BTS members of the K-pop group face possible conscription

SEOUL – South Korea’s military appears to want to call up members of K-pop supergroup BTS for mandatory military service, as public opinion remains sharply divided over whether to grant them exemptions.

Military Manpower Administration commissioner Lee Ki Sik told lawmakers Friday that it is “desirable” for BTS members to perform their military duties to ensure fairness in the country’s military service.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup made almost identical comments about BTS at a parliamentary committee meeting, and Culture Minister Park Bo Gyoon said his ministry would finalize its position on the issue soon.

Whether the band’s seven members will have to serve in the army is one of the hottest questions in South Korea, as their oldest member, Jin, may be drafted early next year after turning 30 in December.

Under South Korean law, all able-bodied men are required to do 18 to 21 months of military service. However, the law provides special exceptions for athletes, classical and traditional musicians, and ballet and other dancers who have won top prizes in certain competitions that enhance national prestige.

Without changing the law, the government can take steps to grant special exemptions. However, previous exemptions for people who performed well in non-designated competitions sparked serious debates about the fairness of the system.

Because the draft forces young men to interrupt their careers or studies, circumventing military duties or creating exemptions is a highly sensitive issue.

In a recent poll, about 61% of respondents supported exemptions for entertainers like BTS, while in another, about 54% said BTS members should serve in the military.

Several amendments to the draft law that would pave the way for an exemption for BTS members have been tabled in the National Assembly but not voted on as lawmakers are sharply divided on the issue.

Lee, the secretary of defense, previously said he ordered officials to conduct a public poll to determine whether to grant exemptions to BTS. But the Department of Defense later said it would not conduct such a survey.

In August, Lee said if BTS members join the military, they are likely to be allowed to continue practicing and join other non-serving BTS members on overseas group tours.

Conscripts are released from military service after three weeks of basic training. They must also do 544 hours of volunteer work and serve 34 months in their professional field.

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Sarah Y. Kim

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