The members of BTS have had the prospect of mandatory military service in the South Korean army hanging over their heads for several years now. But what if they could do a different job that would serve the nation but not require them to like, you know, disappear from our lives for the two-year compulsory stint required of all able-bodied men between 18-28?
According to the Yonhap News Agency, Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon has proposed letting the group’s 7 members swap out their military duties with an alternate gig as public relations ambassadors for his city’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo. The nation formally appointed the band as official PR ambassadors heading up the bid last month, which Busan is battling for against Rome, Odessa and Riyadh.
“If BTS is allowed alternative military service, its members will be assigned with national duties as heavy as military service and will serve the nation in their unique capacity,” Park reportedly said, suggesting that an aggressive publicity push starring the world’s biggest boy band could give his city a competitive edge in the intense competition to host.
Busan’s bid theme for the event is “Transforming out world, Navigating Toward a Better Future,” and if successful it would host dignitaries from around the world from May 1-Oct. 31 2030. Military service requirements have hung over the members of the group since they launched nearly a decade ago, no more so than when eldest member, Jin, 29, faces the mandatory age cap for enlistment in December, when he turns 30.
While the country allows for some elite athletes and classical musicians to avoid the mandatory military stint, there is currently no similar exemption for pop artists. But back in May, South Korea’s Culture, Sports and Tourism minster Hwang Hee said during a news conference that the rule should change. “It’s time to create a system for incorporating popular culture-art figures as art personnel,” Hee reportedly said. “The system has been operated meaningfully to give those who have enhanced the national status based on their excellent skills more chances to contribute to the country, and there is no reason the popular art-culture field should be excluded from this.”
Then, earlier this month the country’s defense minister Lee Jong-sup said during a parliamentary session that by allowing BTS to continue performing even while serving, the military could serve national interests without affecting the shrinking pool of personnel due to low birth rates. “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,” he said, according to a report by Reuters. “As many people highly value [artists serving] in the military, that may help boost their popularity even more.”
Back in 2018, the nation passed a revision of the Military Service Act (which some referred to as the “BTS Law“) that allowed K-pop stars to postpone their military service until they turn 30. The law allowed K-pop entertainers to apply for a deferment if they’ve received government medals for elevating South Korea’s cultural influence around the world. All seven members of BTS qualified after being awarded the country’s Hwagwan orders of cultural merit from the government in 2018 during the Korean Popular Culture & Arts Awards.
The military-service issue is contentious in South Korea. Attempts by such entertainers as Steve Yoo and MC Mong to avoid their military service have damaged their careers. The BTS members have said they are willing to serve. But the looming possibility of a forced interruption for the group was among the warning signs before the band’s decision earlier this year to take a break to pursue solo projects. The South Korean parliament has since debated a bill that would shorten military service for K-pop stars to three weeks from about two years.