BEZAWADA: Military draft should not be requirement

Column: Traipse the Fine Line

When Korean artist BTS dropped its latest album "Map of the Soul: 7" last month, the question was not how its humble beginnings ballooned into its meteoric rise to international record-breaking renown — post it online, and plenty of ARMY’s, their devoted fanbase (including myself), will answer with no prompting whatsoever.

The question is one that has lingered restlessly behind the minds of ARMY’s and industry experts alike.

What will happen when BTS is drafted?

Debate ensued when the Ministry of National Defense of South Korea officially confirmed that the members of BTS must perform their civic duty of mandatory military service in a press conference late 2019. They will join more than 230,000 men between the ages of 18 and 28 whose education or career is interrupted to join the technically active war against North Korea.

Less than 45 men annually qualify for an exemption. Fans and even government officials pleaded for an exemption for BTS, which if granted, would break the long-standing tradition of excluding pop stars from the exemption criteria.

They have good reason to. BTS brings a staggering $3.6 billion in tourism annually, generating sharp rises in stock price whenever a product sponsorship is announced, and is predicted to contribute the equivalent of $49.8 billion over the course of a decade to the Korean economy. 

It is an unprecedented worldwide economic phenomenon dubbed “the BTS effect.” The BTS members also became the youngest recipients of the Order of Cultural Merit, awarded by the President of South Korea to the select, distinct few who successfully spread "hallyu," Korean culture and art, around the world. 

Furthermore, since its high-strung debut seven years ago, BTS have distinguished themselves from other artists in the mainstream by consistently self-producing relatable, trendy music backed by complex, ongoing storylines that delve into mental health and intergenerational misunderstandings, touching lonely young hearts all over the world.

Given the nature of South Korean society to esteem national pride and honor, the sheer impact of the BTS effect should be enough to warrant an exception from compulsory military service. But with the oldest member Kim Seok-Jin turning 28, the last eligible age for enlistment, the looming unease behind BTS’s impending hiatus belies a more serious issue: the conscription itself.

South Korea has been at the forefront of societal upheaval since the Korean War in the 1950s, transforming in less than a century from a war-torn battle zone under foreign dictatorial rule to a highly developed, independent nation boasting the world’s fastest internet and home delivery speeds. Yet, despite these impressive overhauls in infrastructure, South Korea lags severely in social progress compared to other Asian countries. 

Persisting “youth unemployment, economic instability, gender inequality, corruption and social immobility” — unsurprisingly, major themes tackled in BTS’s music — have led to the mounting displeasure that pervades contemporary South Korean society.

The unavoidable military draft is a predominant source of citizens’ reproach. In particular, the exemption of star soccer player Son Heung-min from conscription after his assistance earned his team a gold at the Jakarta Palembang 2018 Asian Games sparked outcry at esoteric standards for impunity that favor feats of athleticism and performance art over other similarly achieving cultural endeavors. Proponents of the required enlistment insist that “it encourages social connection, conformity, hierarchy and a shared sense of national pride.”

The fundamental intention of the mandatory draft is to foster national security and nation-building. It would ideally serve as a “social equalizer,” uniting every individual regardless of his status under the national banner. But many South Koreans feel the current state of the draft is too mired in “national rhetoric and political ideology” and too outdated in its exclusion of women and other underrepresented communities to adequately and objectively address that noble purpose. No nation is united if more than half of its population is left behind.

The minimum length of service used to span two full years, but it has decreased over time due to opposition from citizens, and is scheduled to shrink to 18 months this July. The conditions of training have not changed: “For most, mandatory military service includes five weeks of boot camp, and around two years of mind-numbing battalion boredom, indoctrination and short bouts of intense training.” 

The psychological toll has also not lightened — a Redditor recently admitted to Brown University expressed total shock after being intercepted at the airport, unaware that the unclear guidelines of his dual citizenship mandated service in the South Korean military.

As domestic tensions rise, South Korean citizens are forced to re-evaluate norms historically considered acceptable. On a deeper level, the draft symbolizes the stagnant social progress that prevents marginalized groups from integrating with the rest of the population, and that withholds the entire nation from the increasing global demand for diversity, acceptance and the right to free will. BTS members may be at the precipice of their career, but they are only seven among the many other young men just like them, forced to fight a war they never started, for dreams that were never theirs. 

The draft is not just a South Korean issue — it is a human one.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in marketing and double-minoring in Japanese and digital communications and information media. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs every alternate Wednesday.


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