All stars are aligning for Korean boy band BTS. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – It’s good to be BTS. Not only did the K-Pop band’s new single top the Billboard chart this week but their oldest member has also been granted a reprieve from military service.

On Monday, “Life Goes On,” the lead track of the band’s new album “Be” debuted at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. On Tuesday, a legal revision passed by the National Assembly permits those who “excel in popular culture and art” – including K-pop stars – to defer their terms of service until the age of 30.

The timing of the decision is critical for BTS and the investors behind the band.

The oldest member of the Bangtan Boys, Jin – birth name, Kim Seok-jin, turns 30 on December 4. Under national draft regulations – absent yesterday’s legal revision – Jin would have been required to report to boot camp no later than December 31.

Though BTS’ label, Big Hit Entertainment, had no comment, it is obviously excellent news for the band and their fans, the so-called ARMY.

The decision was no surprise.

Given the centrality of BTS to Korea’s global cultural exports, the issue had been debated for months and the possibility of extending draft deferments – which had applied to classical and folk musicians – had been raised in the National Assembly in September.

But military service is not popular, and exemptions – usually by the children of prominent government or business elites – are red hot political potatoes.

Hence, it raises questions as to whether the government is favoring BTS and its label, which IPOed in October – and whether K-popsters should be granted preferential treatment when it comes to unpopular military service obligations.

Favoritism toward BTS?

Fans were over the moon.

“Yo yo yo! The New BTS law is passed in S Korea. Which means Jin’s military service is postponed until he is 30. ARMY REJOICE!” tweeted one fan. He added, “Imagine amending the law for this one special person.”

Lee Gyu-tak, who follows Korean pop culture at George Mason University, said he was “pleased” at the decision, which he said should extend beyond that one special person, to include other acts.

“I think it is good and will be helpful for others who can contribute to the national brand,” he told Asia Times.

While the draft deferment may disgruntle some young men who are not fortunate enough to be members of a hit K-pop band, it is in full synch with trends current in Korean society, said one expert as he commented on the National Assembly decision.

BTS performs during the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP

“I think this is a case of they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they apply the law logically to everyone without exception, they are almost shooting themselves in the foot given the soft power and economic hard power BTS brings,” David Tizzard, an assistant professor of Korean Studies at Seoul’s Sookmyung Women’s University, told Asia Times.

While Koreans have enjoyed comfortable levels of economic prosperity since the 1980s and the nation is currently the 12th richest on earth, soft power is a more recent arrow in the national quiver.

Only since the end of the 1990s has national visibility soared on the back of, not just the industrial exports of yore, but the glittering cultural exports of Hallyu, or “The Korean Wave.”

BTS’ rise on the global stage marks the highest peak that the Korean Wave has ever crested.

“The law does have to stay up to date with the times, and the times are all about South Korea’s soft power,” Tizzard said. “If the laws reflect that, it is understandable.”

Favoritism toward Big Hit?

The news is also likely to have generated sighs of relief in the C-suite of Big Hit, which publically listed on the stock market with a value of 8.7 trillion won ($7.8 billion) on October 15.  

That means that the label now has a two-year window to find or incubate another hit band or bands to rival BTS, which was responsible for a whopping 97.4% of Big Hit’s revenues last year.

However, that raises another equality question – not of individual fairness, but corporate favors.

The law was not altered until Jin’s birthday was approaching. Other K-pop stars with competing labels, such as Rain, G-Dragon and members of Big Bang, did not benefit. The new law was proposed by an assemblyman of President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea which holds an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

So is favoritism at work?

A man walks past posters of K-pop group BTS in Seoul. Few acts in the world have curated their fan base – the “ARMY” – as professionally as BTS and their management. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

“I would suggest that Moon and his administration have done everything in their power to align with BTS – he has had photo ops with them and tweeted about them – but he has not done that with Black Pink and other K-pop groups,” said Tizzard, who notes that “image politics,” as it relates to Moon, is an online buzzword at present. “Whether the economic implications have been considered – well, that requires serious research.”

Big Hit stock opened at 258,000 won (US$233.9) on the day of its IPO but has been in decline post-listing. It hit a five-day high of 182,000 won ($165) on Tuesday and climbed further to 183,000 won ($165.9) on Wednesday, according to KOSPI data.

Lee warned that the government needs to be entirely transparent with the necessary conditions for the deferment.

“It is a very sensitive issue – how and who can judge whether someone is a big enough star to get that benefit from the government,” he said. “It may be necessary to make clear the criteria.”

Military manpower

Active service troops are not permitted to comment on political matters, but one retired general told Asia Times that the decision “does not make me happy.”

“I always tell my compatriots of Elvis Presley, and how he served as a US armor soldier, so I think that any exception is not right,” Chun In-bum, who formerly headed the Special Warfare Command, told Asia Times.

“On the other hand, it is not an exemption, this is just a delay, and for these men to go into the military at the age of 30, that will be a burden,” he said.

Currently, some people – for example, those studying for PhDs – are able to defer their service to the age of 30 or more, Chun noted.

What makes the National Assembly’s manpower decision of broad significance is the weighty backdrop of the state of national defense.

While it seeks to deter the threat posed by one of the world’s largest standing armies just north of the DMZ, South Korea’s  599,000-strong military is being inexorably starved of numbers given a fast-silvering populace.

South Korean infantry aim their weapons during a search exercise northeast of Seoul. Photo: AFP

Currently, Seoul is on a massive spending spree, as it seeks to upgrade a range of assets – notably command, communication and surveillance technologies – in order to meet the US-set conditions for a return of wartime operational control of its own military from American to local control.

It is widely believed in South Korea that Moon wants this to be achieved before he ends his presidential term in 2022.

But Chun reckons that some problems cannot be solved by technology.

“We have known of the [demographic] issue for two decades so we have looked into a smarter military with better and more high-tech weaponry, but my gut feeling is that you can never put in money or technology to solve a human problem,” the former general said.

“We Koreans need to keep that in mind and make the right kinds of adjustments – I mean, a mix of a volunteer military and maintaining the conscript system we have right now.”