The triumph of Korea’s soccer and baseball teams at their year’s Asian Games ignited celebrations across the nation. However, the teams’ win also sparked something else: debate.
The days following South Korea’s national soccer and baseball teams won gold and getting a military exemption have not been quiet by any means. With their win, more than two dozen athletes secured freedom from South Korea’s mandatory conscription.
The Blue House grants athletes who compete in the Olympics or the Asian Games and secure a gold medal or if a team reaches the World Cup semi-finals military exemptions. For these sports professionals, although these competitions are stressful, it can also be a gold mine. Not only can they prove their skills as athletes while promoting South Korea and obtaining the golden ticket that would allow them to play in their field uninterrupted.
Given that the career duration of athletes is directly correlated to their physicality, having two years of their performance years taken away is detrimental. As such, it should come as no surprise that winning at these competitions has become a goal for many.
However, some have questioned whether athletes (and some classical musicians) should be the only one eligible to get such a perk. While these athletes have helped raise Korea’s international reputation, they are not the only ones. In fact, there is a massive segment of the entertainment world that is arguably an even stronger force for the spread of Korean culture around the globe: K-pop.
The Hallyu Wave
The Hallyu Wave, the term used to describe the export (possibly neo-cultural colonialism, but that is debatable) of popular Korean culture across the globe, is and has been the single most influential force in the popularization and growing fascination with South Korea. Two specific elements power this cultural influential: music and media (entertainment, dramas, movies); sports takes a much smaller piece of the pie.
As a result, some top-level officials have said that it might be time to consider giving military exemptions to those who present a positive image of South Korea to the rest of the world. In particular, K-pop idols. As far as I have seen, there has been no talk regarding actors who star in international films or movies that have made it to foreign film festivals and shows that have a global audience.
This week industry insiders and government officials gathered to share their opinions on alternative military service of stars from the entertainment industry. On September 4, the president’s office of civil affairs announced that they would be meeting with representatives (link in Korean) from major agencies and the Korea Management Association.
The companies represented at the meeting included SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, FNC Entertainment, and Jellyfish Entertainment. Reportedly, the government contacted other representative agencies, but only the ones listed above participated. Some boy groups housed at these companies that have not entered the military yet include EXO, NCT, WINNER, iKON, GOT7, DAY6, and VIXX. An official at the event said that the different agencies approached the meeting with “one voice” to express a “need for change” and “present feasible alternatives and benchmarks based on current laws.”
At the meeting, there were discussions on creating objective criteria for the inclusion of art and sports personnel as well as asking celebrities to delay their military service to the maximum extent allowed by law. In particular, if stars have notable performances in global award ceremonies and appear on international charts, they will benefit from earning a certain level of cumulative points by converting them into scores.
The Slippery Slope
I think that finding ways for groups to perform longer is…nice, but at the end of the day, the companies that joined the meeting will profit from having their idol groups not serve in the military. So let’s not pretend that this is for any other higher reason than to further line their pockets. Not only that, but any change in the law such as was suggest above, benefit big groups who may not have outstanding or revolutionary music, but enormous fandoms.
This is the slippery slope. Say for example BTS is granted an alternative to military service due to their (fans) work to have them injected into the western music market including getting them on Billboards Hot 200 and generating enough hype that they also had the opportunity to perform at different award shows in the U.S.
At that point, fans of other groups will try to obtain the same results with many aiming to manipulate results through purposeful streaming and aggressive social media campaigns to artificially inflate the popularity of their favorite artists to get them out of traditional military service. They will want to get them on Billboard, and on U.S. media shows, and hold concerts in the west. However, in doing so, these fans will have made a direct attempt to manipulate the U.S. music industry, which is the largest music market in the world.
I have a feeling that as both artists and official in the U.S. begin to see this take place, the result will not be pretty and will end up affecting K-pop and its ability to come to the U.S. permanently.
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