On Tuesday, a “BTS LAW” made headlines: South Korea’s National Assembly, so impressed by the seven-member K-pop boy band’s global success, allowed its oldest member and my bias, Jin, to delay his military enlistment. In South Korea, all men are conscripted for 20 months and made to serve that time by the time they turn 28. Jin’s birthday is on Friday, but because of changes to existing legislation, he won’t have to go until December 2022.
According to The New York Times, BTS isn’t an exception, but the catalyst for a revised Military Service Act that makes provisions specifically for their industry. K-pop stars will now be allowed to delay their service to age 30, allowing Jin to continue with his group—currently the most popular band on the planet—for two more years. “Under the revised law, K-pop entertainers who have received government medals for helping spread or elevate the country’s cultural influence around the world can apply for deferment of their military service,” The Times reports. “All seven members of BTS meet that requirement. They were awarded the medal in 2018.” BTS inspired the change in the law—but other extremely successful K-pop groups could benefit from it in the future.
It’s big news. In the past, only prestigious athletes have been given such permissions. Only now has K-pop, an 18-year-old phenomenon, received the same treatment, and it took BTS for the law to change. And rightly so: last year, The Hollywood Reporter found that BTS accounts for $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP, which is no doubt a long-tail benefit of 1999's Basic Law for the Promotion of Cultural Industries, which meant one percent of South Korea’s entire state budget would go to the arts, so long as it brought money into the nation. Imagine if the U.S. did the same! Losing BTS would be an economic blow to the entire nation of South Korea.
But beyond the big business of allowing BTS a few more years atop the music industry, the move is a huge symbolic gesture. BTS is so big, they’ve literally altered a law in a conservative nation where mandatory military service is extremely important. And without a doubt, previous K-pop boy bands’ careers have taken a hit thanks to their country’s conscription law. BIGBANG, the second generation K-pop hip-hop boy band some American media anticipated would one day rule our airwaves the way BTS (third generation) has, were crucial to bringing K-pop stateside after forming in 2006. But after a brief hiatus and then mandatory conscription, their popularity waned here, creating space for a new group to captivate. Imagine if they, too, had been allowed a couple extra years to further their platform!
I wonder if, in a few more years time, should another K-pop boy band blow up to the size of BTS (and I hope and expect they would and could), the rule will altered again, pushing back the age requirement even further. At the very least, this news proves that it is possible and that while no South Korean man is above the law and stars will be required to enlist eventually, there are exceptions that validate K-pop’s power.