By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) -- The head of South Korea's military manpower agency stressed the need to take the principle of "fairness" into account in handling the socially controversial issue of whether BTS members should be drafted or given exemptions of the nation's mandatory active-duty military service.
Lee Ki-sik, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration (MMA), also placed an emphasis on "social consensus" on the matter, speaking in an interview with Yonhap News Agency last week.
"Military service is a constitutional duty (in South Korea) that should be applied to all people with fairness and equality. That is an unchangeable principle," he emphasized.
Whether the seven members of the K-pop sensation should serve in the military, like most of South Korean men in their 20s, is a hot-button issue. All able-bodied men are obliged to complete about 18 months of military service between the ages 18 and 28 under the Constitution of the nation confronted with nuclear-armed North Korea across the border.
Few would deny that the globally-renowned BTS has made huge contributions to the country's culture and economy with potential to do more, going forward. At issue is whether its members are eligible for being allowed to avoid the draft.
They have already benefited from a 2020 revision law on giving them a choice to delay their conscription until the age of 30 for winning a high-profile culture-related medal of honor.
However, BTS's oldest member, Jin, is just months away from turning 30. Some lawmakers have submitted bills on extending the age limit to 33 or introducing an alternative service for the nation.
The MMA chief said related government agencies need to review the issue with prudence and consider various factors, such as national security and social consensus.
He acknowledged the difficulties of officially assessing the achievements of pop artists, such as BTS, in terms of national interests, unlike those of athletes and such artists as classical musicians and ballet dancers with noticeable feats to promote South Korea's image abroad, who are granted exceptions from the compulsory service and instead allow to receive weeks of basic military training and return to their fields.
"When it comes to fine arts, artists are evaluated by credible judges at competitions," Lee said. "But when it comes to pop culture, standards are vague. As for the Billboard charts, (singers) are not reviewed by judges. Instead, the results are based on how long people listened to the music, or how many albums are sold."
He added it is time for South Korea to modify the alternative service program in general, given its military is expected to face manpower shortages amid a continued drop in birth rates. He expressed a negative view about expanding it in opposition to the drive to scale it down.
"I do not see the point of keeping the system as it is, considering that (South Korea) is set to fall short of manpower resources," Lee said. "The achievements of BTS are astonishing, but if we are to connect the compensations with their military duty, we need to reach a social consensus based on fairness so that the young people who join the military won't feel a sense of discrimination and frustration."
The number of 20-year-old South Korean males, which totaled 333,000 in 2020, is expected to fall to 226,000 in 2025 and 143,000 in 2040, according to an official estimate.