MILITARY SERVICE IN SOUTH KOREA
Military service age and obligation: 18-28 years of age for compulsory military service. The minimum conscript service obligation varies according to service: A) 21 months for the Army and Marines); B) 23 months for the Navy; and C) 24 months for the Air Force). 18-26 years of age for voluntary military service. South Korea intends to reduce the length of military service to 18 – 22 months by 2022. It used to be 26 to 30 months. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
About 300,000 men are conscripted each year into the military or riot police in South Korea. Under law, all able Korean males who have completed high school are subject too conscription when they are 18. Those who refuse to fulfill their obligations face a prison sentence of three years, harsh treatment while in prison and tough parole terms when they get out. Many companies refuse to hire someone who has not served.
Service usually starts at the age of 19, although recruits can defer for a few years depending on their family situation or study plans. But inevitably the service interrupts university studies or the start of a careers. University students can delay being drafted until graduation. Many go to university for one or two years, do their military service, and then return to finish university and get a job. The service has to be completed before age 28. Afterwards many are required to participate in annual military training as reservists for eight years. There is movement against the mandatory military service.
According to Reuters: “The often grueling military service sets back university studies and delays sometimes lucrative careers in a competitive country where there are enormous social pressures to be high achievers both academically and professionally. Attempts to avoid military service for health or personal reasons have long dogged the military and officials have become skilled at seeing through false claims. Calls for alternative service for conscientious objectors have been rebuffed by conservatives who say it would open a new door for draft dodgers in a country where people already go to great lengths to avoid what is typically two years of mandatory military service. [Source: Jon Herskovitz and Kim Junghyun, Reuters September 1, 2008]
According to Associated Press: “Most see military service as a sacred duty of manhood. By law, those seeking top government jobs or running for parliament must reveal not only their own service records but those of their children. "In South Korea, you are not a man until you finish your military duty," says Chang Myong-ki, 40. "If you don't behave in a manly manner, they might ask you, 'Have you been to the military yet?"' [Source: Bootie Cosgrove-Mather, Associated Press. June 24, 2003]
According to the U.S. State Department: “South Korean law requires active military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 40 followed by reserve duty training. Those who refuse to fulfill military service or alternative service face up to three years imprisonment. Following military service (or alternative service for conscientious objectors), there is an eight-year reserve duty obligation involving several reserve duty exercises per year. The December law allows those who already completed their military service obligation but subsequently became conscientious objectors to perform their reserve duties in correctional facilities. Previously, these individuals were subject to fines for not participating in mandatory reserve duty exercises. Failure to perform reserve duties or alternative service carries fines and possible imprisonment. The fines vary depending on jurisdiction but typically average 200,000 Korean won (US$170) for the first conviction. Fines increase by 100,000 to 300,000 won (US$87 to US$260) for each subsequent violation. The law puts a ceiling on fines at two million won (US$1,700) per conviction. Civilian courts have the option, in lieu of levying fines, to sentence individuals deemed to be habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms that range from one day to three years.” [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]
Sentiments About Military Service in South Korea
Korean men dread their military service and see it as an inconvenience on the way to getting a good high-paying job but regard it as a duty and rite of passage into manhood. It is considered a disgrace to weasel out military service. The popularity of Lee Hoi-chang, a presidential candidate in the 1990s and 2000s and former, prime minister plunged when it was revealed that his sons got out of their military service because they were underweight.
Doyeun Kim wrote in The Atlantic: “Many young South Korean men today describe the two years they are required to serve in the military as "wasted time." It is an imposition on their prime years — when they could be getting ahead in their education, getting a job, or meeting their life partner, they spend 21 to 24 months in a sort of man camp. Of course, they are trained to defend the country from North Korea, but that is usually the third or fourth thing they mention, when asked to talk about what the military experience means for them. "The day I completed my service was the best day of my life by far," said Chung Minjae, 24, who served 23 months as a Korean Augmentation To the United States Army (KATUSA) at the American base in Seoul from 2008 to 2009. [Source: Doyeun Kim, The Atlantic, December 14, 2012]
“"The hardest thing being in the army is that you are stuck in one place [...] for two years while everyone else continues to move on with their lives," Chung told me. "Once I was done, I could finally move forward, along with everybody else." This is probably a heightened feeling in a speed-obsessed, extremely modern city like Seoul, where two years out of the civilian loop can leave you technologically and socially disoriented. Chung said he felt an "enormous burden being lifted" from his shoulders the day he finished his military duty, which he compared to being grounded for two years. He is now finishing his bachelor's degree in East Asian international relations at Yonsei University in Korea, from which he had taken a break in order to enlist.
“Still, a 23-month KATUSA experience is hardly anything to complain about. Most men end up in the regular ROKA (Republic of Korea Army), where the quality of time-biding is said to be several times inferior. While Chung might have been bored with mostly administrative duties at the American base,” those who serve along the DMZ have a much harder time (See Below).
South Korean Bank Helps Conscript Dumped by Girlfriends
In 2007, a South Korean bank began offering to help soldiers dumped by their girlfriends during their military service in the form of special interest rates. Soldiers who can show letters or email to a bank clerk proving their break-up can receive a new deposit plan with better rates and waived service fees, said Nonghyup Bank official Gil Yoon-jung. The offer lasted for about four months. Troops will get as much as a 0.3 percentage point premium a year for proving they are no longer romantically attached. The new plan will also be offered to female soldiers, family members of professional troops, wounded veterans, and trainees. Nonghyup Bank said it will also donate 0.1 percent of the new clients' balances for dead war heroes and wounded veterans. [Source: Associated Press, June 5, 2007]
Military Service Near the DMZ
Lee Seung Joon served 24 months in an ROKA artillery division near the DMZ (demilitarized zone) along the border with North Korea. He recalls long and irregular duty hours that often disrupted his sleep. Doyeun Kim wrote in The Atlantic: “The 38th parallel marks the highly fortified no-man's land between South Korea and North Korea. If North Korea were to storm into South Korea by land, as it did in the 1950 invasion that escalated into the Korean War, the men at the 38th parallel would be the first to see action. The duty schedules are demanding there, and Lee and his companions often had to wake up in the middle of the night for shifts on the border. [Source: Doyeun Kim, The Atlantic, December 14, 2012]
Although it is said that this is one of the world's tensest borders, most have served their two years without many incidents. But two of the most provocative North Korean aggressions since the 1953 armistice happened during Lee's term at the border: the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in March 2010, which killed 46 seamen, and the shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010, which killed two marines and two civilians, and injured others. These were contained incidents involving the navy and marines along the sea border west of the Korean peninsula, but ground forces along the 38th parallel and everywhere else were on alert, ready to go to war at the government's word.
“"When the Cheonan (the South Korean navy ship) sank, we really got ourselves ready for war, and then nothing happened," said Lee. "Two-and-a-half weeks passed without anything, and during those days we couldn't even take our boots off. It was nasty — we were dirty and greasy, waiting for days ... but nothing happened." Lee said the anger in the beginning eventually gave way to frustration. "These are high school graduates and college freshmen who barely know what the country stands for, doing long shifts on the border, and they're tired," Lee added.
He recalled thinking that it could have been him or his friends on that ship — he had almost enlisted in the navy — and being upset about the men who died. But even after living these scenarios and serving under extreme pressure, Lee admitted that most don't think much about the North after getting discharged from service. "They're more concerned about getting a job, studying, building up their resumes," Lee said. "We go into the army with the mentality that we are giving up two years — those two years are dead." This mentality does not seem to change after service. The two weeks of smelly boots and not showering become stories told over drinks. "I had a lot of thinking time during those two years," Lee said. "I got to thinking about the kids on the other side [of the border]. They are the same."
Lee's experience at the front lines led him to shift his academic trajectory as he prepared to go back to school. His two years at the border were difficult and allowed him to grow "stronger psychologically and physically," but he said he thinks it also changed what he wanted to study. He is switching out of a psychology degree to pursue subjects more along the lines of international studies. "I had a lot of thinking time during those two years," Lee said. "I got to thinking about the kids on the other side [of the border]. They are the same." Lee described the North Korean soldiers he saw from observation post photos at the border, and the way they diligently swept the snow at their guard posts, just the way he and his companions did. "They probably complained as much as we did about long duty hours."
Contempt for South Korean Military Service
James Griffiths of CNN wrote: The military service “law has derailed the careers of many of the country's biggest sports stars and K-Pop artists, with hugely popular boy band Big Bang having to go on hiatus recently so its members can perform their military service. Many members of South Korea's national men's football team, who knocked champions Germany out of the World Cup, could also be forced to join the military, though multiple petitions have been filed to the official Blue House website urging President Moon Jae-in to issue the football players an official exemption. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, June 29, 2018]
“Beyond objections to violence, South Korean men have another very valid reason for seeking to avoid military service: the army is notorious for the hazing and abuse many recruits go through. In 2014, then President Park Geun-hye urged action after photos emerged of the bruised and bloody body of a 20-year-old private, who was beaten and abused every day for a month before he eventually died.
“The tough experiences of many men in the military have been at the core of an anti-feminist backlash to the #MeToo movement in South Korea by men's rights groups, even as the country has made some progress in tackling issues of sexual harassment and assault. James Turnbull, a Busan-based expert on Korean feminism and popular culture, said this reaction is "overwhelmingly driven by (the) perceived unfairness" that men perform military service while women do not. But he said that their time in the army is largely responsible for the negative attitudes and behavior the #MeToo movement is seeking to stamp out.
“"It's difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent" for young men, Turnbull said, many of whom join the military "after their first year of university, barely out of high school" and have little interaction with women during that time except female K-Pop groups who perform at bases. "This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders — that men's role is to do important work for the nation, while women's is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability — is pervasive in Korean daily life."
Trying to Get Out of South Korean Military Service
Many South Korean young men look for a way out of their military service. One popular way is to serve for the U.S. military as a Korean staffer. Some undergo surgery purposely designed to damage body parts and gain a medical exemption. Others have starved themselves so they are deemed underweight and fail the medical exam. Some few many men goy showy tattoos so they world be accused of being yakuza-like criminals and be rejected for being organized crime member.
James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “Those without a chance of a presidential pardon have turned to more drastic measures: many young men intentionally gain or lose weight, feign mental illness, get full body tattoos, or self-harm in order to get an exemption, according to the Yonhap news agency. Surprise medical inspections can be ordered for anyone suspected of changing their weight, and those found guilty of attempting to avoid service can face legal repercussions. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, June 29, 2018]
“In the past there has been tremendous public criticism of those, such as the children of government officials, who manage to find loopholes in order to avoid military service.Yoo Seung-jun, a hugely popular singer in the 1990s, had to give up his career in South Korea after he was accused of evading military service by becoming a US citizen. He is still banned from entering South Korea. While most South Korean men, either willingly or because they have exhausted all other possibilities, do eventually perform their military service, for some this is not an acceptable option.
Some young men have gotten tattoos as part of their effort to dodge the draft. Bootie Cosgrove-Mather of Associated Press wrote: Koreans have a curse - "You should be tattooed!" - that reflects the ancient practice of using tattoos to brand thieves and slaves. But a nationwide police search launched this month for men with tattoos has rounded up a new breed of criminals - young men who use the body art to try to evade the country's mandatory military service, crucial to its defense against communist North Korea. About 170 men have been arrested for "willfully tampering with their bodies to avoid military duty" - a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. National media showed the disgraced young men, handcuffed, heads bowed and shirts removed to reveal large tattoos of dragons, scaled fish, birds and roses. [Source: Bootie Cosgrove-Mather, Associated Press. June 24, 2003]
“Authorities regularly hunt for draft-dodgers. To win exemptions, some turn to overeating or fasting. Some have doctored X-rays or had surgery to damage ligaments or knee cartilage. A few have even feigned insanity. "There is a need to warn those who would do anything to avoid military service," Judge Kim Sung-keun said this month as he sentenced a 24-year-old father of two young children to eight months in prison for using tattoos to avoid conscription.
Authorities base their arrests in some cases on a suspect's history of military physicals. If a young man goes through one exam without overly large tattoos, but comes back for another round with an outsized dragon and secures an exemption, he would be under suspicion.
Investigators also have questioned tattoo artists about their customers' motives. In the early 1980s, the country's military junta launched a crackdown on political dissidents and organized crime under its "campaign for social purification." Many with tattoos were sent to military-run camps, regardless of their criminal history. "I am afraid that the draft-dodgers are bringing back the bad image to tattoos," said an operator of a Web site for tattoo-lovers, who gave only his last name Song.
Exemptions from South Korean Military Service
Exemptions from military service in South Korea are made those with mental and physical disabilities, men who are the sole breadwinners in the their families and orphans who lost their parents at an early age. For a long time there were no exemptions for conscientious objector. That changed recently. Before then, most of this who have tried — including Buddhist monks and clerics — ended up in jail.
Very few South Korean men get out of their military service unless their families are rich enough to bribe their way out and even that is difficult to arrange. Even famous athletes, pop singers and celebrities have to do it. There have been reports of South Korean expatriates returning home to visit family members or watch World Cup games being seized at the airport and hauled off to fulfill their military service obligation. Many Korean men with dual citizenship have given up their South Korean nationality to avoid the draft.
In spite of the disgrace factor, many men try to dodge the draft. During the election in 2000 a watchdog group revealed that about a fourth of the candidates running for office had successfully avoided conscription. In the early 2002 an number or doctors, brokers and parents were arrested for being involved in a bribe scheme to win exemptions for failing a physical after it was discovered that a proportionally high number of young men from rich, socially-prominent families had physical disabilities which excused them from military service.
Rich families often manage to get their sons out of the military by paying off the right person and staying out of the country. Bribes are often worked out by agents to doctors so young men involved us rejected because their physicals. In the 2000s, the brides were generally between US$10,000 and US$20,000, with the money split between the broker and the doctor. Young men unable to actively serve in the military due to health problems usually get desk jobs.
Conscientious Objectors in South Korea
According to the U.S. State Department: “ In December 2018, the National Assembly amended the law to allow conscientious objectors — people who refuse to take up arms, due to religious or political reasons — to fulfill obligatory military service and reserve duties by working as government employees for 36 months at correctional facilities. Those who refuse to fulfill military service or alternative service face up to three years imprisonment. The law is silent regarding soldiers currently on active duty who wish to switch to alternative service due to conscientious objections. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2019]
In June 2018, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government must provide alternative civilian roles conscientious objectors "The state can no longer delay resolving this problem," the court said in a 6-3 ruling finding that Article 5 of the country's Military Service Act was unconstitutional because it does not offer any non-military options. It gave the government and Parliament until the end of 2019 to revise the law. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, June 29, 2018]
Amnesty International researcher Hiroka Shoji said the decision sends a "clear message that conscientious objection to military service is a human right. Conscientious objection is not a crime and we urge the government to go further. All conscientious objectors should have their criminal records erased and those young men that languish in prison should be immediately and unconditionally released." According to to CNN: Serving in the military means potentially being ordered to fight and kill. This is unacceptable for pacifists or those whose religious beliefs forbid such action, but until the Constitutional Court's ruling in June 2018, conscientious objectors faced prison if they refused to serve in the military. “"Many conscientious objectors are punished twice as government-linked organizations and many private companies refuse to hire applicants with criminal records," lawyer Baek Jong-keon, who was himself jailed for 12 months and had his legal license revoked for five years, wrote.
In 2014, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said at that time there were still no plans to change the conscription policy. Jason Strother and Malte Kollenberg wrote in VOA News: The Ministry has pointed to security concerns with North Korea as justification for maintaining the status quo. Lee Jae-seong, a law professor at Konkuk University in Seoul, says public opinion no longer supports the government’s policies. “The South Korean government has always stressed security and has said that an alternative to military service would harm our safety," he said. "But the public no longer believes that. Only the government is holding on to that idea." “Lee points out that a recent Gallup poll indicates 68 percent of respondents say they are in favor of creating such an alternative service so that conscientious objectors will not have to go to jail. [Source: Jason Strother, Malte Kollenberg, VOA News, February 8, 2014]
Conservative groups such as the Korean Veterans Association have opposed alternative services for conscientious objectors. It said in a statement that such practices are “a dangerous idea that provides an excuse for opportunists to avoid serving in the military. It will harm national security and stir up social conflict." [Source: Reuters]
South Korean Conscientious Objectors Who Spent Time in Jail
South Korea jails sends more conscientious objectors to jail than the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International. A total of 6,088 young men — or about 600 a year — chose to got prison men chose prison rather than do their military between 2006 to 2015, with 99 percent doing son on religious grounds, according to Defense Ministry data. Many of them are Jehovah's Witnesses, who say their religion forbids them from fighting or participating in the military. [Source: rokdrop.net, October 25, 2016; James Griffiths, CNN, June 29, 2018]
Hundreds of able-bodied South Korean men are imprisoned each year for refusing compulsory military service.Jason Strother and Malte Kollenberg wrote in VOA News: “Kim Ji-kwan does not return to this jail on the outskirts of Seoul very often. Having spent just more than a year locked in one of its cells, the 33 year old's crime is one that many are afraid to commit: refusing to serve in South Korea’s military. “I became a conscientious objector because I learned from the Bible that you have to love your neighbor and your enemy," he says. "We should love life.” Kim’s father and two brothers also spent time in jail. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they say learning to use weapons or fight goes against their religious convictions. [Source: Jason Strother, Malte Kollenberg, VOA News, February 8, 2014]
Kim says he would have been open to other types of service. “If there were an alternative service, one that does not go against my beliefs, then I would have done that," he says. "A service that does not require actual military training.” According to government figures, each year hundreds of able-bodied South Korean men are sentenced to up to 18 months in prison for refusing compulsory military service. While not all of them refuse a stint in the armed forces on strictly moral grounds, most end up behind bars.
According to London-based War Resisters' International (WRI), an advocacy group that keeps track of conscientious objectors worldwide, South Korea's statistics stand out. “According to the data ... the largest number of imprisoned conscientious objectors — not necessarily the number of objectors themselves, but imprisoned objectors — is currently in South Korea," said WRI’s Sergeiy Sandler via Skype. "The way conscientious objectors are treated are, of course, substandard in all human rights senses.” Conscientious objector Kim Ji-kwan says he and the other men in his family did the right thing by going to prison for their beliefs. But if he one day has a son, he says, he would not expect him to carry on the tradition. Refusing to serve is a personal decision based on one’s own faith, he says.
2002 World Cup Soccer Stars Koreans Exempted from Military Service
After their superb performance in the 2002 World Cup, in which they advanced to the semifinals, South Korea’s soccer team was exempted from military service. AFP reported: “The defense ministry plans to positively consider and actively promote ways of giving the players favors in the form of exempting them from military duty,” a ministry spokesman said in a statement. The decision was made in line with the public’s wishes to reward the players and also to allow the team to continue practicing without interruption, he said. [Source: AFP, June 16, 2002]
“The ministry’s statement came after President Kim Dae-Jung personally congratulated the team and coach Guus Hiddink on making history. Kim bear-hugged Hiddink and shook hands with all the players at Incheon Munhak Stadium after he watched the match there. Today is the happiest day in the country’s history... You did a great job,” Kim said. “At the moment, all of our nation are rejoicing at the victory. My heart-felt thanks go out to all of you,” he said.
“At the same time, team captain Hong Myung-Bo raised the issue of military service. Mr. President, I hope the issue of military service of my juniors can be resolved so that they can prepare themselves without interruption for the 2006 (World Cup).” Kim replied that he would tell the defense ministry to look into it.
“Currently, athletes who win any Olympic medal or a gold in the Asian Games are eligible for exemption from military service. Ten of the team’s football players are expected to benefit from the exemption. They include Park Ji-Sung, Seol Ki-Hyeon, Song Chong-Gug, Lee Chun-Soo and Lee Young-Pyo, Ahn Jung-Hwan and Kim Nam-Il.
Ahn Jung Hwan was the star of the 2002 World Cup, scoring two crucial goals, the equalizer against the United States and the game winner against Italy. Handsome with long wavy hair, he was married to Miss Korea and loved by teenage girls and young women across the country even though he kissed his wedding ring after he scored a goal. After his dazzling performance at the 2002 many thought he would be named Asian player of the year. His biggest award came perhaps from the South Korea military. It was given an exemption and required to put in only one month of military service rather than the required 26 months.
Military Service and K-Pop
One factor that shapes the careers of male K-Pop groups is South Korea’s mandatory military service, which all male citizens, even pop stars, must fulfill after reaching the of 18, with most doing while in their twenties. The genre’s superstars, such the members of BigBang, entered the military in the late 2010s and got out. Military service generally lasts for 21 months, a big chunk of time in fleeting pop star career and world of fickle fans and opportunist business interests.
In 2003, Psy was asked to perform his mandatory military service. He was excused from military duty due to working at a software development company (the South Korean government grants exemptions to those with technical expertise work in companies that serve the national interest). His duty was over in 2005. But in 2008 Psy was forced to do his military service again and join the army for real after authorities determined he had abused the law that allowed him to serve in a private company rather than a military unit by continue his show business work while purportedly working at the software company. PSY joined the army in 2008 to spend two years fulfilling his service after authorities found he had abused a law allowing him to serve in a private company instead of a military outfit. He was freed from his duties in July 2009.
T.O.P. was the first Being Bang member to do his mandatory military. He enlisted for his two-year service in February 2017, as a conscripted policeman. The remaining members continued without him, doing a tour with 14 concerts in four cities with an attendance of 696,000 fans. In 2018 the remaining members began their enlistment: G-Dragon in February; Taeyang and Daesung in March. Seungri was initially announced to enlist in March 2019. The same month he retired from show business due to scandals surrounding the Burning Sun nightclub, and left Big Bang. In July 2019, T.O.P was the first member to be discharged from the military. He was followed by G-Dragon in October 2019 and Taeyang and Daesung in November, 2019.
Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post that military service has caused each member to cultivate his own image, with “all of them marketing themselves as individuals and smaller units in anticipation of their stint in the military derailing the group’s career. Before his service started Big Bang’s G-Dragon told The Washington Post: “If we’re going to talk about that, we’ll feel sad. We are Korean, so we have to go someday, but I don’t know when it’s going to be. Until then, we’ll just try hard to do what we got to do.” [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, March 3, 2016]
According to The Telegraph: “Recent years have seen a series of draft-dodging scandals involving top stars. Song Seung-heon, a Korean drama star hugely popular in Japan and other Asian countries, suffered a massive public backlash in 2004 over attempts to avoid the draft. He eventually went to the army and is now back on the path of success. "The mood against draft dodgers is so hostile that nowadays entertainers feel it's better to simply get it over with," said Ha Jae-keun, a South Korean pop columnist. In the past, a two- or three-year hiatus often meant irrevocable damage to an entertainer's career in South Korea as the public moved on to new faces, but nowadays military service can actually enhance a star's image, Ha said. [Source: The Telegraph, October 12, 2011]
Rain’s Military Service
Rain was the biggest South Korean pop star in the 2000s. He was named one Time magazines 100 most influential people in the world in 2006 and 2011 and released seven albums as of 2009 and acted in several South Korean film and popular television shows. He made his Hollywood film debut in "Speed Racer" in 2008 and also appeared in “Ninja Assassin.” His 2004 album “It's Raining” sold more than 1 million copies.
In October 2011, Rain began his mandatory military service after showing up for boot camp at an army training center in Uijeongbu, north of of Seoul. With his hair cut short, he bid farewell to weeping fans before he stepped into the camp. AFP reported: Many fans, including hundreds from Japan, Taiwan, China and elsewhere in Asia, burst into tears when the singer disappeared into the camp. The singer will undergo eight weeks of basic training before being posted elsewhere for the remainder of his 22 months' service. He staged a farewell concert in Seoul Sunday attended by 20,000 fans. [Source: AFP, October 11, 2011]
The Telegraph reported: “Rain is fulfilling his compulsory military service at a relatively late age and risks losing career momentum during the 21 months he spends out of the public eye. But he could otherwise face a backlash given South Korea's hostility toward draft dodgers. Military service has agonised many young South Korean entertainers and athletes hoping to continue their successful careers. Athletes can be exempted from service if they win an Olympic gold medal or otherwise improve the country's image with major achievements. But entertainers – no matter how successful they are abroad – enjoy no such lenience from the government. "Entertainers are thought to work for their own sakes. That's the difference," said Hwang Sang-min, a Yonsei University psychology professor and frequent commentator on popular entertainment. [Source: The Telegraph, October 12, 2011]
Kim Hee-ra, a 21-year-old Sogang University student in Seoul, said she was sad to see Rain go but glad that he was fulfilling his duties. "The fact that Rain entered the army without any attempts to be exempted will positively affect his future career," she said. Lee Jin-young, 22, fretted that Rain may not be as popular after a two-year publicity blackout. He also worried that Rain may find his service to be tougher because he is starting at a relatively old age. Many people serve in their early 20s.
Rain served as an "entertainment soldier" for a unit that promotes the military. In January 2013, the South Korean military said it punish Rain for meeting with a top actress while serving his military service. Associated Press reported: “Paparazzi photos showing Rain meeting with Kim Tae-hee have raised suspicions that highly sought-after entertainers may be receiving special favors during their military service. The ministry denies Rain has received special treatment. Rain, an “entertainment soldier,” however, broke rules by meeting with Kim at least three times” in 2012 late last year despite being on duty, ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing. Rain is not allowed to have such private meetings while outside his base for official duties like recording and performing.” [Source: Sam Kim, Associated Press, January 3, 2013
In July 2013, Rain was officially released from military service after 21 months. Hundreds of fans waving banners cheered as the 31-year-old left the Defence Ministry building in Seoul. Two weeks before his release, according to the Korea Herlad, Rain and several other active duty PR soldiers including singer Se7en, Sanchu of the group Mighty Mouth, KCM (Kang Chang-Mo), and Kim Kyung-hyun from group “The Cross” were filmed wearing civilian clothes, using cellphones and drinking alcohol. Se7en and Sanchu were also filmed leaving an erotic massage parlor at 3 a.m. According to the Defense Ministry, Rain spent 71 days off duty last year, compared to the average of 43 days given to non-celebrity soldiers.” The singer was confined to his barracks for seven days after getting caught meeting the actress. [Source: BBC, July 10, 2013; Julie Jackson, Korea Herald, July 9, 2013]
Big Bang’s Military Service
Big Bang (stylized as BIGBANG) is a very popular Korean boy band. It has five members: T.O.P, Seungri, Daesung, G-Dragon, and Taeyang. They were launched by the famous management company, YG Entertainment on August 19 2006,. On September 23, 2006, the group made their debut on the television music show, “Music Core”. Big Bang was famous in South Korea even before their official debut as MTV Korea had aired an eleven-episode documentary about the making of the band. In it early years the band was popular in Thailand, Japan and other Southeast Asia countries. It now has a large global following.
T.O.P. was the first Being Bang member to do his mandatory military. He enlisted for his two-year service in February 2017, as a conscripted policeman. The remaining members continued without him, doing a tour with 14 concerts in four cities with an attendance of 696,000 fans. In 2018 the remaining members began their enlistment: G-Dragon in February; Taeyang and Daesung in March. Seungri was initially announced to enlist in March 2019. The same month he retired from show business due to scandals surrounding the Burning Sun nightclub, and left Big Bang.
In July 2019, T.O.P was the first member to be discharged from the military. He was followed by G-Dragon in October 2019 and Taeyang and Daesung in November, 2019. In January 2020, it was announced that Big Bang would be performing at the Coachella Festival, which would have marked their first performance as a group in three years, but all that was put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the topic of their military service, G-Dragon told The Washington Post beforehand in 2016 in fluent, slightly rapper-style English, “If we’re going to talk about that, we’ll feel sad. We are Korean, so we have to go someday, but I don’t know when it’s going to be. Until then, we’ll just try hard to do what we got to do.” [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, March 3, 2016]
Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post that military service has caused each member to cultivate his own image, with “all of them marketing themselves as individuals and smaller units. Taeyang and Daesung both have solo acts planned, while T.O.P. has been concentrating more on acting. As for G-Dragon, well, G-Dragon is fashion incarnate. He was in the front row of the Chanel show during Paris Fashion Week this year, clad in a Navy-style Chanel suit and a huge black fur hat. When G-Dragon posts a photo of himself, whatever he is wearing usually sells out instantly. Industry insiders say he has a confidence and swagger that make him appealing, plus a David Beckhamlike ability to look both androgynous and studly at the same time.”
On G-Dragon, 2012 single ‘Crayon’, Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times: “Witness K-pop as postmodern theater. G-Dragon — a member of the essential boy band BigBang — is one of the great pop synthesizers of the 2010s, and also a key figure in tethering K-pop to high fashion. “Crayon” is like Southern hip-hop on creatine, brought to the racetrack, then struck by lightning.” [Source: Jon Caramanica, New York Times, February 7, 2018]
South Korean Rapper Accused of Pulling Teeth to Dodge Military
In 2010, popular rapper MC Mong faced an allegation of having three healthy teeth extracted, so that he could skip the military service. AFP reported: “South Korean police said they are investigating hip-hop singer MC Mong on suspicion of evading conscription into the military by having his own healthy teeth pulled out. The National Police Agency said the 31-year-old singer would stand trial on charges of dodging the draft by having three healthy teeth extracted by a dentist between 2004 and 2006 in order to fail a physical. [Source: AFP, 17 September 2010]
“Police said the singer — before allegedly sacrificing his teeth — had delayed enlistment five times on various grounds, such as preparation for a civil service exam or an upcoming overseas trip. The singer denies the accusations but was dropped from TV programmes soon after the police probe into the case began.
“Celebrities are frequently caught attempting to evade the draft for fear that they might be forgotten by fans while in uniform. If found guilty, MC Mong may have to serve his time in the military in addition to any court-ordered punishment. A recent legal change made men aged up to 38 eligible for conscription.
South Korea Passes 'BTS Law' Allowing K-Pop Stars to Postpone Military Service
In late 2020, the South Korean Parliament passed 'BTS Law' , allowing K-Pop stars to postpone military service. Heran Mamo wrote in Billboard: “BTS didn't just blaze a trail for emerging K-pop acts, they've inspired South Korea’s Parliament to not stop them in their tracks. Jin, the oldest member of the K-pop boy band, turns 28 on December 4, but the celebration could've marked an end to his career. [Source: Heran Mamo, Billboard, December 1, 2020]
South Korea’s “previous law required all able-bodied men to enlist in the military for approximately 20 months upon turning 28. But three days before Jin's fateful birthday, South Korea's National Assembly passed a revision of the Military Service Act that allows K-pop stars to postpone their military service until they're 30.Lawmakers proposed the revision in September after BTS' first-ever English-language single "Dynamite" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The so-called "BTS Law" buys Jin two more years to perform with BTS during their incredible run.
“The new law allows K-pop entertainers to apply for deferment if they've received government medals for elevating South Korea's cultural influence around the world. All seven members of BTS qualify after being awarded the country's Hwagwan orders of cultural merit from the government in 2018 during the Korean Popular Culture & Arts Awards. For decades, top South Korean athletes who've competed and won medals in the Olympics and Asian Games were temporarily excused from the country's sacred military conscription because they boosted national prestige. Award-winning classical and folk musicians were also given this luxury on the same grounds, but male K-pop stars finally get to join their ranks.
In September 2019, it was announced that BTS members would not be exempted from South Korea’s compulsory military service. Ben Kaye wrote in Consequence of Sound: “A number of BTS fan groups lobbied the government to exempt their beloved idols, but The Hollywood Reporter has official word that no such exception will be made. There is legislation that allows certain individuals to avoid service. In the past, exemptions have been issued for Olympic medalists and other such accomplished international athletes and artists. Since 2009, 178 athletes and 280 artists have been allowed to opt out of serving (via Billboard). However, in the music sphere, only classical artists such as pianists and violinists have historically been eligible for such exclusions. [Source: Ben Kaye, Consequence of Sound September 21, 2019]
“This limitation could be changing, but as a South Korean Ministry of Defense official told THR, there’s currently no timeline. “The Ministry of Defense is currently debating with related authorities on improving the current alternate service [program] in place of conscription, but nothing has been decided as to when a change may take effect,” they said.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021