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South Korea Weighs Alternative Military Service Programs for Pop Culture Artists


This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • Lawmakers are considering a proposal to draft BTS for a campaign to promote the Dokdo Islets in lieu of serving their traditional military duties.
  • Proponents of the idea argue that the K-pop band would help raise international visibility on the territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan over the islets.
  • This comes after BTS roared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart with their debut English-language single “Dynamite.”

Implications: Adoption of alternative military service for pop culture icons is consistent with an existing policy framework that sees conscription exemption as a tool to elevate Korea’s international standing. Under the current Military Service Act, male athletes who win medals in the Olympic Games or gold medals in the Asian Games are granted exemptions from military service. This measure was intended to raise South Korea’s international standing during the Cold War when the country competed with North Korea for diplomatic recognition. While some groups advocate for reforms to provide young people with more freedoms, the special arrangement for pop culture icons comes from the old line of thinking that places the interest of the nation ahead of the individual.

Context: In South Korea, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve in the military for about two years as part of the country’s national defense against North Korea. While athletes have the opportunity to earn an exemption, musicians with high international visibility like BTS are not currently accorded the same privilege. The defense ministry recently announced that it is looking into an option that would allow BTS members a postponement of their mandatory enlistment until the age of 30. Since early September, more than 1,8000 people have signed a petition urging President Moon Jae-in to grant members of the K-pop band a special military service exception.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sophie Joo, Sonia Kim, and Chris Lee.

Picture from flickr account of Uyên Nochu

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.