All seven members of BTS, one of the biggest bands in the world, will serve in the military in South Korea, according to their agency, putting an end to a longstanding national discussion about whether they should be exempted.

The band members will each spend nearly two years in the military, contrary to the expectations of many K-pop fans who had hoped they would receive preferential treatment in recognition of their contributions to the South Korean economy and international status.

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As soon as he turns 30 in December, Jin, the group’s eldest member, will be the first to abandon his stage attire in favour of a uniform. According to their management company, Big Hit Music, the remaining six members of the band, who were born between 1993 and 1997, will follow suit. The band is anticipated to reconvene around 2025.

According to a report by the Associated Press, in one recent poll, over 61% of participants favoured exemptions for entertainers like BTS, while in another, roughly 54% believed that BTS members should enlist.

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Technically at war

In order to keep South Korea’s military primed for a potential invasion by North Korea, with which it is still technically at war, all able-bodied men under the age of 30 are required to serve between 18 and 21 months in the military.

The Constitution of South Korea stipulates that “all citizens shall have the duty of national defence.”

Although they are not compelled to serve in the military, women can freely enlist. Any kind of opposition to military duty is prohibited and will result in jail time.

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Prior to the 1976 Summer Olympics, President Park Chung-hee introduced a military service exemption for athletes in 1973 in an effort to boost the nation’s performance and increase the number of medals won.

Some well-known South Koreans, including medalists from the Olympics and Asian Games as well as prize-winning classical musicians and dancers, have been granted exemptions or are permitted to engage in alternative public duty.

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These names include footballer Son Heung-min of Tottenham, a gold medallist at the 2018 Asian Games, and Seong-jin Cho, the first Korean musician to win the International Chopin Piano Competition.

Despite worries that it would lead to allegations of favouritism, especially from other young men who must enlist, several South Korean parliamentarians had expressed support for an exemption.

The military releases those who are exempt from the draught after three weeks of basic training, and they must also put in 544 hours of volunteer service. For 34 months, they continue to work in their respective fields.

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Avoiding conscription

In South Korea, refusing to serve in the military is a crime that can result in imprisonment and social stigma. The actor and singer Steve Yoo learned this the hard way when he was deported and banned from entering the country after he avoided conscription by naturalising as a US citizen in 2002, months before he was scheduled to be drafted. Yoo had avoided conscription by becoming a US citizen.

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Assuring justice in the nation’s military duty, Lee Ki-sik, commissioner of the military manpower administration, told legislators earlier this month that it would be “desirable” for the BTS band members to perform their military obligations.

The enlisters must put their educational or professional pursuits on hold for the 18 to 21 months they are enlisted. It is not acceptable in the country for the wealthy and privileged to avoid military service or use exemptions.