The mega-popular South Korean pop music band, BTS, has hit the international media again in recent months, although this time for a different reason that sparked controversy. Before long, time would run out for them to finally enlist for military service, which has been compulsory in Korea for all males between the ages of 18 and 35 since 1957.
In a previous note, we reviewed some facts that in the past have caused controversy around Korean cultural industries and their political use. This time, it is a debate that transcended the traditional internal discussions due to BTS’s status as superstars with extreme international exposure and who, in addition, have contributed large sums of money to the South Korean coffers in recent years. But to better understand the background, we must go back to the very origin of the controversy: compulsory military service in South Korea.
The 20th century was a very troubled period in the history of the Korean peninsula. The fall of the last dynasty (Joseon), precipitated by clashes with the West and internal uprisings, was finally sealed in 1910 with a treaty that officially annexed the territory to the Japanese Empire, which was growing in regional power by leaps and bounds. During the Japanese occupation, the Koreans unsuccessfully tried to regain their independence through several revolts that were harshly suppressed. It would not be until the explosion of the two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the official surrender of Japan in World War II that Japanese troops would withdraw from Korean territory, only to be replaced by Soviets (to the north) and Americans (to the north). south) that would plant the seed of ideological division characteristic of the Cold War in Korea. Faced with the impossibility of reaching a joint government agreement, the two sides would proclaim the foundation of different states, giving rise to the war that would break out in 1950 between the two and that would devastate the territory for three years. Without a clear winner, an armistice agreement (ceasefire) would be reached that lasts until today, not having achieved a peace treaty that would grant an official end to the conflict. That is, the nations are still technically at war. But that is not all: during the first decades after the division, the fear in the south of an imminent “communist” invasion was so great (and so, in turn, strategically incentivized by their authoritarian governments) that the persecutions of all those even suspected of sympathizing with the north were brutal. The military presence became overwhelming at least until 1988, when democracy returned.
As a remnant of almost an entire century plagued by struggles and dictatorships, military service must be completed by every South Korean male, with the exception of those who are unable to do so due to duly justified health issues. It is a minimum of between 18 and 21 months, and although the period to do it seems wide, the truth is that Korean society as a whole expects young people to enlist as soon as possible and not try to rush forward the obligation . If this happens, the interpretation is plain and simple that they are wanting to evade responsibility for the country as a whole.
Here then a determining cultural aspect comes into play. The Joseon dynasty (yes, the same one that ended up falling in 1910) had initially established Neo-Confucianism as the state philosophy. Confucianism, a philosophy originating in China, already stood out for emphasizing the collective, the hierarchical and the male for the correct ordering of society, but with the contribution of other currents such as Buddhism and Taoism, this new trend -identified with the prefix “neo”- that, in the Korean case, further rigidified rituals, hierarchies and the roles of each person in the population. For this reason, military service in South Korea is not just one activity to be carried out among many others: it is a moral obligation before the group (the State, the family, society) and a kind of rite of passage for young people.
Regina Jung: “Through faith we are all brothers, it doesn’t matter if we are Korean or Argentine”
This organization that remained almost untouchable for decades, however, has begun to show signs of cracking. The return to democracy at the end of the ’80s, the opening to investments and exchanges in the ’90s, economic growth, the commitment to information technology infrastructure and the consequent generation of new cultural content transformed the South Korea with a “war” image in a fresh and avant-garde Korea, in tune with fashion trends, modernity and lifestyle appreciated in the West. Soap operas and movies laid the foundations for the so-called “Korean wave” (hallyuthe expansion of the cultural industries of that country), to later give way to pop music or k pop which today is the workhorse of its cultural products. And within music, the emergence of BTS in 2013 was decisive for sustained growth.
“The military presence became overwhelming at least until 1988, when democracy returned”
Prior to this global explosion of Korean culture, there was no need for debates about compulsory military service. However, little by little some exceptions began to arise for artists or athletes who had contributed to the promotion or to raise the image of Korea in the world. Such was the case for English Tottenham footballer Son Heung-min, who met all the formal requirements for an exemption by winning the 2018 Asian Games final against Japan. This privilege, although not total, represented a significant reduction (from the original 21 months of service to three weeks), thus allowing her to continue his career. Other cases were more controversial: in 2002, pop singer Yoo Seung-jun became a naturalized American just before being recruited, a fact for which was considered a deserter, unable to return to Korea ever since.
BTS’s case in recent weeks has brought discussions about military service to a head. The group would have more than qualified, not only because of Korea’s global exposure thanks to them, but also because of the total economic value they generated in related industries which, in 2018, the Hyundai Research Institute estimated at $3.6 billion annually. So why, after several debates, has the government not granted exemptions yet? Is it perhaps because it is popular culture? (which would mean that the contrast between what is considered “high culture” and “low culture” is still valid). This situation, at least, opens a new edge in the question: what is the rod to take into account to achieve the exemption?
Despite the twists and turns of the government, the pleas of fans around the world and Big Hit’s own lobby (the talent agency that created the band), the members of BTS decided to move away from the controversy and do what they wanted. indicates the social mandate: they have already announced that they will enlist, starting with Jin, the oldest member of the gang. It is precisely the latter who, coinciding with his imminent departure at his service, also reinforced his solo side by accompanying one of the massive Coldplay concerts in Argentina. “I need a song to say goodbye to everyone for a while, to tell them that I love them,” said Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, quoting Jin himself just before he appeared on stage.
And so, on October 28, Buenos Aires vibrated to the rhythm of “The Astronaut”, Jin’s song whose first sentence already anticipates the farewell: “You and me, a story that will never end.”