BTS members’ decision to go ahead with their military callup rather than try to evade or defer it brings to mind how two other mega stars in the United States reacted in their time to their own national service obligations.
All seven members of South Korean mega pop band BTS will do their NS. Jin (real name Kim Seokjin) will be the first to start his 18-month stint in December. The other six about to shed their super-cool outfits and fan-killing hairdos for army greys and crew-cuts are RM (Kim Namjoon), J-Hope (Jung Hoseok), Suga (Min Yoongi), V (Kim Taehyung), Jimin (Park Jimin) and Jungkook’s (Jeon Jeongguk).
South Korea does allow exemption but not from basic training. English Premier Leagure team Tottenhan Hotspur forward and national soccer team captain Son Heung-min is one of three known South Korean celebrities who have earned exemption. The other two were pianist Cho Seong-jin and wrestler Yang Jung-mo.
BTS ignited the NS exemption spotlight because of what they have achieved for the country.
In 2018, when BTS became the first K-pop act to top the Billboard 100 chart, lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung started a huge debate. The Straits Times reported: “He argued that ‘there is a problem with fairness’ if someone (who) wins first place in an international classical music competition gets NS exemption but someone who tops the Billboard chart does not.” BTS have generated billions of dollars’ worth of fame and business for the country every year.
South Koreans remain split on this issue. A poll by Gallup Korea in April showed that while 60 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women supported NS exemptions for K-pop stars, opposition was high among men aged 18 to 29, with 40 per cent of them voicing objection.
How did other mega celebrities elsewhere deal with their call-up notices?
H-History online summed it up: “On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong’. On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined US$10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed and returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in the third round. On March 8, 1971, Ali fought Joe Frazier in the ‘Fight of the Century’ and lost after 15 rounds, the first loss of his professional boxing career. On June 28 the same year, the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for evading the draft.” The Vietnam War was a controversial war for Americans. Much more so, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I wonder how many prominent Russians were in the 300,000 he was trying to draft for his special operation, with many reportedly voting with their feet and escaping the callup.
Singer Elvis Presley’s draft relationship with the US army was much less black and white than Ali’s. Presley and his backers and Uncle Sam were trying to get as much as they could out of the superstar’s stint.
The military was not averse to exploiting Presley’s charisma and fame for its own purposes – to glamourise its image and promote whatever part of its world-wide operations it deemed necessary with the singer’s help. It was always in negotiations with Presley and his manager Col Tom Parker. Presley actually ended up enjoying his army exploits and Parker in the end used his ward’s army adventures to soften the attitude of a certain group of Americans who saw Presley as the devil incarnate. Somehow Elvis Presley was transformed into a regular GI Joe. Media shots of him in army uniform became common.
BTS and the ROK Army (Daehanminguk Yuk-gun) may also benefit from each other.
BTS fans will get used to becoming “military wives”, promising to stand by them forever and ever. As someone said, the only thing they may not get used to – the loss of Suga’s long hair – “that tragedy will haunt fans until the end of time”.
With that, I wish all TISG readers Happy Deepavali.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.