BTS poses at the carpet during arrivals ahead of iHeartRadio Jingle Ball concert at The Forum, in Inglewood, California, US, December 3, 2021.
BTS poses at the carpet during arrivals ahead of iHeartRadio Jingle Ball concert at The Forum, in Inglewood, California, US, December 3, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

A South Korean government minister has called for exempting K-Pop group BTS from mandatory military service, as the nation remains divided over preferential treatment for the megastars.

“It would be a national loss,” Culture Minister Hwang Hee said in a statement Wednesday on making the boy band serve time in the military. It would also be a “cultural loss for mankind” if the singers have to “suspend their activities due to the fulfilment of their military service obligations when their achievements in promoting national prestige and their skills are at their peak.”

BTS, in 2020 became the first Asian group since 1963 to top Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart with their English-language single “Dynamite.” The band’s oldest member Jin, who turns 30 in December, needs to enlist in the military before the end of this year unless a related law is revised to allow for an exemption.

BTS 1-1649069530800
BTS perform onstage during the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 03, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image Credit: AFP

While South Koreans have cheered BTS’ success, military service exemptions are controversial in a country where issues of inequality and privilege dominate the debate. All male citizens aged 18 to 28 are required to serve in the military for about two years to guard against North Korea, which maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies and has never signed a peace treaty with South Korea.

In the past, BTS members have addressed the topic of military service and said they are ready to do their duty when called.

During an April press conference amid their Las Vegas concerts, HYBE CCO Lee Jin-hyung was quoted by news outlet Soompi as saying: “The BTS members have currently left the matter of their military service in the hands of the company. BTS has already conveyed the message multiple times that they will accept the call of duty when the nation calls them, and they have not changed that opinion. However, the policy on military service has changed a little, and as the members are experiencing changes to the Military Service Act that they did not expect, they are currently monitoring the situation while discussing the matter with the company.”

Current laws allow waivers for some elite athletes and classical musicians, but don’t include popular performers. Jin, whose given name is Kim Seok-jin, is 29 and has avoided being conscripted so far because of a 2020 law that allows entertainers who have made “great contributions” in popular culture to delay their mandatory military duty. The six other members are RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook.

Hwang, who will leave the office on May 9 to make way for a new government, urged parliament to swiftly review the current laws to provide legal grounds for BTS members to be exempted from military duty.

Some in South Korea argue the exemptions are unfair to young men who sacrifice two years of their careers and may not have wealth to fall back on.

— With staff inputs