The newly passed "BTS Law" allows K-pop stars to defer mandatory military service.
This week South Korea's National Assembly passed a law that is sure to have BTS ARMY cheering them on.
Generally speaking, all South Korean men are required to spend at least 18 months enlisted in the military, with the final cut-off for entry at age 28. But the new legislation — informally referred to as "The BTS Law" — will allow K-pop stars who meet certain requirements to defer until the age of 30.
The nation's tense geopolitics — with the threat of renewed conflict with North Korea constantly looming — have made universal conscription a priority since the 1950s, with around 600,000 citizens in active duty. The U.S., by comparison, has a population more than six times the size of South Korea, but only around twice the number of active military personnel.
There have long been exemptions for elite athletes, prominent actors and directors, and professional musicians deemed to be culturally significant. But K-pop has not previously been considered grounds for any special treatment.
For bands like Big Bang, that has meant taking a hiatus while members complete their military service. In addition to the grueling physical and mental toll of military service, that kind of time commitment has the potential to derail careers.
Other performers have gone to great lengths to avoid enlisting — and have been punished for it. But for BTS that won't be an issue — not yet, anyway.
Boyband BTS recognized for developing Korea's national culture www.youtube.com
Only idols whose work has been officially recognized for enhancing global recognition of Korean culture will qualify for deferment under the new rule. But for BTS — whose single "Dynamite" recently became the first K-pop song to reach number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — that's no problem.
Recognizing the fact that BTS is uniquely responsible for introducing much of the world to K-pop, the South Korean government awarded them with the requisite medals back in 2018. The Hwagwan Orders of Cultural Merit acknowledged their contribution to spreading Korean culture and language worldwide.
The new law comes just in time for the band's oldest member, Kim Seok-Jin — or "Worldwide Handsome Jin" as he prefers to be known— to defer. Now, instead of serving in the army, BTS can spend the next two years serving hits to ARMY — as their fans are known.
The idea is that they can serve their country more effectively as performers than as soldiers. With sold-out performances around the world and numerous collaborations with some of America's biggest pop stars, they are unofficial ambassadors for Korea. As one lawmaker put it, "It's a sacred duty to defend our country, but that doesn't mean that everyone has to carry a weapon."
Considering the fast pace of the K-pop world — with Blackpink and BTS constantly battling for streaming records, and new idols debuting every month — this is good news. As loyal as K-pop stans tend to be, there is a limit on how much they can recycle old footage into anti-racist fancams.
[방탄소년단/진] BTS Jin calling himself WOLRDWIDE HANDSOME (2017-2018.10) www.youtube.com
K-pop fans will stand by their favorites through scandals and feuds, but 18 months of military service is a long time to keep fans waiting. Some of ARMY would no doubt find other idols to obsess over. The K-pop hype industry would look for somewhere else to point the spotlight, and BTS members' fame would likely fade.
For the time being, that's not an issue, but two years goes by quickly. If BTS are still topping international charts in 2022 — and introducing millions to the world of K-pop in the process — will the Korean government pass another law allowing them to defer once more?
Will they continue to get special treatment as a driving force in K-pop? Or, in an industry that worships youth — some idols debut at just 15 years old — will performers approaching their 30s be seen as yesterday's news?
In either case, the new law means that Kim Seok-Jin and the rest of BTS are in the clear for now, and fans who were looking forward to their postponed "Map of the Soul" tour may soon get to see them live.
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