Putting the Best Art Forward: the Power of Art Over Military Conscription in the Republic of Korea

BTS 13

How can art protect a nation? 

The Republic of Korea’s Military Service Act [1] stipulates that once men turn eighteen, they have roughly ten years to complete their approximately two-year service requirement. Contingent on circumstances, some men are exempt from service: the disabled and physically unwell, the incarcerated, internationally-renowned athletes and musicians, and, formerly, individuals suspected of gang activity.  However, due to declining birth rates, Korean officials have grown increasingly resistant to such exemptions; rather, they feel compelled to enlist as many young recruits as possible. Somewhat expectedly, this aim has generated much controversy—from immediately-affected Korean men,  and international music fans alike. 

The Korean government’s 2019 decision to deny pop superstars BTS’ exemption request inspired large-scale debates surrounding the efficacy of the statute itself, which resurfaced in parliament as well in September [2]. For international reputation is no longer determined solely by martial prowess, national identity is no longer solely formed through military strength, and international competition no longer manifests as battles for resource and territorial acquisition. Arguably instigated by the Cold War, contemporary conflicts are equally as athletic, intellectual, and cultural as they are armed. 

The government of the Republic of Korea made a clear step by even providing this exemption, recognizing that artists and athletes represent their nations on the international stage. This comes with a recognition that wars are not just literal battles the way they once were; the representatives of the Republic of Korea in these international competitions gain recognition not only for their own accomplishments, but recognition for the environment that nurtured their skill. Crafting a national identity for the Republic of Korea abroad—through these successful representatives—is key to maintaining peace and establishing the country as a powerful member of the global community. 

Diverging from Cold War precedents, the Republic of Korea has taken serious heart to nurturing the arts, rather than athletics or science alone. Recognizing the crucial role of art in connecting communities and uplifting marginalized voices, the Act for Cultural Diversity and the Arts [3] dedicates resources to diversity initiatives and arts education. This early investment, in theory, may create even more exemptions from military service in the future. But it is crucial to note that the denial of BTS’ exemption is emblematic of the struggle the Republic of Korea is facing, having to consider the representative value of arts that do not compete in direct, formalized arenas with other nations.

Though exceptional classical musicians, dancers, and athletes are given exemption status for partaking in and winning international contests (similar in status to the Olympics and Asian Games), pop musicians are not privy to exemption. The Republic of Korea applies a strict valuation system to their exemption considerations, which calls into question how we should value art. If we value art on the ‘high’ versus ‘low’ [4] art scale, we fall into familiar traps of elitism. Whereas classical music and formal artistic training are privileges few can enjoy—even with government-funded initiatives—‘low’ arts like K-pop and other popular arts can be enjoyed by the masses. Beyond egalitarianism and accessibility, this broad-based appeal translates to economic value. For instance, BTS, is currently one of the highest-earning boy bands in the world, and proponents for the group’s military service exemption emphasize the group’s national revenue generation. But is evaluating art for its economic utility a useful determination of its worth, or actually devaluing its impact on culture and society? Can these contributions truly be measured against one another? 

One thing is certain: these questions cannot be answered by the Republic of Korea in a single hearing, nor without the input of everyone impacted by the Military Service Act (including the nation’s citizens). In granting these exemptions for artistic contributions, the nation takes a step further than many peer nations like the US have. Not only is the Republic of Korea ushering in new imaginations of peacekeeping, the struggle to determine who can be a representative of the Republic of Korea to the world highlights important trends in art valuation and cultural diversity. 

Works Cited

[1] Korea, Republic of. 2011. MILITARY SERVICE ACT. September 15. https://elaw.klri.re.kr/eng_service/lawView.do?hseq=25744&lang=ENG.

[2] Si-young, Choi. 2020. [Weekender] Should BTS get military exemption? October 10. Accessed November 2020. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20201008000983.

[3]Korea, Republic of. 2017. SUPPORT FOR ARTS AND CULTURE EDUCATION ACT. November 13. https://elaw.klri.re.kr/kor_service/lawView.do?hseq=42722&lang=ENG.

[4] Plescher, Matt. 2013. High and low art. October 3. https://www.therapidian.org/high-and-low-art.