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South Korea Allows K-Pop Artists To Defer Mandatory Military Service


It's been quite a year for South Korean cultural exports. There's the film "Parasite," which won the Oscars, and then there's boy band BTS topping the Billboard charts with its K-pop music. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the country's government is beginning to see K-pop as a national security asset.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: All South Korean men over age 18 have to perform military service. Qualified classical musicians and star athletes can be exempted from or defer service. And now these guys will be able to defer, too.


BTS: (Singing) Light it up like dynamite. Whoa.

KUHN: That's BTS. This year, they became only the fourth group since The Beatles to simultaneously hold the top two spots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Last year BTS played concerts for 1.6 million fans, grossing nearly $200 million. But until recently, the band was about to lose a key member, 28-year-old Kim Seok-jin.


KIM SEOK-JIN: (Through interpreter) As a South Korean young man, I believe military service is a natural course. And as I have always said, I will answer the country's call whenever it comes.

KUHN: That was Jin, as he's known, at a press conference on the release of their latest album. He and his fresh-faced bandmates command an adoring global following of millions, known simply as the Army. But when it comes to the South Korean army, Jin chooses his words carefully. Any comment that sounds unpatriotic could derail a K-pop star's career. Now Jin has a two-year reprieve from the draft, thanks in part to lawmaker Jeon Yong-gi. He argues that South Korea's 47-year-old Military Service Act was in need of an update.

JEON YONG-GI: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: He says exemptions should be extended to new professions and jobs best done by people in their teens or 20s, and that includes popular artists and cultural figures like BTS.


HALSEY: (Singing) Oh, my, my, my. Oh, my, my, my.

BTS: (Singing) You got me fly so fast. (Singing in Korean).

KUHN: This month Jeon and other lawmakers revised the country's Military Service Act, allowing major pop artists to defer enlistment to age 30. Who is major will be determined by a presidential order. The new rule is about sharing the duty of national defense fairly, explains Lee Geun, president of the Korea Foundation. But he adds it's also about building South Korea's soft power.

LEE GEUN: When foreigners watch BTS performing, they're going to see the innovativeness of Korea. They're going to see how modern the Korean society is. When we are successful in conveying and, you know, creating such images abroad, then the Korean government will have some benefits.

KUHN: The economic payoff is obvious. BTS contributes an estimated $4.7 billion a year to South Korea's economy. That includes boosting exports of products such as food, clothes and cosmetics and drawing hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists to South Korea each year. But it's the soft power, professor Lee argues, that could help South Korea get a seat at the table where the major powers make the rules.

LEE: The future is going to be defined by agenda setting, you know, technological trend, cultural trend. Unless you are a part of that trend and making those trends, your future is going to be made by others.

KUHN: At last month's BTS press conference, Jin said that all band members plan to serve in the military when their enlistment comes due. Until then, they're free to keep on grooving and vibing (ph).


BTS: (Singing) Every day we vibing - mic drop. Bam.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.


BTS: (Singing) It's hella (ph) trophies, and it's hella thick. What you think 'bout (ph) that? What you think 'bout that? I bet it got my haters hella sick. Come and follow me. Follow me with your signs up. I'm so firing, firing. Boy, your time's up.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Our story quoted South Korean lawmaker Jeon Yong-gi as saying draft exemptions should be extended to new professions and jobs best done by people in their teens and 20s. In fact, he said, draft deferments should be extended to them. The new South Korean law does not grant draft exemptions to pop artists.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.