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BTS' sensible military choice

Not seeking a special exemption from mandatory service probably saved the globally beloved performers from having public opinion turn against them at home in South Korea.
K Pop Band BTS Visits "Today" Show
K-pop boy band BTS visit the Today Show at Rockefeller Plaza on Feb. 21, 2020 in New York City.Cindy Ord / WireImage file

The K-pop superstars of the boy band BTS made headlines around the world Monday when their agency, BigHit Music, announced that all seven members would fulfill their military service in South Korea. 

It put to rest the speculation on whether or not the members of the band would be exempt from the country’s mandate that all able-bodied men serve 18 to 21 months in the military. The BTS Army, the group’s global fandom, may be lamenting the news and dreading the time ahead without new music, but the move probably saved the globally beloved performers from having public opinion turn against them at home. 

In the history of South Korean entertainment, military service has been a complicated issue for male celebrities.

I’m no celebrity nor South Korean but, as a Taiwanese citizen, I’ve had my own experience with conscription interrupting the trajectory of my life. 

It is worth noting that military service in the two countries is not comparable. One of the key differences is the time requirement. The Taiwanese conscription is either four months or a year, with those born after Jan. 1, 1994 required to serve only four months. And, for the sake of full transparency, I will say the military service I did in Taiwan is what is known as alternative or substitute military service. I spent my year as an English-teaching conscript in a remote school in Taiwan. 

Even so, the lack of freedom that is most criticized about conscription remains the same. Growing up, I hated knowing that I would have to pause my studies or career for a whole year and enlist in the military before I was 36. Because I grew up attending schools in the West, I envied my peers who did not have to worry about conscription or plan their 20s around it. Yet, no matter how begrudgingly, I accepted from an early age that the year of military service would happen because fulfilling one’s civic duty is important in Taiwan. 

Because I grew up attending schools in the West, I envied my peers who did not have to worry about conscription or plan their 20s around it.

Although many know of at least one person who has gotten out of conscription on a technicality, and many young men in Taiwan see military service as a waste of time, it is one of those realities that is near impossible to avoid and not worth the hassle to try. So I accepted my fate and even made sacrifices for it. 

At 21, I graduated college half a year early and said goodbye to my friends in the middle of my senior year in the U.S. I relinquished my right as an international student on an F-1 visa to optional practical training, which would have allowed me to stay and work in the country without an employer’s sponsorship for 12 months.

I did all of this to ensure that I could return to Taiwan and complete my military service as soon as possible to minimize the disruption it would pose to my academic and career plans. For that reason, I can understand why one might find it unfair and even upsetting if someone were to be granted special exemption from military service, even if that someone was BTS, whom I stan.

In the history of South Korean entertainment, military service has been a complicated issue for male celebrities. 

Taking a nearly two-year hiatus to enlist at the height of one’s career, as A-list actor Gong Yoo did in 2008, may be hard to bear, but evading conscription or even attempting to do so can come at a career-ruining price.

The case of Korean-American entertainer Steve Yoo, a pop icon in South Korea in the 1990s, is perhaps the most infamous one. Yoo renounced his Korean citizenship after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2002, a move that South Korean officials interpreted as him trying to dodge his scheduled draft, which he had promised to comply with. Yoo has said that he didn’t intend to get out of his military duties, but his actions outraged the public. To make matters worse, the Korean government imposed an entry ban on him that remains in place to this day, despite multiple appeals.

If there is anything to learn from Yoo’s case, it is that South Koreans do not take kindly to their citizens looking for loopholes out of military service. 

But BTS never appeared to attempt to avoid conscription. In fact, it was others, including government officials, who suggested a special exemption for the group (and other successful K-pop artists) because of its unprecedented global success. Indeed, many argue the group has already contributed more to its country than most people ever will in their lifetime. BTS has added an estimated $5 billion a year to the economy and dramatically increased the popularity of K-pop and Korean culture globally.  

Nonetheless, had BTS been exempted from military service, there would have been detractors criticizing the group for receiving special treatment. After all, the South Korean public, especially young people, is quite divided on whether BTS members should carry out their military duties. 

From the outside looking in, it is undeniable that the members of one of the most popular bands in the world would have more to give up by enlisting than the average South Korean. However, when ordinary citizens are forced to serve, most will feel that the life they are putting on hold is just as important as a celebrity’s. 

When I was in college in the U.S., I met a number of South Korean students who were returning to campus after pausing their studies at the end of their sophomore year to complete military service. They said it felt like starting college over again, especially because the class they matriculated with had graduated and moved on in the two years they were gone. Not having friends with whom they enjoyed freshman orientation and other time-honored college traditions around was particularly hard. 

Thinking about these stories, what I admire about BTS is how earnest and consistent their answers about military service have been over the years. As the oldest of the group, Jin has been at the receiving end of multiple questions about enlistment. He always stated that he would be ready to answer the call of duty when it came. If news of the group’s military service had come out when I was enlisting, I would have found it inspiring and reassuring.

Despite what some may say about my type of service not being “real military service,” my year teaching English was still a sacrifice and did contribute to the country. It ended up being one of the best years of my life. What I dreaded would be a waste of time was actually a meaningful year of serving a community, putting other people first and learning more about Taiwan, the home that had never felt like home before.

When BigHit Music signed off its statement with “There’s much more yet to come in the years ahead from BTS,” I could not help but think about how different my life is now from the one I had planned for myself before military service — and how grateful I am for this life. I salute the BTS members for their decision to carry out their military service, and I, like the rest of the BTS Army, will be eagerly awaiting their safe return and anticipating their next act.