By HYUNG-JIN KIM
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The South Korean military appears to want to enlist members of K-pop supergroup BTS to perform mandatory military duties, as the public remains deeply divided over whether immunity should be granted.
On Oct. 7, Minister of Military Manpower Lee Ki-sik told lawmakers that it was “desirable” for BTS members to perform their military duties to ensure fairness in military service in the country.
Defense Minister Lee Jong-sub made nearly identical comments about BTS at a parliamentary committee meeting, and Culture Minister Park Bo-kyun said his ministry would soon take a stance on the issue.
Whether the band’s seven members must join the military is one of the hottest questions in South Korea, as its eldest member, Jin, may enlist early next year after turning 30 in December.
Under South Korean law, all able-bodied men are required to serve 18-21 months of military service. But the law provides special exemptions for athletes, classical and traditional musicians, ballet and other dancers who have won top prizes in certain competitions that enhance national prestige.
Without changing the law, the government can take steps to grant special exemptions. But past exemptions for people who excel in non-designated competitions have sparked serious debate about the fairness of the system.
As the draft forces young people to suspend their careers or studies, evading military duties or creating immunity is a highly sensitive issue.
In a recent survey, about 61 percent of respondents supported exemptions for entertainers like BTS, while in another survey, about 54 percent said BTS members should serve in the military.
The National Assembly has proposed several draft amendments that would pave the way for BTS members to be exempt, but they have not yet been voted on, and lawmakers are deeply divided on the matter.
Defense Minister Lee Kuan Yew earlier said he had ordered officials to consider a public inquiry to help determine whether to grant BTS an exemption. But the Defense Department later said it would not conduct such an investigation.
In August, Lee said that if BTS members join the military, they may be allowed to continue practicing and join overseas tours with other non-active BTS members.
Those exempt from conscription are released from the military after three weeks of basic training. They must also volunteer 544 hours and continue to serve in their area of expertise for 34 months.