South Korea’s Conscription of K-Pop Group BTS Isn’t Just Ill-Considered. It’s a Human Rights Violation

It may sound hyperbolic to call compulsory military service an act of enslavement, but that’s exactly what it is.

The South Korean K-pop band BTS made headlines recently after announcing they will be taking a hiatus in order to comply with their country’s conscription law. The decision comes after years of debate as to whether the group should be granted an exemption from the law in light of their international prestige.

The members are “looking forward to reconvening as a group again around 2025 following their service commitment,” said Big Hit Music—the group’s management company—in an October 17 statement. The announcement came ten days after Lee Ki Sik, South Korea’s commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, told lawmakers it would be “desirable” for BTS members to be conscripted, arguing that it would be unfair to grant them an exemption while others have no choice in the matter.

“Under South Korean law, all able-bodied men are required to perform 18-21 months of military service,” the Associated Press explains. There have been some exemptions in the past, but they have been reserved mostly for high-performing athletes, classical musicians, and dancers.

“Without a revision of the law, the government can take steps to grant special exemptions,” the AP continues. “But past exemptions for people who performed well in non-designated competitions triggered serious debate about the fairness of the system.”

In 2020, South Korea revised its Military Service Act so BTS could postpone their military service until age 30. But their oldest member turns 30 in December, and other members are approaching that age as well, so delaying enlistment is no longer an option.

A Debilitating Decision

Though governments throughout history have often made poor decisions, there have been some government decisions that have been particularly ruinous, and the decision to conscript the members of BTS has got to be up there.

By forcing BTS to break up for a season, the South Korean government isn’t only depriving these young men of their freedom. It’s also depriving millions of fans of new music and, by extension, crippling a significant part of the South Korean economy.

As Business Insider recently reported, the country stands to lose out on billions in tourism, merchandise, and cosmetics as a result of this move.

“BTS contributes over $3.6 billion to South Korea's economy each year,” writes Britney Nguyen. “In 2017, one out of every 13 tourists who came to South Korea was because of BTS, and in 2018, 7% of foreign visitors, or about 800,000 tourists, came because of the group.”

Of course, it’s impossible to say just how much economic activity the group would have generated in the coming years had they been granted an exemption, but a safe bet would be somewhere between a lot and an awful lot.

In short, the South Korean government is really shooting itself in the foot by doing this. Sure, you can argue the fairness angle, but there comes a point where economic considerations really ought to take precedence.

The Elephant in the Room

Having said that, there’s a more fundamental point here that ought to take precedence over both fairness and economic considerations, and that’s the point about human rights.

To put it bluntly, conscription is not merely cruel or disrespectful or economically harmful. It is an act of enslavement. It is placing someone in a position of involuntary servitude. Such programs have no place in a free society.

One of the silver linings of the BTS story is that it highlights just how ubiquitous compulsory military service continues to be throughout the world. Currently, 49 countries have compulsory military service, often for 1-3 years, and many other countries (like the US) have selective service systems that enable them to compel civilians to serve in the nation’s military should the government deem it necessary.

It’s deeply troubling that the members of BTS are being forced to step away from their music in order to work in their nation’s military. But let’s not forget the millions of conscripts who never even had a hope of getting an exemption. They may not create as much economic value as BTS, but their freedom is just as important as anyone else’s.

Is Conscription Really Equivalent to Slavery?

Some may contend that calling conscription slavery isn’t really fair. After all, the system is being instituted by a government, not some private actor.

There are other differences as well. Whereas the point of slavery is simply to benefit the slavemaster, the point of conscription is defending the nation, a goal which clearly benefits the conscripts themselves. The means are also somewhat different. Under slavery, you are usually subjected to a master for life, whereas conscription only compels you for a few years. Also, the government often has at least some accountability to the people being conscripted, whereas slaves have pretty much no say over the system they live under.

These differences are significant, and they are worth acknowledging. But the question remains, am I any less a slave because I benefit from my master’s actions, or because it’s only for a few years, or because I’m allowed to express my opinion on the program through a vote?

Writing in For a New Liberty, the economist and political philosopher Murray Rothbard argues these differences don’t change the essence of the institution.

“There can be no more blatant case of involuntary servitude than our entire system of conscription,” Rothbard writes, referring to the American context. “Every youth is forced to register with the selective service system when he turns eighteen. He is compelled to carry his draft card at all times, and, at whatever time the federal government deems fit, he is seized by the authorities and inducted into the armed forces. There his body and will are no longer his own; he is subject to the dictates of the government; and he can be forced to kill and to place his own life in jeopardy if the authorities so decree. What else is involuntary servitude if not the draft?”

The key line here is where Rothbard says “his body and will are no longer his own.” The concept Rothbard is invoking is known as self-ownership. It’s the idea that your body, when you are free, is your property. That is, you “own” yourself.

This concept may be unfamiliar to some, but it’s critical for understanding what true freedom means. If you are a slave, you are quite literally owned by someone else, which means they get to decide what you do with your body. But if you own yourself, you are free, because you get to decide what you do with your body.

“The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to ‘own’ his or her own body,” Rothbard goes on to explain, “that is, to control that body free of coercive interference.”

The implications of this are staggering. What this means is that when governments act as if they have the right to control our bodies, they are making a de facto ownership claim…on us! And this doesn’t just go for conscription. Any time the government makes a decision about your body—whether it be forcing you to show up for jury duty or prohibiting you from using certain pharmaceuticals—they are acting as your slavemaster. They are usurping sovereignty from the one to whom it rightfully belongs: the individual.

The protection of human rights, then, must involve protection not just from private actors, but from governments. True freedom—true self-ownership—will never exist until governments relinquish their claims on our bodies.

In light of this, the proper solution to the BTS case is crystal clear. South Korea shouldn’t just grant the group an exemption; it should scrap the compulsory military service program entirely. That path is the only way to simultaneously uphold fairness, preserve the South Korean economy, and protect people’s right to use their body—their body—as they see fit.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.