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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 enrol) 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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The individual duties depend on the path one takes in the military and also on abilities.

Regardless, the first year or so is usually compromised of a lot of cleaning. Yes cleaning. Scrubbing floors, ironing, and the like.

Likely there will also be a lot of patrolling. It's only truly in the second year that the soldiers begin to have moved far enough up the ranks that they're given more responsibilities and better assignments.




I'll touch on a few more points that didn't fit in above but are important to understand the daily life in the military.

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If you know anything about the Korean military, you've probably heard stories of how scary the Red Hats and Black Hats are.

They are leaders who are there to train recruits. Their word is Law and they are not to be messed with or taken lightly.

In the barracks they also control everything, like who gets the first taste of whatever nice snacks have been sent in by the soldiers' girlfriends and families (as such snacks are always to be shared), and they control the TV remote control.

They have seniority in the military, and they use it at every turn. Hence quite a lot of people strive to be a Red Hat or Black Hat, to gain those privileges.

Below is a very mild example of their power (yes very mild).


As in Kpop, a troop in the military are all in it together, which means that if one of them makes a mistake, everyone is punished. This encourages people to help each other learn and progress.

Red hats and black hats really love to hand out a lot of collective punishments.


I'm sorry, but I have to mention it. A lot of Koreans smoke, and a lot of Korean men take up smoking in the military.

There isn't a lot of activities where soldiers can truly vent their frustrations at their restricted life. Football is one of them and another is smoking.

Idols are also people before they're idols (you might actually be surprised about the amount of idols who smoke, but that's not the topic today), and so smoking is a habit that they might pick up, the same as anyone else.

I can understand that it's shocking to learn about idols smoking, but it's common in South Korea and the military definitely heightens the numbers.



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After serving in active duty for 100 days, soldiers are allowed their first time off, usually for about 4 days.

After that I hear that holidays differ hugely and can be granted as rewards, but that everyone is allowed 10 days of holiday for their remaining enlistment time, and they get 10 additional days at every promotion.

On weekends too soldiers have to stay on base and in order to take their leave they need the prior approval of a superior. They always get time off on Holidays (like Chuseok) though.

Payment during military enlistment has hugely improved over the years and the payment received by soldiers as of 2017 is a minimum of ₩163,000 per month for a Private (roughly equals to $135 or €130), and ranging up to ₩216000 per month for a Sergeant (roughly $180 or €170). Yes, these are the improved rates.

Food, accommodation and clothes are all provided for during the two years of service, so most soldiers do not have a lot of daily expenses.

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Once they have completed their active duty, Korean men are on inactive duty for 6 years.

This means that each year they have to participate in mandatory training for 100 hours, and should war break out they will be drafted to fight.

Should war break out all men of the eligible ages are drafted for labour, even if they haven't served in active duty yet.

So, when it comes to it, having served is actually an advantage . Before serving, a lot of Korean men see military enlistment as something they have to get out of the way in order to be able to live their life.




At the top we talked about the two kinds of service; Active duty service and public service.

Public servants are often looked down upon and considered to have been given the easy road. Celebrities who have served as public servants (often caused by disc location issues or other similar injuries) have equally lost reputation as a result.

Draft-dodgers is a whole other issue, and has ruined many striving celebrity careers, MC Mong being the prime example.

To try to avoid military service results in a huge amount of shaming and is severely punished when found out (with prison sentences).

On the flip coin, celebrities who complete more difficult training are commandeered and given a lot of respect from Korean citizens.

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The biggest crisis for celebrities who enrol in their mandatory service is that it's essentially two years where they can't promote. This leaves the chance that they will be forgotten during the time they are away.

Ways to deal with this for a Kpop group like BTS is to go off one or two at a time, so the other members will be there to promote on their own and in units and hence promote the group's name as a whole.

This is the strategy that Big Bang and Super Junior have opted for. Considering the age gap in BTS, it seems the most likely that they will decide in this course as well.

Alternatively leaving all together and coming back with a big splash is another possibility and it's what Big Bang had initially planned before talking to their company.

What's most crucial at the point of military enlistment for a group's survival is the level of fame before enlisting as the fan base needs to be able to survive for the two years, which is no easy feat in the Kpop world.

That being said BTS has gained a lot of acknowledgement lately and a lot of new fans, and I don't think this will be an issue to worry about for much longer. Soon there won't be any doubt that their fame can survive during the time of their military enlistment.

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First we can always hope that laws of conscription change and soften over the next few years while BTS start enrolling.

Jin will be the first to head off, something he will need to seriously consider and plan for this year. Likely Bighit already have plans about BTS's enlistment.

There is limited room for rules to soften and the general military attitude to change, especially with recent political changes in South Korea, but let's cross our fingers.

Second, we can hope that BTS are in good enough form to go into active duty service, as that will help heighten their reputation and profiles (especially with BTS being a group with heavily military influences, once they start to enlist a lot of spotlight will be on them). And it will also mean that they don't have any major injuries, and we all want our idols to be healthy.

That's it folks!

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If you're interested in learning more about the military service in South Korea I suggest watching the variety show "Real Men" where celebrities are put into military training and filmed all the way through. Do however remember that what you see on screen is the image that the military wants you to see and the reality might be slightly different. You're also more than welcome to ask follow questions below.

That concludes this week's Kpop history lesson. Last lesson was about Disbandment in Kpop groups.

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