All You Need to Know about K-pop Stars and Military Service

This post covers everything you want to know about K-pop stars and military enlistment in Korea.

I did some research in Korean about upcoming military service for idols, including the soon to be enlisted members of BTS.

Let’s check it out!

Lingua Asia All You Need to Know about K-pop Stars and Military Service

Military service is the last line of equality in Korea.

Every man enlists in the military, even celebrities including K-pop stars.

(Regardless if they contribute 3.5 billion dollars to the economy)

This is because South Korea’s still technically at war with the North. Also, it gives Korean guys something to talk about when they’re drinking.

It’s common for family members to send gifts and letters to men serving in the military. They also see them off on the first day. Sisters will bring their oppa things like moisturizer and snacks to share with others and wish them good luck.

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  • K-pop idols have to serve in the military like other men in Korea.
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How long is Korean military service for idols?

K-pop idols have to serve the same amount of time as everyone else. The period of service according to military branch are:

  • Army & Marine Corps: 18 months
  • Navy: 20 months
  • Air Force: 21 months

Before base assignment, soldiers in active service receive training for 5 weeks at an Army Training Center, while supplementary service members (social service, industrial service, professional research), conscripted policemen, and conscripted firefighters train for 4 weeks.

Will BTS join the military?

Probably. But unlike with other K-pop stars, more Koreans hope BTS won’t have to serve in the military or at least postpone their mandatory service since BTS boosted national prestige by being No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 three times in a year.

**Update** Yes, they’re joining the military. Many politicians were working on special exemption legislation for them, but BTS will enlist, starting with Jin, the oldest member ㅠ-ㅠ.

Will BTS disband after military service?

Fear not. BTS made their debut on June 13th, 2013 and signed a 7-year renewal contract on June 13th, 2020. So, they probably won’t disband at least until 2027.

But if the members enlist one after another and expand solo activities, they’ll have a long period of inactivity as a group, just like other K-pop groups.

BTS will most likely come back as a team in 2025!

Which K-pop idols are enlisting in 2020?

  • BtoB’s Yook Sung-jae
  • BtoB’s Im Hyun-sik
  • WINNER’s Kim Jin-woo and Lee Seung-hoon
  • Pentagon’s Jinho
  • EXO’s Suho
  • F.T. Island’s Song Seung-hyun

How can Koreans avoid military service?

There are a few ways. Some of my cousins and friends got military exemption for being too skinny (this condition is not applicable anymore) or being obese. Military exemption conditions are:

  1. Low income
    About 2,000 people apply for this condition every year.
    You’ll be eligible for exemption if monthly income based on a 4 person household is less than 1.66 million KRW and total assets are less than 56 million KRW.
  1. People with disabilities
    If you’re registered as a disabled person, no notice of enlistment will be sent.
  1. Gold medalists
    This is applicable if you’ve won a gold medal in the Asian Games or Olympics.
  1. Having a disease such as knee (cruciate) ligament rupture
    If you have a disease that can be cured, you will receive Level 7 (re-examination subject) and have to get examined again after treatment.

    Although examination is based on vision with glasses, if the vision of one eye is lower than 0.6, you can serve in the military as a public service worker (공익요원). But if it’s lower than 0.1 or 0.2, you’ll receive Level 5.

    Having a cruciate ligament rupture doesn’t automatically disqualify you, but getting reconstruction surgery increases the probability. Since there are many cases of intentional ruptures, they’re currently being strictly screened.
  1. Transgender
    If you’re a transgender from male to female, you’ll get an exemption.
  1. Physical condition
    There aren’t many exemption cases under this condition anymore.
    Men shorter than 140cm will get Level 6 and be exempt from military enlistment. Also, if BMI is more than 33, they’ll be considered obsese and receive Level 4 to serve as public service workers.
  1. Orphans
    For those whose parents died before the age of 13, who have no family and lived for more than 5 years in an orphanage or child protection facility, they may get military exemption.

8. Others
Prison: A person who served in prison for at least 1 year and 6 months will get exemption.
Naturalized citizen: A person who obtained Korean nationality (except dual citizenship)

What happens if you don’t do military service in South Korea?

Case 1: Steve Yoo (Yoo Seung-jun)

Steve Yoo was a mega star singer in the late 1990’s. Although he was Korean-American, Steve Yoo used to say that he’d serve in the military, but suddenly renounced his Korean nationality before enlisting.

So, his entry into Korea was prohibited in accordance with Article 11 of Immigration Control Law. More trials are required for his visa application and entry even now, 15 years later. Koreans will never forgive him, and they call him by his English name now.

Case 2: MC Mong

Another huge star in the mid 2000’s who was also a TV personality. He was exempted from military service in 2010 by intentionally removing 12 teeth. The Supreme Court ruled him innocent for violating Military Service Law, and only charged him for obstructing the execution of government affairs in 2012.

However, Koreans are still not forgiving him. He tried to come back, but his face was blurred as a mosaic due to negative public opinion.

K-pop stars serving military

Since then, some K-pop stars are getting even more popular by serving in the military. Hyun Bin, Oh Jong-hyuk, Yoon Shi-yoon, AKMU’s Lee Chan-hyuk, and SHINee Minho joined the Marine Corps voluntarily. EXO’s D.O enlisted at the age of 26, even though he could’ve postponed it.

More about Korean special forces

Recently, K-pop idols rarely have issues related to the military because it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Do Korean soldiers get days off?

Yes, Korean soldiers get annual leave as follows:

  • Army & Marine Corps: 24 days
  • Navy: 27 days
  • Air Force: 28 days

On top of annual leave, they get reward and consolation vacation, meaning they get to leave base for a few days.

Which military duty is considered easy in Korea?

KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) is definitely considered the best in Korea, but you have to be extremely lucky since it’s decided by lottery. Also, solders who work as drivers or medics are considered to have a relatively easy time.

For K-pop idols: The military authorities abolished the celebrity soldier system in 2013, but they’re still running the same system under a different name as “musical soldiers”.

When a famous celebrity enlists, he’ll usually be assigned to a military band. Then, dispatched to a musical venue through audition.

That way they can maximize their talents.

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Did we miss anything?

Serving in the military is not easy, but necessary in Korea.

I hope you enjoyed this article.

Ask us what you want to know about military service in the comments!

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57 thoughts on “All You Need to Know about K-pop Stars and Military Service”

    • Hi Holly,
      Thanks for commenting. Yes, they’re usually assigned to a band, but not always.
      Some like Oh Jong-hyuk, Lee Chan-hyuk and Choi Min-ho served in the Marine Corps and became more popular as a result.

  1. Hello this was such a helpful article! I would like to know about idols enlisting as the public service workers? How does that work and what do they usually do

    • Hi Dipi,
      Glad to hear it!
      “공익 (gong-ik)” can substitute their military duties as public service workers if they are found to be Level 4 during the physical exam.
      They’re usually assigned to government offices and social welfare facilities, helping civil servants. Since 공익 also get to commute from home, Korean men tend to consider them lucky. It’s not too rare as my cousin is currently serving as a 공익. 🙂
      The current trend is for idols to try to complete their military duty as soldiers though.

    • Hi Tahirah, that’s a good question! I’ve been meaning to watch D.P. as well.
      In most cases, I think people are nicer to them since they’re famous. But, they also get a lot of unwanted/unintended attention.
      For example, when Park Hyo-shin joined the military, senior soldiers who were younger than him made him sing Snow Flower all day outside on a snowy day.
      Also, when Gang Dong-Won was taking a shower in military, 300 guys stared at him. I’m pretty sure they felt uncomfortable because of this.

  2. Hi minjung it’s a great article…can a celebrity enlist to special forces and can they stay still for 2/3 years more after finish the mandatory military service? Thank you before…

    • Hi Steve,
      That’s an interesting question.
      Yes, a celebrity can enlist in special forces. Lee Seung-gi is a famous example of this. Even though he had a desk job there, Lee participated in all the extreme training.
      As far as I know, no one can or wants to extend their mandatory duty, but they can continue to serve in the military as a non-commissioned officer as a career after completing their mandatory duty.

  3. For a Kpop idol who enlists as a service worker due to health issues, does their company they were in while an active Kpop idol have any say so over them at all? Also, as a service worker do they have more freedom, for example phone and travel privileges? TIA

    • Hi Suzzette,

      In general the agency and artist are in agreement as to when they will serve. They usually try to delay service so the artist can have a longer career. The agency can’t decide where the service is conducted as far as we know, since that would be a huge scandal.

      Since July 2020, enlisted soldiers can use their phones, usually from 6pm-9pm on weekdays and 8am-9pm on weekends, except for the first training camp for recruits (training period: 3 weeks for service worker; 5 weeks for army, air force; 6 weeks for navy; and 7 weeks for marines).

      Social workers have the privileges of commuting from home, and having their phone the whole time.

      Social workers can use their annual leave (a total of 28 days based on 21 months of service) and travel overseas as long as: 1) they get permission from the facility director; 2) they fill out some forms like overseas travel permit application and recommendation letter; 3) they fax the forms to city hall; 4) they wait for the permit (via KakaoTalk) from the Military Manpower Administration.

      • So enlisted soldiers have free access on internet? Can they use twitter, YouTube and other social media? Because I normally see them only posting on Instagram

        • Hi Camila,
          Yes they have free access to internet.
          There is a PC room (they call it either PC방 or 사지방 as in 사이버 지식 정보방 Cyber Knowledge Information Room) where they can use a desktop and internet for about 30 mins to 1 hour once a week, but this depends on their base.)
          Now that they can use a mobile phone, they can use twitter, YouTube and any other social media, except that they cannot take a photo for security reasons. (They’re required to install a security app.) I think Instagram is purely their preference. 🙂

  4. What are the rules for a service worker in the military as far as leaving Korea to visit someone during vacation? Like for Christmas for example

    • Hi Joyce, thanks for asking. I think Koreans usually send letters to service workers while they’re in training camp (훈련소).
      Since they can commute to work at a facility afterwards, it’s pretty rare to mail them at their office.
      Hope this answers to your question!

    • Hi Camila, yes they can.
      They have freedom to use internet on their mobile phone, usually from 6pm-9pm on weekdays and 8am-9pm on weekends.
      Also, they can visit a PC room once a week, but it depends on their base. 🙂

  5. In a reply to some ones question, you said that they can travel over seas with permission and forks during their annual vacation. What if there’s a situation where they are delayed in returning back in time to complete their service? For example, closed down airports, possibilty of war or something else idk 😂

    • Hi Nae, that’s an interesting question!
      It seems harder for soldiers in active service to obtain an overseas travel permit than social workers.
      It’s possible to travel for personal reasons, but this is very rare in the military since procedures are super duper complicated (unless they have family overseas or something).
      They need to fill out every detail, including contact info as well as the political, economic and social situation of the country they intend to travel to.
      So, I’m guessing they won’t get approved in the first place, if there’s even a possibility for the situations you mentioned. 😉

  6. Just found your article after hearing about BTS. I know this piece is fairly old by now but it answers lots of questions as an international fan who would otherwise have no clue. Just wanted to say great writing and thanks for the info! =)

    • Hi Jen, thank you so much for the nice comment! ^^
      Yes, BTS will enlist in the military, starting with Jin.
      I guess BTS was tired of the long argument between Korean politicians regarding special exemption for BTS since 2018.
      Sadly, the recent Busan concert was their last official one before enlistment.
      The good news is that according to the Ministry of National Defense, BTS will have an opportunity to participate in national events, even overseas performances, while serving the military!

    • Hi Cheryl,
      Not just K-pop idols, but Koreans in general can choose where they serve in terms of joining the Marine Corps, etc.
      Most want to avoid frontlines as it’s going to be tough.
      As far as I know, their army base is selected for them after training camp.

  7. Sameeee, i really wanted to know more about it and I’m glad that she has explained, ❤️❤️❤️especially on the access to their phone part

  8. Hey ! I have some questions.
    Can they select any army base they like to serve after training in army camp ?
    Can friends choose the same army base and go together?
    Do idols get any harassments or get bullied in army camp?
    I heard gay relationships are prohibited in army camps. Is that true?

    • Hi Vini,
      1. They cannot select an army base after training camp. It’s randomly chosen and assigned.
      2. Yes, there’s a joint enlistment (동반입대) system where friends can enlist together to serve in the same base until they finish their service.
      3. People are more likely to be nicer to K-pop idols or celebrities, rather than bullying them.
      4. Every male needs to complete military service. One probably wouldn’t come out or try to get into a relationship on an army base though.

  9. Hello it’s me again. I heard that jin is appointed as the teaching assistant of the army camp? what does that mean? Are there any qualifications or specialties to be an assistant ? What is his job as a teaching assistant ?

    • Hello again, Vini!
      Yes, Jin applied to be a teaching assistant, and went through the evaluation rounds of drill & ceremonies, command, and an interview.
      Only a few who show excellent skills and have a reputation as ‘exemplary soldiers’ can be appointed as teaching assistants after being evaluated.
      His job will be assisting instructors, managing training and combat gear, demonstrating, leading and managing trainees. So, he’ll help with the training process and overall military life for the trainees.

    • Hi Kara,

      That’s an interesting question.
      Most Koreans want to make their time served in the military as smooth as possible, so even a person prone to tardiness won’t be late. (They can request to postpone enlistment instead, in advance.)

      If a person who has received a notice of enlistment fails to show up on the set date within 3 days, he will be punished by imprisonment for up to 3 years. Then, he still needs to complete his military service after his sentence. He’ll be also labeled an ex-convict and won’t be able to get a government job, which is desirable in Korean society. He can’t obtain patents, permits, authorizations, business licenses, registrations or designations of any sort related to the government. It’s not a good thing at all.

      In terms of being late while serving, it’s almost impossible because everyone sleeps in the same room and wakes up around 6 to 6:30 AM. The peer pressure to get ready on time is very powerful. Also, a loud alarm like a trumpet helps out.

      I think people all make small mistakes when they join, and they just get scolded without punishment. (If there’s a serious charge like bullying though, they will be confined in a guardhouse/military prison.)

    • Hi Shein,
      Thanks for asking.
      Yes, I mean… I hope they don’t shower with clothes on.
      Some don’t mind, and some feel uncomfortable.
      I’ve heard that they have to finish showering quick, so it’s not going to be an awkward staring contest.
      Since there’s also a public bath culture in Korea, people who grew up going to mogyoktang (bathhouse) or jjimjilbang (spa) will be totally fine.

  10. Hey
    Bts Jin was appointed as a private first class officer?
    is that a good rank?
    Also jin jokingly asked jhope to avoid eye contract with him when he come to military since he is a private? is that a rule in military ?

    • Hi Rita,
      Jin will soon become a private first class.
      After a certain period of time, people automatically get advanced to the next rank.
      Ranks for mandatory military service are: 이병 Private (second class) for 2-3 months, 일병 Private (first class) for 6 months, 상병 Corporal for 6 months, then 병장 Sergeant for the remaining months.
      Jin jokingly said it to cheer up Jhope because he’s the only BTS member in the army for now. It’s not really the rule.

  11. BTS members are 30 years old or close to 30 so their maturity probably is a consideration besides meeting the requirements of assistant instructors. Eighteen to twenty is really young and a thirty-year-old would have 10 years on them which is a good thing. Enlisting at any age must be hard but those who wait until 30 have established lives and family to be away from. Really tough. Much admiration for them.

    • Hi Brenda,

      Yes, that’s right! It’s hard at any age, but especially when you’re older. My brother went at 30 and he had a tough time leaving his job and friends. Koreans respect BTS for serving, because they probably could avoid it.

  12. hello, I just wanted to ask are people who have autism exempt from military service or do they have accommodations for their autism just wanted to know.

      • Hi, thanks for answering but I have one more question are all autistic people exempt? what I mean is that a lot of autistic people mask. So it’s harder for people to understand how difficult it is to live with it, some may say they have “high-functioning” autism would they have to serve in the military if they seem to be less affected by it but still have an official diagnosis?

          • Hi again,
            In Korea, autistic people can register as disabled, and will automatically receive a military physical test exemption.
            I’m not sure about high functioning autism. But, in case of mild autism spectrum disorder without a disability grade, their military duty can be exempted when consistent medical records are submitted at the physical examination.
            People with ASD usually receive level 4 or 5 from the military physical examination. (Level 1-3 means active duty, and 4 means public service worker).
            Even if they get level 4, there is a waiting list from 1 to 5, and they’ll be assigned 5th on the list. When they don’t get assigned as a public service worker for 3 years, their military duty is automatically exempted.
            Hope this helps!

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