Enlistment of the world-renowned artists has prompted a domestic debate over whether it is time to revise the country’s conscription system to expand exemptions.
Jin, the oldest member of K-pop group BTS, has started his 18 months of mandatory military service at a frontline South Korean boot camp, as fans gathered near the base to say goodbye to their star.
Six other younger BTS members are to join the military one after another in the coming years, meaning that the world's biggest boy band must take a hiatus, likely for a few years.
Their enlistments have prompted a fierce domestic debate over whether it’s time to revise the country’s conscription system to expand exemptions to include prominent entertainers like BTS, or not to provide such benefits to anyone.
With lawmakers squabbling in parliament, and surveys showing sharply split public opinions over offering exemptions to BTS members, their management agency announced in October that all BTS members would perform their compulsory military duties.
Big Hit Music said that both the company and the members of BTS "are looking forward to reconvening as a group again around 2025 following their service commitment."
Jin, who turned 30 earlier this month, entered the boot camp at Yeoncheon, a town near the tense border with North Korea, for five weeks of basic military training together with other new conscript soldiers, the Defense Ministry said.
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Fans, Mixed emotions
After the training involving rifle-shooting, grenade-throwing and marching practices, he and other conscripts would be assigned to army units across the country.
About 20-30 fans — some holding Jin's photos — and dozens of journalists gathered near the camp. But Jin didn't meet them as a vehicle carrying him moved into the boot camp without getting him out.
"I want to wait for Jin and see him go into the military and wish him all the best," Mandy Lee from Hong Kong said before Jin’s entrance to the camp.
"Actually, it’s complicated. I wanna be sad. I wanna be happy for him," said Angelina from Indonesia.
A couple of dozen fans could be seen as a small turnout given Jin's huge popularity. But Jin and his management agency had earlier asked fans not to visit the site, and notified them there wouldn't be any special event involving the singer, in order to prevent any issue caused by crowding.
A verified Twitter account posted a photo of Jin with other BTS members, as they bid their goodbye before his training.
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우리 형 !! 잘 다녀와요!! 💜러뷰💜 pic.twitter.com/ZP6yryv2qe— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) December 13, 2022
Authorities still mobilised 300 police officers, soldiers, emergency workers and others to maintain order and guard against any accidents, according to the army. Strict safety steps were expected as South Korea is still reeling from the devastating Halloween crush in October in Seoul that killed 158 people.
Hours before entering the camp, Jin — whose real name is Kim Seok-jin — wrote on the on the online fan platform Weverse that “It’s time for a curtain call."
No military exemption for K-pop stars
By law, all able-bodied South Korean men must serve in the military for 18-21 months under a conscription system established to deal with threats from North Korea. But the law gives special exemptions to athletes, classical and traditional musicians, and ballet and other dancers if they have won top prizes in certain competitions and enhance national prestige.
Exemptions or dodging of duties is a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, where the draft forces young men to suspend their studies or professional careers.
Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and Lee Ki Sik, head of South Korea’s enlistment office, previously said it would be “desirable” for BTS members to fulfill their military duties to ensure fairness in the country’s military service.
Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general who commanded South Korea’s special forces, said the government must move to repeal any exemptions as the military’s shrinking recruitment pool is "a very serious" problem amid the country’s declining fertility rate.
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