Military Service: the Bane of Celebrities In South Korea

Regarding actor Kang Tae-Oh, who recently enlisted for military service, a law is being studied in South Korea that benefits BTS idols. Will they be exempted?

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Photo: Vogue Taiwan

LatinAmerican Post| Julián Gómez

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In August 1957, military service in South Korea was changed from supplementary to compulsory. Since then, all men between the ages of 18 and 35 must do military service for 20 months. This law has slowed down the careers of several athletes, artists, and other celebrities.

The norm emerged years after the Korean War in the early 1950s. However, the South Koreans have reinforced this norm as one of the fundamental ones in their Constitution. Only a few have been able to avoid the obligation in the country.

It was not the case for Kang Tae-Oh, who on Tuesday had to enlist in the army to do his 20 months of military service. The leading man of “Woo, Lawyer Extraordinary” will receive 4 weeks of training and is expected to return in March 2024.

This could disrupt Netflix's plans with the series he starred in. Although Kang Tae-Oh had participated in a couple of series for the platform, only in 2022 did he achieve worldwide recognition with the interpretation of Lee Joon-Ho. Like him, who could not exempt himself from military service, there are celebrities who tried to get exempted.

Military service in music

The rule has completely stopped the careers of notable 'idols' in their productive prime. However, in recent years a series of flexibilities have been presented by the government. This is due to the penetration of kpop in the world as a dominant genre in the adolescent and youth audience.

This is why in 2020, a law was enacted that extended the age limit for pop stars to serve in the military. Since then, the maximum age has been increased from 28 to 30 years. It was the case of Jin, a member of BTS. The South Korean group has tried to avoid military service and the government considers it, although it is a difficult decision.

“To reiterate the position of the Ministry of National Defense, there is no change in the existing position. It is difficult to expand the alternative service system in military service obligations with BTS," said in a statement this week Lee Jong-Seop, South Korea's defense minister. 

However, from the legislative branch, they seek to approve a law that definitively exempts the 'idols' from military service. The idea has popular support among 61% of South Koreans surveyed. It remains to be seen if the proposal materializes in the coming months.

A well-remembered case is that of Super Junior, which had its heyday in the early 2010s. The members of the band served from 2011 to 2019 in different shifts. In fact, in 2017, they had five members in military service at the same time. That fact stopped the momentum that the group brought in its global expansion and something similar could happen to BTS. Only artists who focus on classical music are exempted from military service.  Another exemption applies to ballet dancers.

Also read: "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" and 5 other Korean series to watch on Netflix

Sportsmen and military service

The most famous recent case of exemption from military service was with Son Heung-Min. The Tottenham footballer was at the height of his career when it happened. One of the lifesavers he had was to qualify with South Korea for the round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but they could not. However, months later he won the gold medal with his team at the 2018 Asian Games, which was one of the exceptions.

Son Heung-Min is part of the 220 people who until 2019 had avoided military service in the Asian country. The first to be excluded from military service was the fighter Yang Jung-mo. He won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, three years after the exception rule was implemented. Another notable athlete was Park Ji-Sung, who played for England's Manchester United for six years.

The rule for athletes extends to medalists in Olympics and continental competitions. It also covers footballers who make it through the group stage of a World Cup. Now it is expected that just as there are exemptions in sports, there are also exemptions in all artistic expressions.