South Korean boy band BTS built an army. Now, they might get to defer military service

September 4, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 1211 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jin, Jimin, and Jungkook of BTS, with host Jimmy Fallon and V, RM, SUGA, and J-Hope of BTS in Grand Central Terminal on February 24, 2020 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Andrew Lipovsky—NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

BTS have built an army of K-Pop fans around the globe. For that, they might not have to serve in a real one.

Legislation proposed in South Korea would add entertainers who have made “great contributions” in popular culture to the list of men who can delay their mandatory military service. The would almost certainly include BTS, who earlier this week became the first Asian group since 1963 to top Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart with their English-language single “Dynamite.”

The bill would ensure that the boy band can perform with its current line-up for at least a few more years, seizing on a global boom in South Korean entertainment after “Parasite” notched a landmark Academy Award in February. The group’s oldest member, Kim Seok-jin, is 27 and would normally be required to enter the military by the end of next year.

“Deferring military service differs from making exemptions,” said lawmaker Jeon Young-gi, 29, who introduced the legislation. “We need to give the option to postpone military service to those whose career peaks in their 20s.”

BTS’s success is not only important for South Korean soft power. Their manager, Big Hit Entertainment Co., is looking to raise as much as 962.6 billion won ($812 million) in an initial public offering in Seoul that is set to be the country’s largest in three years.

BTS grossed $170 million last year, ranking it fifth among the world’s top concert draws, just behind Elton John, according to concert trade publication Pollstar. And they’ve amassed a global fan base led the official BTS ARMY. An online concert held by the band in June was the world’s biggest paid online music event, drawing more than 750,000 viewers, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

While South Koreans have cheered BTS’s success, military service exemptions are controversial in a country where issues of inequality and privilege dominate the political debate. All male citizens aged 18 to 28 are required to serve in the military for about two years to guard against North Korea, which maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies and has never signed a peace treaty with South Korea.

Some argue that the exemptions are unfair to young men who sacrificed two potential years of their careers and may not have wealth to fall back on. Current law allows waivers for some elite athletes and classical musicians, but doesn’t include popular entertainers.

The bill would pave the way for other artists to “delay” their military service until they’re 30.

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