Dispelling misconceptions about Korean Military Service
Recently, in our corner of the Twitter-verse, we lit up over an interviewer asking questions regarding Kim Seokjin’s military enlistment. As a Korean man who turns 28 this year, Jin will soon be eligible for conscription. The implications send many of us into a tailspin of worry and speculation. We even shy away from saying the dreaded E word; that’s how serious we are. But as Hermoine says in Chamber of Secrets, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
So I’m here to dispel some of the fear surrounding Enlistment.
As most of us who follow BTS – and the K-idol industry in general – already know, compulsory military service is a fact of life for every able-bodied male in Korea. As Americans, this idea feels somewhat foreign to us, and can lead to some friction between I-ARMY and K-ARMY. Many Westerners lack a proper context of understanding for mandatory military service. In the US, for example, men and women may volunteer to serve in the military. Most often, people make the choice to enlist during high school or college. The only time we have mandatory military service is in wartime when the US government opens a draft, but it’s been 50 years since we’ve had a situation such as that.
It’s important to note that the last time the US government enforced a draft, it was met with violent protest as many young Americans refused to participate in a war they felt was unjust.
Perhaps it’s understandable that we feel somewhat prickly when people raise the topic of enlistment. For perspective, here is an article and video about what it is like to serve in the Korean military.
The length of compulsory service in South Korea varies based on the military branch. You can read more about that here. This page also contains a list of possible exemptions and details the various types of service.
For those of us who follow BTS, the idea of the seven of them being apart for so long feels particularly excruciating. Not only that, but without a doubt, their careers will be affected by the absence of one or more members who, as their enlistment time comes due, will not be present for comebacks, tours, and promotions, which has been an integral part of their success for the last seven years.
In recent months, lawmakers petitioned to change the enlistment laws specifically for BTS, but also for K-artists in general whose careers would be affected by the extended hiatus of military service. Exemptions already exist for Olympic athletes and classical musicians who tour around the world, competing in Korea’s name. Unfortunately, the Court denied the exemptions, putting the questions of Seokjin’s enlistment back onto the table.
In response, fans have pushed for group enlistment. On the surface, this seems an ideal and plausible solution as it would allow all seven members the opportunity to serve concurrently. BTS themselves have also expressed a desire to serve together, and since it’s possible to volunteer, once Seokjin receives his conscription notice, they could all simultaneously enlist. Though the logistics are a little more complicated because the members would qualify for different placements, it could shorten their time on hiatus, which is something all of us desire.
Additionally, the laws for enforced conscription have been in a state of flux. In July of 2018, President Moon Jae-In submitted an order to shorten the length of service for enlisted men. The Defence Ministry acknowledged that many young men must put their studies or careers on hiatus in order to serve. Therefore, “The reduction in military service time will relieve some of the burden of military service on young people, who are experiencing difficulties in areas such as their studies and finding a job,” the ministry said. “Servicemen entering society earlier will contribute to the effective utilisation of our national human resources.”
It’s important to point out that though this is a sensitive subject to Bangtan Sonyeondon, they have – without fail – expressed their willingness to serve when the time comes.
As Seokjin said in a CBS interview in April 2019, “As a Korean, it’s natural. And someday, when duty calls, we’ll be ready to respond and do our best.”
Seriously, we have come to expect nothing less.
Likewise, this attitude seems to exemplify something that we as Westerners tend to overlook. In South Korea, military service represents not only a rite of passage, but also a symbol of national pride. This post by republic-of-fandoms illustrates this point, as do the comments by Yoonjeong, whose knowledge of Korean enlistment policies helped me write parts of the Answer series.
Because of my own special interest in South Korean culture, I decided to address the issue of military enlistment in my latest novel, Sea Glass. After living in Seoul for a year, I am blessed to have a number of close friends who still live in South Korea – some of them from our side of the world, and some who are native Koreans – so I decided to ask them about it, to alleviate some of my own fears and misconceptions, but also to strengthen the backgrounds of the characters in the story.
My friend Jay is an educational coordinator in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He moved to South Korea from Las Vegas in 2014, and he’s been there ever since. He loves it so much, he swears he will be there forever. When I asked him what he knew about military service, he gave me examples of co-workers and friends who served twenty to thirty years ago, who still regarded their time in the armed forces as the ‘Golden Years’ of their youth. Then he told me of a 30-something man in Australia who had expatriated specifically to avoid his mandatory service. When I asked what would become of this young man, Jay told me that he would spend the rest of his life in exile, but, according to him, that was ‘a price he was willing to pay.’
Finally, I had the opportunity to chat with my friends Rosa Edholm-Kim and her husband, Sungjun, who live together with their son in Ulsan, South Korea. Sungjun is 32 years old and served in the Air Force from 2009-2011. He kindly provided details about Korean military service.
In relation to a plotline in Sea Glass, I asked Jun about the possibility of families buying their way out of military service. Though it’s a touchy subject, South Korea did have an issue with this as recently as 20 years ago, when high-ranking government officials and wealthy families made special arrangements for their sons to dodge their conscription.
Jun said, “Korea is very strict, and no one can buy their way out.” However, he went on to say, “But, hypothetically, if operating under the guise of a legitimate reason, it could be delayed. Like, someone who registers for graduate school but does the bare minimum to get by, or someone who keeps registering to take the exam to be a government officer – those might be acceptable excuses to buy some time.”
Last we heard, Seokjin was enrolled Hanyang Cyber University in pursuit of his Master’s degree. We know Seokjin to be a savvy businessman in addition to being an idol and artist, so it’s plausible to guess that this might be part of a plan to delay military enlistment. BTS has continued to achieve unparalleled global success, largely due to the synergy created by the seven members together.
Hanging onto that dream for as long as possible makes sense on multiple levels.
It’s important to remember that Enlistment is not a bad word. As I-ARMYs, it’s good for us to keep an open mind and ask questions. It was a bad call for the interviewer to ask about it, because it put BTS on the spot. But, by being respectfully curious, we can better understand the culture of South Korea, which has become, at least in my case, something truly special and beloved to me.
Let me know your thoughts and knowledge in the comments section below. I love learning new aspects of this, so please feel free to enlighten me!
Sources: (aka, Behold how thorough, Or obsessed. Whatever.)
CBS News: BTS: The Korean Pop Sensation
ChannelNewsAsia.com: South Korea to Reduce Length of Military Service
The Hollywood Reporter: BTS Denied Military Service Exemption
(Author’s note – BTS never pursued the exemption; lawmakers sought the exemption on their behalf because of their contribution to the South Korean economy. This is not the first time Hollywood Reporter has intentionally written a click-baity headline such as this. It’s irresponsible journalism, and as a journalist and ARMY, I am offended.)
Wikipedia: Conscription in South Korea
Wikipedia: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell