9000 Koreans reportedly receive benefits through the military service exemption system every year for reasons, such as fostering industrial developments and enhancing national prestige.
According to the Ministry of National Defense on September 10th, there are 8 types of alternative services in the military service systems. There are 4,000 slots for industrial technical personnel working for small and medium-sized companies, such as manufacturers, accounting for the largest proportion. 2500 specialists doing research with military duties through engineering courses for master’s and doctorate degrees followed. The number of people working in shipping and fisheries companies, such as deep-sea fishing vessels, also reaches 1000, and the total number of public health officers, public interest judges, public quarantine veterinarians, etc. is 1800. Including art and sports personnel with the number changing every year, more than 9000 people were given the privilege to do national defense obligations through alternative service.
The Act on the Regulation of Special Cases on Military Service Obligations was first enacted in 1973. As stated in Article 1, the law was created to “support the manpower necessary for the development of the country within the scope of not hindering the recruitment of military personnel”. It seems that military service was used as a means to attract young people with skills and talents in policy-related fields in order to encourage industrial development.
In order to foster scientific talents, a system called “reserve for onboard work” was created to encourage the deep-sea fishing industry, which was a key export business at that time. For the operation of rural health centers that lack manpower, such as public health doctors and public quarantine veterinarians also received benefits.
Art and sports personnel were also introduced in this context. Violinist Kang Dong-seok was the first art and sports personnel. As Kang Dong-seok, who won the 1971 San Francisco Competition had to wander overseas for 10 years due to the military service issue, President Park Chung-hee introduced art personnel to the military service exemption system, saying “Let’s not abandon Korea’s cultural resources”. When their performance lagged behind North Korea at the Munich Olympics in the following year, sports personnel were added as a way to foster elite athletes, setting the framework for the current art and sports personnel system.
The abstract criteria for incorporation of art agents such as national prestige promotion and cultural development do not cover all fields of art. At least when it comes to military service. The modern art world, including popular artists and installation art, has remained in the blind spot of alternative service for the past 50 years. Although the popular culture community also has prestigious awards around the world, their talents have not been respected.
The front line, which was built under the pretext of avoiding active-duty enlistment and evading military service, was too broad for popular culture people to speak out. The fairness frame of active duty soldiers provided a good cause to persecute the popular artists who were put in unfair situations. Lee Nam-kyung, director of the Korea Management Association, said, “Those in the entertainment industry who are easily exposed to the media can easily reach the public. Their active activities go beyond the pride of the people and can appeal to the brand of Korea.”
1973 and 2022, when the military service exemption system was introduced, are on a half-century time fault. Over the past 50 years, Korea has grown from a country that earns dollars through deep-sea fishing into a cultural powerhouse that dominates the Billboard charts as well as the Academy Awards and Cannes Awards. The value of the K-pop market, which was at the level of $5.7 billion in 2015, has continued its double-digit growth since exceeding $10 billion in 2019. This is why the entertainment industry has no choice but to put up a name tag if there are only a few high-growth industries in the Korean economy, which is falling into a low-growth trap.
In line with the time of BTS‘ military enlistment, whether or not popular artists will be included in the military service exemption system for the first time has emerged as a social issue. If a young male actor wins the Oscar in the future, it is wasteful to continue social debate. The proposition that “Korea’s cultural resources should not be taken away” is still valid. However, it is time to reconsider what field of culture is 50 years after the system was created.