The Korean Pop group BTS is arguably one of, if not the, biggest music group in the world right now. They are a record-breaking, chart-topping, trend-setting group of seven male vocalists, dancers, and lyricists; Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. With over 20 albums, many critically acclaimed, in just nine years it seemed like the group would never slow down. But after all their years of go go go, they don’t really have a choice but to stop. This past October BTS announced the band would be taking a break from music as all its members made the decision to participate in South Korea’s military service mandate, something they’d postponed since the band’s inception. Back in 1957, South Korea established a conscription system meaning, as a way to thwart further attack from North Korea, the country would require all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 to enlist in the military for at least 18 months.
The news from BTS comes after years of debate and speculation on whether or not the South Korean government should exempt the band. In truth, there is some reasoning behind these requests. Through touring, growing their fanbase, and selling their music, BTS spreads awareness about South Korean culture, and that awareness can be rather lucrative for the country. On an episode of NPR’s “All Things Considered” podcast host and Planet Money correspondent Stacey Vanek Smith notes, “An online concert held by BTS during the pandemic brought in more than $70 million in ticket and merchandise sales. But, as Park Chan-Wook [cohost of “ATC”] says, there is a major ripple effect. BTS’s popularity is fueling tourism to Korea, study of the Korean language, interest in Korean movies, television, fashion, and food. All told, BTS is bringing in an estimated $5 billion a year to South Korea. That’s around half a percent of the country’s entire economy.”
The South Korean government would have good reason to exempt them, but instead, they took a different approach. In 2020, South Korea’s parliament passed a bill allowing Korean Entertainers (including K-pop stars) to defer mandatory military service until the age of 30. This seemed to put an end to the will-they-won’t-they debate fans had, however, BTS wasn’t out of the woods yet. The new ruling could only help them for so long, and as of December 4th of this year Jin, the oldest member of the group, turned 30. The group’s ages range from 25 all the way to 30, with most of the members landing on the latter side of the spectrum. With the group’s ages steadily approaching, they had limited time to decide what they would do. Some K-pop groups choose to have each member take their military service one at a time, and continue to release music for that period of months without them. However, BTS chose a different path and announced in October that each member would be enlisting at the same time.
For us Westerners, taking an 18-month break doesn’t sound that crazy. After all, most music artists in the US consider that a normal album cycle. However, in Korea, the timelines are much shorter. Taking an 18-month break from music means missing multiple album cycles. Artists are going to debut and conquer and the boys of BTS will still be performing their military service. That being said, the group was heavily strategic in the way they announced their leave and the timing of it. Following their immense success and seemingly never-ending release of music, fans began to worry about the boys burning out. These concerns were finally confirmed earlier this summer when, even before announcing their military break, BTS announced they were taking an official hiatus to focus on solo projects. In interviews, the members even spoke about feeling lost and directionless after all of their success. Now, fans of One Direction or NSYNC know the looming disappointment that often follows an announced hiatus, as the term is nearly synonymous with breaking up since so few bands ever actually reunite afterward. That being said, back in October their label quelled these fears by revealing BTS’s plan to fully reunite in 2025 after they’ve performed their military duties.
In light of such interesting news, plenty of people are hearing about countries enforcing mandatory military service requirements for the first time. However, it’s important to note that South Korea is not the only country that requires military service, and conscription is nothing new. As of 2022, there are 49 countries that currently have mandatory military requirements, though the stipulations are different for each one. For a majority, only men are forced to enroll, whereas countries like Israel, Sweden, North Korea, Norway, and Eritrea conscript both their male and female citizens. There’s also a huge difference in timeframes. For example, a place like South Korea allows its male citizens to choose when they enlist, within the 18 to 35 timeframe, whereas in other countries, like Georgia, that timeframe is cut short and men must serve sometimes within the 18 to 27 range or countries like Greece lengthen the timeframe to 19 to 45. Some countries, like Finland, don’t even give their citizens a grace period and enforce conscription as soon as they turn 18.
Given BTS’s overwhelming popularity, there are a lot more people debating the legality and morality of conscription. In the US we have the draft, where as soon as men turn 18 they are eligible to be called into war if needed, however, for plenty of people, that’s where their understanding of conscription stops. Something like South Korea’s mandate seemed foreign but knowing a popular band that is being affected by it has made the issue more accessible. More relevant. It begs questions about whether or not your country has a say over your own body or if sacrificing months out of your life is a fair price to pay for getting to call yourself a citizen. It calls into question a country’s own ethics, and yet conscription is so common that asking these questions seems futile.
BTS’s own fanbase, The A.R.M.Y., have been begging the government to exempt their idols for years, and while that’s been a fruitless endeavor, who knows what will happen after they’ve served. In a few months, South Korea is going to see the real consequences of having their biggest stars halted for a period of time. Maybe once they’re no longer receiving the bulk of that $5 billion annually, they’ll see the downfalls in conscription. Though that might be wishful thinking, only time will tell.