For many of us who adore K-pop, it can often be an escape from reality, a happy place in which everyone and everything is simple and glamorous. However, we are occasionally — and often jarringly — reminded that the world of Korean entertainment is not by any means exempt from reality. Even South Korea’s most beloved celebrities are subject to the law, and though it may seem that they are often given more lenient treatment, punishment undoubtedly awaits those who push the envelope just a bit too far. And punishment indeed seems to be the name of the game for one MC Mong, who has been convicted of delaying his mandatory military service.
By now, most of our readers are likely aware that MC Mong’s draft evasion case is not exactly new news; it broke back in September 2010 that South Korean authorities were suspicious that MC Mong (who was then 30 years old at the time) was intentionally taking action to avoid having to serve in the military entirely. While it is fairly common for celebrities to postpone their military service until the last possible minute, it appeared as though MC Mong had deliberately tried to ensure that he would never be drafted by having enough of his teeth extracted so that he would not meet the minimum physical requirements to serve. What resulted was a public outcry substantial enough to force the rapper to withdraw completely from public life; the star, who was part of 1 Night 2 Days‘ extremely popular six-member cast, was removed from the show and summarily banned by both KBS and MBC. By October 2010, MC Mong was officially charged with violation of South Korea’s conscription laws. A lengthy and typically ugly legal battle produced the somewhat confusing verdict of guilty of attempting to interfere with justice by delaying his military service without valid reason, but not guilty of extracting his teeth in order to avoid having to join the military. He was sentenced to one year of probation, a suspended prison term of six months, and 120 hours of community service. Two appeals later, the Supreme Court has upheld the original verdict and sentence.
Well, that seems to be the question that a lot of people are asking. MC Mong has been absent from public life for nearly two years and there seems to be no indication that he will be returning anytime soon. In 2011, he stated while on trial that he did not hope to return to the entertainment industry. Additionally, he did not hold a press conference to discuss the outcome of the most recent appeal; rather, his representative released a short statement expressing his remorse and indebtedness to his fans. Despite the fact that numerous celebrities — including Baek Ji-young, Kim Jang-hoon, and HaHa have stepped forward to defend him, MC Mong has remained reclusive and reticent.
It is true that celebrities in South Korea overcome scandals, be they real or overblown or imagined, all the time. Both Ivy and Baek Ji-young have seemingly surmounted the largest obstacle of all and bounced back to fairly successful careers following sex tape scandals; Big Bang‘s Daesung and G-Dragon are back to being active after hit-and-run and marijuana scandals, respectively; KARA, who nearly split over a lawsuit with DSP Media, have made an impressive comeback and solidly maintained their fan base; even Block B‘s impressively stupid scandal in Thailand has largely blown over, and the boys recently made a comeback (albeit a quiet one). Countless other celebrities are criticized daily for looking bored or inattentive, saying the wrong thing, failing to be appropriately respectful to an industry senior, and so on and so forth; their public shaming lasts for a few days, people leave some mean comments on online forums, and then people get bored and the incident is largely forgotten. But this isn’t always the case — and unfortunately for MC Mong, the outlook seems rather bleak.
This isn’t to say that MC Mong’s fans don’t want him to come back, because many of them do. The problem here is the nature of the crime. Dodging the military in South Korea — or even appearing as though one attempted to dodge the military — is a serious and flagrant societal offense. It might not seem as though it is as bad as is vehicular manslaughter or using recreational drugs, but taken in context, it is nearly unforgivable.
Military service in South Korea is compulsory for all able-bodied male citizens, which is why our favorite oppas keep getting taken away from us. South Korea actually has one of the longest mandatory military periods in the world, and serving is considered one of the country’s Four Constitutional Duties (the others are education, taxes, and labor). Though talk of reducing or outright eliminating mandatory conscription has been batted around for a few years, the omnipresent danger of North Korea coupled with a few recent red flags (North Korea’s failed rocket launch, the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island, the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan) have effectively ensured that mandatory conscription will continue.
There are a number of mechanisms in place to ensure that those who are physically not up to serving as active duty soldiers fulfill their military obligation; prior to enlistment, all young men are given a physical examination and ranked based on physical ability. Anyone given a ranking of 1, 2, or 3 is eligible for active duty; those with a ranking of 4 carry out public service instead. MC Mong’s ranking (5), which was entirely due to the fact that a good number of his teeth were extracted, made him completely ineligible to be drafted — in other words, it was a get-out-of-the-army-free card.
It’s no secret that celebrities in the military are often given cushier treatment than are ordinary soldiers; even those who serve actively often get perks and assignments that take into account their celebrity status. However, even if they aren’t exactly roughing it, at least they are sacrificing nearly two years of their young adult lives to serve their country — as is every other young male. Therein lies the egregiousness of draft evasion. Everyone must participate in the name of fairness and patriotism, and those who somehow worm their way out of it are subject to becoming social pariahs. Given MC Mong’s star power in South Korea, it was already likely that he’d have a fairly easy time in the military; yet he still attempted (or at least it seems as though he attempted) to exempt himself from suffering the same fate as does everyone in South Korea who happens to be born male. Whether or not he actually extracted his teeth to this end (and indeed, the court was inconclusive on this matter and thus declared him not guilty) doesn’t really matter at this point — the mere fact that he was under suspicion of trying not to serve essentially blacklists him in South Korea.
This isn’t the first instance in which failing to fulfill military obligation has brought down a celebrity’s career: in 2002, pop singer Yoo Seung-jun (Steve Yoo) was banned from South Korea after becoming a naturalized USA citizen just prior to his enlistment. Given that Yoo had repeatedly stated his intention to fulfill his military service (in spite of the fact that his family relocated to California when he was 13), his abrupt defection, so to speak, was perceived in South Korea as desertion, and Yoo’s promising career came to a screeching halt. A full decade later, he is still unable to enter the country and has not yet been able to revive his career in Korean entertainment. Because offenses related to military service disrupt citizenship solidarity and attempt to give one individual special status over others, they are not as easily forgiven as are others — a lesson that both Yoo and MC Mong have now realized to be true.
Will MC Mong be able to make a comeback someday? That’s hard to say. For as many people as there are who are outraged by his conduct, there are many fans who greatly long for his return. It is certain that any re-entry into the public sphere will have to be calculated, careful, and slow, but this writer doesn’t think it impossible. On the one hand, it isn’t fair to give MC Mong special treatment, but then again, not every draft dodger is subject to a two year Hester Prynne-esque nightmare of a public ordeal. The future is definitely unclear for MC Mong, but with time, he may be able to redeem himself in the eyes of the South Korean public.
What do you think, Seoulmates? Do you hope for MC Mong to return? Should he be allowed to return?