will be out of the public sphere at least until 2025, according to BTS’ management BigHit Entertainment.
Mandatory conscription has always been a challenge for male Korean national K-pop stars, as the responsibility usually falls upon them at the height of their sometimes sweeping careers. Widely famous K-pop groups like EXO and SuperM already had to send some of their members to the military, which ended up in an inevitable halt to those groups’ performances.
South Korea is one of the few countries in the world — along with Israel and Taiwan — that conscripts men in the military. It is mandatory for all South Korean able-bodied men between the ages 18 to 28 to serve in the military for at least a year-and-a-half.
While conscription duty remains unavoidable, entertainment companies have looked for creative ways to maintain the popularity despite the absence of key members in a group.
“We are proud of completing military service, but it was tough because we couldn’t be there for our fans as one, wholesome team,” Super Junior’s Siwon Choi, who has became a leading actor starring in shows like Netflix’s Revolutionary Love and dozens of other hit shows, told ABC News. “We tried different ways to interact with our fans, like performing in units and solos.”
A second-generation K-pop boy band, Super Junior made a rare successful comeback as a whole team, and is now on a world tour. It took nearly 10 years for all members to finish military duties because of the members’ age differences. In the meantime, the members nurtured talent in MC, solo performance and acting to stay in touch with the public.
“Before serving the military, members from the Super Junior might have worried that they might lose their popularity,” Lee Gyu-Tag, a culture professor in Seoul at George Mason University, told ABC News. “But fans are also growing old, which means that they may need something different, more mature from their favorite bands.”
There are exceptions to mandatory military service in South Korea, as distinguished fine arts performers and athletes are pardoned from serving full time in the military. Those who won the grand prize in the major international contests, or athletes who earned medals in Olympics or other prestigious international competitions, are given an opportunity to replace their service with just five weeks of essential military training. This is to secure them time to raise the prestige of the nation by spending key years of high performance in their own field.
There has been a widely divided public debate whether pop artists like BTS should also be given the same military exception.
“To be fair, I believe pop artists should also be considered to be given an exemption from the military considering their social influence,” Lawmaker Kim Young bae, told ABC News.
Kim, as a lawmaker from the liberal party, proposed a bill last September that will allow top boy band members to avoid mandatory military service.
“I believe this bill will create new paths for young men of Korea to tremendously contribute in advancing the global cultural industry. This is an opportunity for Korea as a nation and a new chance for our youth’s future,” Kim said.
Conservative lawmaker Han Kiho expressed his opinion that military exemption rules should be scrapped altogether, with no exceptions.
“South Korea is already short of soldiers to defend this country While North Korea is constantly threatening with missiles, nuclear tests, and artillery,” Han told ABC News.
In addition to safety, arguments also center around the ideas of fairness and justice among the public.
“People feel like it’s not fair for one to have this great loss and trauma in my life if others don’t go through it,” Sean Lim, who runs Seoulite TV on YouTube, a channel that features reactions from K-pop fans, told ABC News. “But I don’t think that’s how you should build a military.”
Members of the public have expressed mixed feelings, but many seemed to agree on the importance of reaching a consensus about mandatory service.
“As long as there is a straightforward standard that everyone could accept when giving military exceptions, I think people will agree with pop artists being given a military exception,” Park Ji-hye, a college student who has long been a K-pop fan, told ABC News.
Both the minister of culture and the minister of defense have stated that the issue of exemptions is under review, and public opinion surveys will be taken into consideration. One of the ideas is to allow flexible dates of service so that all members could finish their duties around the same time.
“Rather than giving a certain group of people the chance to skip military service, I believe it is better to give pop artists special day-offs to perform in groups when it comes to an important performance while fulfilling military duty,” Han said.
The final policy decision is due by the end of the year.
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