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Military Service in South Korea

I see a lot of ARMYs worry about BTS's mandatory military enlistment.

I believe that the best way to calm worries is by being informed. So here I am to help inform ARMY (ironic isn't it?) on Military Enlistment in South Korea, what it often entails for celebrities, and what it might entail for BTS.

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Why, oh why, do they have to enlist?

North Korea and South Korea are still in conflict with each other and the threat of war is very real, hence it's important for South Korea to have a big military presence.

Currently ALL South Korean men are required to serve two years in the military between the ages of 19 and 35 (EDIT: Recent changes in military enlistment means that the age is now 19 to 30)

Women may also enlist, but on a voluntary basis only.

The minimum required period of enlistment is 21 months.

Army and Marine Corps: 21 months

Navy: 23 months

Air Force: 24 months

Non-active duty: 24 to 36 months

The rules about conscription have changed quite a lot over the past 10 years and are bound to change in the future as well as there is a lot of unrest and anger over the current situation.

Right now is an especially exciting time for military changes, as the presidential rule in South Korea is changing and some candidates running for election are putting the current military conscription rules into question, and proposing change.

Many times before, voluntary conscription has been proposed instead of the mandatory one currently in place. Recently, however, it has come into talks again.

While this might not necessarily mean that mandatory enlistment will be abolished (and not by the time BTS and other young men need to enroll) it might lead to a military reform that will lessen the burden of having to serve in the military. This is good news!

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Let's look at what military conscription currently entails...




There are two types of mandatory military services:

1. Active duty service

Involves 5 weeks of basic training to become a soldier, after which they are assigned to posts and roles.

2. Public service

Work in subway stations, parking lots, etc. And also work as government clerks.

Which type of service an individual is to serve is decided by a physical test. The test ranks fitness and health from level 1-7.

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Gaining a level 1-3 (most common) means active duty service. A level 4 means public service, and level 5-7 means exemption from service.

Exemption from service is rare and is usually a result of severe injury, like a missing limb or serious mental health issues, so let's not wish that on our idols or anyone else.

(South Korea also classifies homosexuality as mental disorder and hence a man who admits to being gay in his physical examination will get a lower score. Men with many tattoos are also typically given low scores as tattoos still signify gang activity, although this is quickly changing).

Level 4 also means injuries, when it comes to celebrities it's often disc locations or otherwise injuries in the back region. In relation to BTS and what we currently know, Suga is known to have a shoulder injury and this might play into the result of his physical examination for the military.

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After being assigned, there are many options on ways to serve, for example in the Navy, Air Force, or Special forces, but also as police officers, or firefighters, or even defend industry workers (government office workers).

Celebrities often take a softer road compared to the majority of men, but it all comes down to individual wishes (and also availability, as some military programs only have a certain amount of slots available).

As far as the BTS members go, there is an extra option for RM, called KATUSA.

KATUSA is a program between the US and SK that soldiers with good English skills may apply for. It's considered softer than regular soldier life because soldiers in the KATUSA don't report during weekends and are even allowed to go home at night.




The first thing that happens is that one gets a date to meet up and enlist.


This is a must once the enlistment has been decided upon. A lot of celebrities chose to have this done at a hair salon, before arriving at the military base, because there will be fans and reporters waiting for them there, and they want to look their best for the last time before the military.

For those who haven't shaved their heads at home, it's done at the base, in quick military style. I've been told by Korean acquaintances that the shaved hair is collected into a brown bag and saved, in order to use for DNA samples, but more importantly in order to send back to their family should they unexpectedly die in active duty and leave no corporal remains.

(This sounds horrible and severe, but don't fear for our precious idols and Korean men yet, and I'll get to the why of that in a bit).


After shaving heir head, the new recruits are taken in photo. This photo, like the hair, is for funerary purposes. Should a soldier, unexpectedly, die in active duty, this is the photo that will be used for the funeral. In South Korea its customary to have a photo displayed at the funeral ceremony for people to bow in front of to show their respect for the deceased.

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Then a soldier's personal items, and the clothes they wore when enlisting, are put in a box and sent home to their parents.

It's an emotional experience for the family to receive this box and it truly signifies the beginning of a man's military enlistment.


Death during the mandatory military enlistment is very rare (and you will probably get to see why when we talk about duties later on). Unlike what we're used to in the west, military duty in Korea doesn't involve being deployed abroad to a military zone and fight.

Because Korea already IS a military zone.

Every once in a while North Korea and South Korea get into a brawl and have small scale attacks or military conflicts.

And yet deaths during the two years of mandatory service is incredibly rare and usually due to an accident, as might be the case in non military life too.

Why do they need the funerary photo and the hair then?

The simple answer to this is that because Korea is a dormant military zone, war with North Korea might technically begin at any moment, and hence it's better to be prepared for the worst case scenario.


There used to be a special unit in the military for celebrities whose role it was to endorse the military, keep morale high, and encourage a favourable view of military service.

However, due to a scandal that broke some years ago about Kpop celebrities Rain, Se7en and Sangchu, and the preferential treatment they received (among other more shocking revelations), the unit was abolished in 2013.

Celebrities are now expected to serve under the same terms as every other Korean man. However, that being said, there is still a tendency to protect celebrities and higher ups influential people, as any issues would give very bad press, and the South Korean military already struggles with a bad Rep.

So don't worry too much. Overall things tend to be more relaxed for celebrities.

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At the beginning of their military life, soldiers go through 5 weeks of basic training. A boot camp, exactly as you imagine it from films.


Left, right, left, right, left, right. It's not as easy as it seems and it's one of the first things new recruits learn.

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This is crucial, especially in South Korea where there are many forms of politeness in speech. In the military all speech has to end in 다, 나, or 까.

Even casual speech between comrades has to be executed in the 다나까 fashion and many new recruits struggle to make it habit, in the same way that many men struggle to revert back to their old ways after their active service ends.


A big part of the military morale derives from military songs. Here is a famous one called 멋진 사나이 (modjin sana-ee) which roughly translates to "a cool man".

Football/soccer also plays a huge role in military morale and is played in big scales after daily duty.


A lot of guys who have been through military training will tell you that this is the absolute worst.

Recruits are to put on their gas masks, enter a gas chamber, unscrew the breathing tank for the gas mask, screw it back on, and exit, but securing the gas mask properly can be problematic, and enduring the gas, more than difficult. As a taster here is Got7's Jackson during his CBR training during "Real Men".


Training exercises also commonly involve climbing a mountain in full gear, with gun in hand.

Generally the basic training involves a lot of marching, running, push-ups, jumping jacks, and being ordered around.

Firing a weapon is also part of basic training. As is handling of the standard military gun and hand grenades, among other.

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