Some twenty years ago a friend of my mother's saw her son off to carry out his military service. In my mother's retelling of the story, this son had always been rather sickly and introverted, and her friend was worried to death about how he would cope with the rigors of life as a conscript.
A few months later, my mother met her, and apparently all the worries had melted away. "My son looks healthy and brown from all the sun. It's true what that say: joining the military really made a man out of him."
It's an old Korean adage that doing military service—required of all South Korean males meeting the physical requirements—completes one's manhood.
But lately inside the country many young men aren't so happy about having to sacrifice nearly two years of their life to this end. "I cannot believe I have to put up with this bullshit," bemoaned a young South Korean acquaintance in his twenties when I broached the subject just a few weeks ago.
It's telling of that sentiment that the news this month about a possible military service exemption for the K-pop group BTS has been met with anger from other young men.
"Men in their twenties and thirties have flipped out," wrote the business daily Hanguk Kyeongje Sinmun. A conservative Christian paper Kukmin Ilbo quoted a member of the soon-to-be ruling People Power Party's youth wing as saying that "it will be indescribable—the disappointment young men who already served in the military will feel if BTS is given an exemption."
Less than eager to put in their own dues, they struggle to see how others their age might be able to shirk off this highly unpopular obligation. And their opposition to what's now widely being called the "BTS exception" is in no small part a product of South Korea's historic attitude toward draft dodgers and others who don't qualify.
Under the rationale that North Korea poses an imminent threat, South Korea has long heaped strong disapproval on men who don't serve in active duty. Those two years in the military are not infrequently equated to a sign of virility. The state also allowed those who completed the service to receive extra points when going through a formal hiring process for jobs. Only in 1999 was the law allowing this benefit ruled unconstitutional, and the bonus point system was finally abolished in 2001.
Still, the government maintains a public database of draft dodgers (available for anyone to search using names or other identifying information). And the contempt for those men who don't serve is exacerbated by the contemporary emphasis on fairness, i.e. that everyone should be treated the same, and that any exception undermines an equal playing field.
In a recent article by the British paper Guardian about the talk of BTS getting an exemption, a 32-year-old office worker said that all South Korean males "have a duty to fulfil their national defence obligations" [sic]. In making that remark, he represented the traditional opinion that a man who skips service, legally or otherwise, isn't doing right by the country.
Unofficially, though, the negativity is compounded by another feeling: the distaste many young men experience at having to play soldier themselves.
A survey of adults over the age of 17 last summer indicated that 83 percent thought "military service is a duty" but 66 percent also saw it as a "sacrifice demanded of individuals by the state".
Those in their twenties were far less thrilled. 82 percent of them replied that "military service is a sacrifice unilaterally demanded by the state of individuals." And more than 60 percent of that same group believed "there are more drawbacks than advantages to doing military service" and "military service is a waste of time".
Compounding the dismissiveness is the South Korean military's own flawed reputation, which discourages young men from looking forward to their time as soldiers. It's suffered a never-ending series of scandals involving bullying, suicide, sexual harassment and coverups. Inadequate food often makes the news.
Predictably, a promotional video last November by the government to talk up the benefits of doing time as a soldier invited a major backlash.
"I should at least do my military service if I am to be able to go somewhere and say proudly that I am a man," an actor playing a soldier in active duty told his two male friends over a meal.
The video proved to be controversial, attracting so many putdowns that it was deleted from YouTube by the Military Manpower Administration, which oversees recruitment of soldiers and had posted it. Critics took exception to the idea that military service should be integral to a man's identity. And the video's implicit suggestion that men who don't perform active-duty service aren't real men stoked outrage.
But the most liked comment on it was revealing: it countered the adage about the military making a man out of you with another common South Korean saying: "If you can skip military service, skip it." Another put it more plainly, "In summary, they just want yet more slaves."
Given their commercial and musical successes, not to mention the recognition they have brought to South Korea, BTS would be fitting candidates for a special dispensation allowing them to continue their careers uninterrupted.
The legislature including opposition lawmakers in fact has shown signs of working toward it since last year, and the outgoing government of president Moon Jae-in, who appointed BTS his special envoys, is reportedly also in favor.
South Korea already grants such exemptions to athletes and artists who win prizes in specific competitions on the ground that they are elevating the country's standing; the lawmakers could simply change the law to allow pop stars to benefit. A poll conducted by Gallup Korea earlier this month shows that public support for the proposal is considerable at 59 percent.
Yet a number of developments have coincided to create the impression that BTS's management agency HYBE is all too eager to keep its members working.
An Cheol-soo, chairman of the presidential transition committee, visited the group's management agency HYBE on Apr. 2. He didn't express any personal view on the matter but said that "the matter is for the incoming government to discuss with the National Assembly and decide together," making some wonder if the company asked him to intervene.
Then on Apr. 9 HYBE's chief communication officer Lee Jin-hyung told the international press that "while the BTS members have not wavered in their position that they will answer the country's call of duty" it would be "good if the discussion about their military service could be resolved during the current session of the National Assembly."
Jin, the oldest member of the group, is turning 30 in December, and after that he cannot delay enlistment any longer.
HYBE may have trouble getting its artists out of military service given the suspicion that South Korea's conscription system is tilted in favor of the rich and the powerful.
Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong and his cousin Chung Yong-jin who leads the retail giant Shinsegye Group both reportedly won exemptions on health grounds. High-profile politicians and their children are also often found to have been given ways out of serving, including the incoming president Yoon Suk-yeol.
South Korea is also recording an alarmingly low birthrate, and its population is rapidly aging. The pool of men who could be mobilized in times of war is dramatically shrinking as a result, from 8.347 million in 2012 to 7.512 million in 2020, and the number of young men undergoing physical exams for potential military service is dropping just as quickly.
As if compensating for the lack, far more men than in the past are being pronounced fit for duty. The state-funded media Yonhap News reported in 2014 that the percentage of conscripts passing the physical exams rose from 51 percent in 1986 to 72 percent in 1993, 86 percent in 2003, and a whopping 91 percent in 2013. More recently in 2020 that figure was 82.2 percent.
Using that data, some men have taken to the internet to protest, perhaps falsely, that the South Korean military ensnares a larger portion of men as conscripts than Japan and Germany did during the Second World War. They see the situation as one of indiscriminate and arbitrary recruitment that ignores soldiers' health conditions, even as others from more privileged backgrounds aren't being called to do their dues.
Against this backdrop, the question being asked today is this: is it fair for BTS to get out of military service for their contributions to the nation, or should this be seen as just another example that conscription, which many South Korean men detest, disadvantages only those who have no money and connection?