SEOUL, South Korea – Boy band BTS hit the top of the charts not long after Son Heung-min and his South Korean soccer team stepped atop the Asian Games podium.
The performers and athletes brought plenty of acclaim to the country, but it has sparked a national debate on military service.
Son Heung-min, who plays for Tottenham in the English Premier League and is the country’s most recognizable sports star, helped his team win a gold medal at the Asian Games. All players on the squad were rewarded for it by getting exemptions from 21 months of military service that South Korean men must start by the time they are 28.
A total of 42 athletes won military exemption by winning gold medals in various sports in Indonesia. The government offers the same incentive for any athlete who wins a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The rules that came into effect in 1973, giving military exemptions to successful athletes or classical musicians or ballet dancers who win certain local and international events, but there is nothing for pop stars who gain international fame.
BTS fans have launched a number of online petitions to support their group but in South Korea as a whole, opinion on the wider issue, always sensitive in a country that is still technically at war with North Korea, is mixed. A July poll on increasing exemptions for athletes found 48 percent of 500 respondents in favor with 44 percent seeing it as excessive.
Regardless, the existing guidelines proved to be such a valuable lure that Son gambled on taking a short break from his Premier League duties in order to fly to Jakarta for the continental event. Now the 26 year-old forward can return to Europe and continue the lucrative five-year contract without the prospect of a long break for military service hanging over him.
Goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo had already registered to start his service with army team Sangju Sangmu in December but the reprieve means that the 26 year-old can follow his dream and play overseas.
“I know that fans expect me to go to play in Europe and I will try my best to show that I am good enough,” Cho said.
Being on top of your game in the international arena doesn’t give pop stars a break from the military service. Just three days after the soccer team won at the Asian Games, BTS became just one of a select few artists to achieve a second No. 1 on the Billboard Artist 10 0 charts in the same year.
South Korea president Moon Jae-in congratulated the band on social media by posting: “Huge congratulations to BTS on topping the billboard 200 for the second time!”
Despite the accolades, the seven members of the group will all have to report for duty in the coming years, just as other performers from other popular bands such as Big Bang have in the past.
In July, opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung questioned how the exemptions were granted.
“The general public, including young people, wonder what makes topping the Billboard chart different from winning in other international competitions?” Ha asked.
“Winning the former is likely to create bigger added value. But there is no mention of popular culture on the list,” Ha added, also mentioning the global success of PSY and his hit song “Gangnam Style” that broke records in 2012 for views on YouTube.
Other options have been mooted. Sookmyung Women’s University professor Hong Sung-soo suggested that postponements of military service may be fairer than exemption.
“Offering a long deferment until the age of 35 or 40 and having (the athletes) complete their service after that could be a way of allowing them to serve society with the thing they are truly good at,” Hong wrote in a national newspaper.
Korean Olympic Committee president Lee Kee-heung said at the end of the Asian Games that a points system, with credit accrued over time, may be preferable to the existing rule, which rewards medalists from the Olympics and champions from the Asian Games.
“I have thought about a system benefiting athletes who acquire a lot of ‘mileage’ with performances in the Olympics, Asian Games, and world championships,” Lee said.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon chaired a cabinet committee earlier this week to look at reducing the period of military service from 21 months to 18 and the size of the army to 500,000, down from 618,000. He also instructed it to review the system of exemption.
At the moment, however, Son Heung-min is preparing to head back to the highest levels of world soccer to continue his career while the clock is ticking for BTS.