A South Korean official is calling for the government to offer an exemption to its mandatory military service to one of its most popular pop music groups.
The international K-pop band BTS should not be forced to serve in the country's military, South Korean Culture Minister Hwang Lee argued. While most South Korean citizens are required to serve two years in the country's military, some advocate that pop stars should be exempt, considering their notable contributions to its economy, leading to a national conversation about what is reasonable or fair for all of South Korea's men.
"It would be a national loss" and a "cultural loss for mankind" if the seven-person boy band has to "suspend their activities due to the fulfillment of their military service obligations," Hee said in a Wednesday statement at a press conference.
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"The system has been operated meaningfully to give those who have enhanced the national status based on their excellent skills more chances to contribute to the country," Hee said, noting the current exemptions available to Olympic medalists and classical musicians. "And there is no reason the popular art-culture field should be excluded from this."
He directly mentioned BTS, saying, "I thought somebody should be a responsible voice at a time when there are conflicting pros and cons ahead of the enlistment of some of the BTS members."
The stance has some public backing. Nearly 60% of South Korean residents support a military exemption for pop stars, according to a Gallup Korea poll in April.
But some officials have advocated for BTS to act as role models and serve their time.
"It is very much expected that young Korean men serve the country, and those BTS members are role models for many young-generation Koreans," South Korea's ambassador to the United Kingdom argued, according to TMZ.
South Korea's Military Service Act requires all men between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve at least 18 months in the military. The country has enforced mandatory conscription since 1957 as a way to maintain a ready military force in case North Korea decides to take aggressive action.
The enlistment of BTS members has been a matter of speculation for years. South Korean President Moon Jae-in passed a law in 2020 that raised the minimum age for mandatory service for pop stars to 30, allowing the band some leniency after receiving two Grammy nominations and one pop hit in the United States.
However, the band is approaching that extension soon because its oldest member, Jin, will turn 30 in December.
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Hee's comments come six days before the cultural minister loses his position as the new government, controlled by Yoon Suk Yeol and his administration, takes over. It is unclear what position Suk Yeol may hold regarding the band's military status. The newly elected president was accused of using BTS for political purposes after asking them to perform at his inauguration. The band declined.
BTS is worth an estimated $3.54 billion annually to the South Korean economy, according to a 2018 report from the Hyundai Research Institute.