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South Korea just changed a longstanding military law for the sake of BTS

BTS’s success has won the male K-pop idols a reprieve from South Korea’s mandatory military assignment.

Members of BTS attend a press conference for the release of the group’s new album, BE, on November 20, 2020.
JTBC PLUS/Imazins via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Just one day after BTS made Billboard chart history (for the nth time), the South Korean government made a little history of its own. On December 1, the National Assembly changed a longstanding law concerning compulsory military service in order to allow a brief respite for artists and entertainers who’ve elevated the nation’s global reputation — including, of course, BTS.

The law previously required all male South Korean citizens to complete about two years of military service by age 30, meaning they had to enroll by the time they turned 28. Now eligible idols and other artists may defer the beginning of their service until they’re 30, pushing their enrollment deadline back by two years. The change arrives just in time to exempt the band’s oldest member, Kim Seok-jin (a.k.a. Jin), from having to enlist when he turns 28 on December 4. The timing also coincides with BTS setting a new record in the US music industry.

On November 30, BTS became the first band in history to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a song sung primarily in Korean: “Life Goes On,” the second chart-topping single from the group’s new pandemic-themed album Be. (The first was the English-language track “Dynamite,” which debuted at No. 1 in August.) The band also broke a slew of other records at the same time, including the fastest accumulation of three No. 1 songs on the Hot 100 since the Bee Gees accomplished that feat in 1978.

Exemptions to the Korean mandated military service law already existed for athletes, entertainers, and other public figures, but those exemptions from active service still require those who qualify for them to complete a term of military training. The new law allows eligible artists to defer their conscription for an additional two years, effectively giving K-pop band members like Jin and many other idols a grace period before they have to enlist.

Korea’s military service requirement has long loomed over the country’s pop idol industry, with many successful bands seeing members enlist for their service period during the height of their success. Bands with many members can afford to lose one or two to the draft without losing momentum, but the requirement can be disruptive. Four members of the wildly popular band EXO, for example, have had to enroll, and though they — along with many other idols — could be released from service within the next year or two, the timeline isn’t hard and fast, and the uncertainty of a discharge date means it’s not exactly easy to plan a comeback tour. (Unfortunately, the law doesn’t appear to be retroactive, so those idols currently serving their time probably won’t get a sudden reprieve.)

Media reports have framed the new legal exemption as one made for BTS specifically as a result, but it’s probably more accurate to say that the change is a respite for Korea itself. As of 2019, BTS reportedly contributed a staggering $4.7 billion to the national economy. The group’s massive fandom famously shows its love for the band through highly organized mass shows of consumerism, which are aimed at helping the band break more records, push more sales, and land ever higher on the charts. That mighty fandom machine has been in place for years, but it seemed to reach critical mass in 2020, propelling BTS toward a steady string of global chart-toppers.

During a highly unusual year for entertainment, BTS has amassed a nearly unreal set of achievements — this year alone, the group broke the record for the most-viewed YouTube video in 24 hours, joined Taylor Swift as one of only two artists to simultaneously debut an album and a single at the top of the Billboard charts, and became the most-streamed group of 2020 on Spotify. In Korea, BTS broke a 30-year-old record for the most music award show wins in a single year, putting the group literally in a class by itself.

Much of this success has come from a single song. The commercial success of “Dynamite” alone has pumped an estimated $1.4 billion into the Korean economy — enough money to create roughly 8,000 new jobs. When the band debuted the song at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in August (before promptly going on to repeat that feat two more times, no big deal), Korean president Moon Jae-in issued a public statement congratulating the band and thanking BTS for spreading hope during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The band’s Hot 100 achievement, Moon said, “is a splendid feat that further raises pride in K-pop.”

It was the international popularity of BTS, particularly “Dynamite,” that ultimately prompted Korean lawmakers to introduce the bill, which essentially carves an idol-shaped exemption in the Military Service Act. In October, ruling party member Noh Woong-rae pushed the legislation forward on behalf of the band, arguing that its members should be allowed to serve the nation in other ways to meet its service requirements. And those who have advocated in the past for changing this law have frequently cited BTS in their arguments. “I think that members of BTS should also get the exemption,” speedskater Song Kyung-taek told the New York Times in 2018 when discussing the draft. “When South Koreans go abroad, we can mention BTS to explain where we come from.”