If you’re an able-bodied South Korean male, death and taxes aren’t the only things that are inevitable — as sure as the day is long, you will be called upon at some point in your late teens/early twenties to devote nearly two years of your life to the defense of the fatherland and enlist in the military.
Despite the 1953 armistice, the two Koreas are still technically at war, and in order to ensure that South Korea is prepared at all times to meet a sustained threat from its increasingly isolated (and unpredictable) northern neighbor, all capable young men are drafted and trained as soldiers. While there are a few exceptions to the rule (apparently, having an excess of tattoos is considered grounds for total exemption from service, and Olympic medalists are automatically granted a free pass), they are few and far between. Properly fulfilling one’s military service is more or or less non-negotiable, and those who fail to do so are subject to extreme scrutiny and broad criticism across nearly all spectrums of society.
Naturally, there are few young men that are just chomping at the bit to enlist; six decades have dramatically altered the political, economic, and social lanscapes of both North and South Korea, and the conclusion of the Cold War coupled with the collapse and dissolution of one of North Korea’s most critical pillars of support has widened the proverbial gulf that is the 38th parallel. On the whole, young South Koreans do not hold strong feelings either way about their estranged countrymen, and many have questioned the necessity of universal conscription at the prime of youth. Though it has become deeply engrained in the South Korean social fabric, let’s face it: military service is harsh, grueling, and boring. It removes South Korean men from their personal lives, interrupts their education, and ensconces them in bases located in some of South Korea’s most remote regions. With no cell phones and limited access to internet, recreation, and privacy, it is an experience that is completely alien to boys that have grown up with all of the comforts that modern technology affords. Suffering through such conditions for twenty one months is a rite of passage, a shared experience that theoretically places all young men on an equal playing field, even if for just a short while.
Now let’s talk celebrity soldiers — also known as public relations recruits that work for the Defense Media Agency.
Despite the extensive media play that has attempted to bury the scandal (seriously — shortly after the news broke, we were treated to scores of rumors that Lee Hyori and boyfriend Lee Sang-soon had called it quits, only to find out a few days later that the couple actually got engaged), the cat is out of the bag: Se7en and Mighty Mouth‘s Sangchu, both of whom are currently serving their time in the military as celebrity recruits, have become the latest stars to crap all over their distinction as soldiers by publicly engaging in some of the most asinine behavior thinkable for someone in their positions. Following a performance, the two were seen with other celebrity recruits leaving their motel wearing civilian clothes (a big no-no), using their cellphones (also a no-no), breaking curfew (duh, a no-no), drinking alcohol (seriously, who do you think you are?), and then visiting a massage parlor called Happy Endings to receive “knee therapy” (read: solicit prostitution). At 4 in the morning. While one of them is supposedly in a hundred-years long relationship with actress Park Han-byul. Oh, hell no.
And then — and then! — after being confronted by SBS camera crews, who were filming a segment for On Site 21 on the scandalicious behavior of celebrity recruits, Se7en and Sangchu attacked the reporters, essentially confirming that the behavior in which they were engaging was all highly illegal (not to mention completely unbefitting their image). The whole debacle was enough to prompt the Ministry of Defense to launch a special investigation into celebrity soldiers, who have long been suspected of enjoying perks during their service that ordinary soldiers are not granted. After Rain came under fire for the apparent abuse of his off-base privileges to traipse around Seoul (read: visit girlfriend Kim Tae-hee), one would think that celebrity soldiers would tread just a bit more carefully and maybe serve out the rest of their conscription quietly and humbly, but apparently some of them think themselves above the law.
Naturally, there was an attempt made at a cover-up; as mentioned, Ministry of Defense officials offered the lame “knee therapy” excuse (almost as bad as the fanciful tale LOEN tried to spin regarding IU-Eunhyuk), and Sangchu attempted to shoulder all of the blame by saying that he, as the more senior soldier, should have been more responsible.
However, things have gotten steadily worse for the pair since their initial run-in with SBS. In what can only be construed as a deliberate attempt to incite more anti-celebrity soldier sentiment, Se7en showed up for his on-site investigation wearing civilian clothes, which… well, if you’re a soldier, this is just asking for it. Worse still, SBS’s report essentially confirmed the luxuries that celebrity recruits are afforded (a private gym, Playstation game consoles, televisions, snacks, a civilian wardrobe, and gratuitous access to internet) and included testimonies of atrocious behavior tantamount to sexual harassment, wanton rule-breaking, excessive partying, and a general disregard for military protocol on multiple levels. A final bit of icing on the cake would be that an anonymous celebrity recruit, known only as “A,” whined that celebrity soldiers work really, really hard and sometimes perform up to twenty times a month. Yes, this sounds very taxing — almost as taxing as, say, patrolling the North Korean border in the dead of winter. Probably equivalent, I’d say.
To be fair, having friends who have served in the Korean military leads me to believe that having a PR unit within the larger structure of the South Korean armed forces isn’t completely useless. Soldiers need morale boosts, especially when one considers that pretty much the entirety of the army is composed of conscripts who likely never would have elected to be there in the first place and have very little personal connection to what it is that the army asks them to do. However, I question the morale boost that a celebrity soldier could give in light of all of the damning evidence that suggests that he is essentially living the good life while his fellow soldiers — presumably men who have found themselves in the same position of serving the country as is he — engage in physically demanding and draining tasks on the regular, are given precious few furloughs, must adhere to strict dress codes at all times, can’t use their cellphones to keep in touch with their families and loved ones, can’t spend evenings with their girlfriends, and certainly can’t go out to drink beer, shoot the shit with friends, or visit a massage parlor for sex whenever the fancy strikes. I feel like the only thing a celebrity soldier could inspire at this point is serious antimony and disgust. While I can’t speak for the Korean military, it would seem to me that if this is the case, then the practice of having celebrity recruits functioning as PR arms of the military has outlived its usefulness and ought to be abolished.
Before his enlistment, Se7en earned the ire of the nation by commenting that Hallyu stars serve South Korea’s global interests just as much as do Olympic medalists who boost the country’s global prestige and domestic pride, but currently no mechanism by which they, too, can get an exemption exists. Needless to say, he got tremendous flack for this, and it isn’t hard to guess why. Yes, Hallyu is an important means by which South Korea generates international interest in Korean culture, but I think many would agree that (a) Hallyu stars are more or less constructed by the market, and few of them are truly special/possess some sort of real, rare, innate talent that should be rewarded with military exemption, and (b) Hallyu stars are at this point a dime a dozen.
The K-pop/K-drama market is completely over-saturated with budding singers and actors, and frankly, I don’t think that the disappearance of one star, no matter how “beloved,” for a period of 21 months will grind the Hallyu gears to a screeching halt. Someone else will inevitably slot in to fill his shoes, and the anticipation of one’s favorite star’s return will likely only serve as a boost as he enjoys a wave of post-enlistment popularity. Unless, of course, he totally blows it while in the military by abusing privileges and expecting to be treated like some sort of prince for his “gifts,” in which he case he will return to… no career at all. Hey, that sounds familiar!
The Ministry of Defense has yet to release the results of their investigation into celebrity soldiers, but they’ve already thoroughly discredited their assertions that celebrity soldiers aren’t receiving special benefits by declaring that Rain will not receive additional punishment for his earlier transgressions (beyond a bogus week in confinement to “reflect”) and will be discharged as scheduled on July 10. One has to wonder how much longer a country’s patience can endure on this issue, but if I were calling the shots, I’d hold firm to my original belief: if celebrities want so much to be treated like ordinary people, then surely they can suck it up for 21 months’ worth of being treated the same as is everybody else?
Do you think the Ministry of Defense should abolish celebrity recruits? Leave your answers below!