On Oct. 17, South Korean K-pop band BTS announced the band was going on hiatus so its members can serve their mandatory military duties under South Korean law. They plan to reunite sometime in 2025.
BTS is one of the most popular bands in the world. The band topped the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) global charts in 2021, winning the IFPI Global Recording Artist of the Year Award for the second year in a row. BTS was also the third most streamed music artists in 2021, according to Spotify’s statistics.
A viral tweet claimed the pop stars are being “forced” to serve in the South Korean military while many people searched for information online about BTS and Korean military service. Rolling Stone writer Jae-Ha Kim explained that BTS never applied for the exemption from military service available to artists and athletes.
Do members of K-pop band BTS qualify for an exemption from mandatory military service in South Korea?
No, BTS band members do not qualify for an exemption from mandatory military service under South Korean law — although the country’s lawmakers have debated whether that law should be changed.
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In South Korea, male citizens between 18 and 28 are required to complete 1.5 to 2 years of mandatory military service. Certain “arts and sports personnel” may apply for an exemption, but current South Korean law does not grant that exemption to pop stars, such as the members of BTS.
Mandatory military service is governed by South Korea’s Military Service Act. Article 33-7 of the act says “persons with specialty in the field of arts or sports” can be assigned supplementary service as arts or sports personnel. During this supplementary service, which lasts for two years and 10 months, the exempted person must use their skills in arts or sports to “serve in the public interest.”
Eligibility for this exemption is detailed in articles 68-11 of the Enforcement Decree of the Military Service Act. A person in sports needs to be at least a bronze medalist in the Olympic Games or a gold medalist in the Asian Games, while a person in the arts needs to win a prize at certain international arts competitions, win first prize at certain national arts competitions or have studied certain traditional art forms.
At the time BTS announced its band members would serve their mandatory military duties, that law did not include awards for popular music or even presidential awards the band has received. South Korea’s Military Manpower Administration lists 28 international music competitions on its website, all of which are classical music competitions for instruments such as the piano and violin.
BTS might not be out of the spotlight though. The country’s defense ministry has said BTS will have the opportunity to participate in "national" events for the "public good" while serving in the military, according to Yonhap News Agency. This came after earlier comments from the nation’s defense minister who said the group will be able to continue performing internationally during their military service.
Though the band members don’t qualify for exemption, the government did allow its members to put off military service for two extra years.
In 2020, the South Korean government amended the Military Service Act to allow citizens who are enhancing the country's “prestige” through "sports," "public culture" and "arts" to postpone their military service for two extra years, from 28 to 30. That amendment allowed the oldest member of BTS, 29-year-old Jin, to put off his military service until this year, when he turns 30 in December.
But while the Korean government agreed to let the pop stars postpone their military service while in the prime of their careers, it has fiercely debated whether the members of BTS should be exempt from military service entirely.
According to reporting from Yonhap News Agency, which is partially funded by the Korean government, the head of the country’s Military Manpower Administration has publicly spoken against changing the law to exempt BTS from military service. The country’s former culture minister proposed exempting BTS and its current culture minister has said that public opinion should be the most important factor in considering whether BTS should be granted an exemption from military service.
An April 2022 survey run by South Korean polling agency Realmeter found that 65.5% of South Korean people surveyed believed BTS should be granted an exemption from military service, while 30.2% were opposed to it.