BTS Military Service Fiasco Parallels America’s Jim Crow South
If you’ve been on the internet at all in the past five years, there’s no way you’ve escaped the zealous fans of K-pop group BTS. Lately, however, BTS fans are up in arms about what soon may be forced BTS military service. Some are calling this service problematic and drawing parallels to some of the darkest times in U.S. history.
Potential BTS Military Service Creates Outcry for Internationally-Loved Group
Who is BTS? What does BTS mean, even? BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys or 방탄소년단/Bangtan Sonyeondan, is a K-pop (or Korean popular music) group formed in 2010 under Big Hit Entertainment based in South Korea. It’s composed of seven members: Jungkook, Jin, Jimin, Suga, V, RM, and J-Hope.
Since their debut in 2013, they’ve exploded to international success, gaining a net worth of $100 million as of 2022, selling out stadiums across the globe, and contributing a lot to the South Korean economy. With their millions of fans worldwide, you can imagine that the possibility of them having to enter the military and potentially risk their lives has not gone over well for the fandom.
Many are calling for changes and exemptions to the current policy of mandatory enlistment for the BTS members, but what does the South Korean government say?
Is BTS Exempt From Military Service?
Traditionally, military law in the country has stated that able-bodied men between 18 years old and 28 years old are required to serve in the South Korean military for a minimum of 18 months. However, the Military Service Act allows people to defer military service or be exempt from it completely if they’ve brought significant attention to the country in a way that enhances the country’s cultural influence throughout the world.
Previously, these exemptions only applied to classical musicians, Olympic medal winners, folk musicians, and similar individuals or groups. In early 2018, when the concerns regarding BTS military service first arose amongst fans of the group, there was no past precedent for pop groups to receive such an exemption. Regardless of the undeniable cultural influence BTS has had on the world, many leaders still called for them to enlist and serve.
Later in 2018, a revision to the Military Service Act was passed; many called this revision the “BTS Law,” as it allowed K-pop icons to postpone their military service until they reached age 30. In 2020, the South Korean government revised military law, again, upping the service requirement to a full two years.
As of 2022, the members of BTS range in age from 24 to 29 years old, meaning that, regardless of the postponement, the time for military service is coming up quickly for the boy band. Jin, who’s the oldest, will be the first to enlist in 2022 ahead of his 30th birthday unless he receives a last-minute BTS military service exemption.
How BTS Mandatory Military Service Affects the Group
With each member of the boy band hitting 30 at different times, many are concerned for the future of the group and their ability to remain functional as performers while some of their members are serving in the military.
There are a few glimmers of hope for BTS, however, as certain laws may still allow for them to perform together, even while some of them are serving. According to Reuters, South Korea’s defense Minister, Lee Jong-sup, believes that they’ll still have a chance to perform while serving, and that service might even make them more popular:
“Even if they join the military, there would be a way to give them a chance to practice and perform together if there are scheduled concerts abroad… As many people highly value [celebrities serving] in the military, that may help boost their popularity even more.”
Why South Korean Military Service & BTS Are Drawing Dark Parallels to Jim Crow
The BTS military service announcement hasn’t been without its opponents, but one writer thinks the situation is darker than it appears.
Jumin Lee, author of Why Anti-Discrimination Law?, said that the military legal situation draws stark parallels to the times of America’s Jim Crow South and that BTS members aren’t doing much to help the situation.
BTS has been an outspoken advocate for equal rights and anti-racism in America, but they’ve been notably silent about discriminatory practices in their own country. According to author Lee:
“South Korea is in essentially the same situation legally as America’s Jim Crow South. Equal protection exists as a constitutional concept, but there is no implementing legislation that allows the government to force private businesses to comply… BTS and their business folks know that speaking up in the U.S. is profitable but doing the same back home would be more trouble than it’s worth. So, they don’t…”
No better illustration of how the political environment in Korea chills discussion of the anti-discrimination law. BTS and their business folks know that speaking up in the US is profitable, but doing the same back home would be more trouble than it’s worth. So they don’t. https://t.co/MJhgUEm0nD
— 이주민 / Jumin Lee (@oldtype) June 8, 2022
Many are wondering if their silence against alleged discriminatory practices in their own country isn’t in an attempt to give them the best possible shot to become exempt from military service by avoiding ruffling the feathers of the government. With member Jin turning 30 at the end of 2022, however, it seems time is running out for exemption no matter what they say or do.
BTS Military Service: 2022 Is the Last Stop
2022 is the last stop before the group has to face a new challenge of rehearsing and performing while one or more of their members is busy with military service. Though some ideas of legislation allowing K-pop stars to serve in the military for just three weeks have been floated around, we don’t expect any new BTS military service announcement to come out before the members have to enlist. All we can do is wait and see how the group is able to manage the new normal and if they’ll begin to speak out about discriminatory practices once they’ve done their time in the military.
UPDATE October 2022: BTS Will Join Military
On October 17, Big Hit, the group’s label, announced that each member of BTS will serve in the military. BTS will take a short hiatus from their stardom and regroup some time in 2025.
Big Hit released the following statement:
“BIGHIT MUSIC has focused to the milestone moment when it would be possible to respect the needs of the country and for these healthy young men to serve with their countrymen, and that’s now.”
The first to enlist will be be Jin, who will do so after his solo project is released at the end of October. For K-pop fans and stans (decidedly over-enthusiastic fans), this is a tough pill to swallow. Hopefully, all members are able to perform their duties, return safely, and continue giving the world the music that so many love.
We wish all BTS members a safe and meaningful service in the Korean military.