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Absent with leave: calls grow for BTS members to postpone or skip military service

SEOUL (Reuters) - Calls are mounting within South Korea for members of megaband BTS to be granted alternatives or delays to mandatory military service, with some lawmakers and fans arguing they are doing plenty for their country without wearing a soldier’s uniform.

By law, all able-bodied men in South Korea aged between 18 and 28 must serve in the military for roughly two years as part of the country’s defences against North Korea.

The eldest member of the band, Jin, is 27 and will be required to sign up by the end of next year while the other six will reach the age of conscription over the next few years.

South Korea has granted exemptions for high-profile athletes such as Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min as well as classical musicians such as award-winning pianist Seong-Jin Cho, but to date there have been none for K-pop stars.

“Not everyone has to take up a rifle to serve the country,” Noh Woong-rae, a senior member of the ruling Democratic Party, told a party meeting on Monday in comments that received widespread media coverage.

Noh suggested BTS members could work as ambassadors in their overseas travels to promote a group of islets at the centre of a territorial dispute with Japan.

His comments follow a proposal by fellow party member Jeon Yong-gi last month to revise the law so that some K-pop stars could delay their service until the age of 30.

“For the sake of the fairness we are not talking about exempting them from their duty, but pop musicians and artists like BTS - their careers can blossom in their twenties,” Jeon, who has the backing of a dozen lawmakers, told Reuters.

“We cannot let military duty block their way at the height of their careers,” he said.

The public also appears to support special treatment for the band which has just become the first South Korean group to reach No.1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and has a massive global fan base.

Respondents to a Sept. 21 survey by domestic news website Kuki News showed 31.3% believed the band should not have to do their military service, while another 28.6% supported a postponement. Those supporting normal military service were around 30.5%.

Their label, Big Hit Entertainment, declined to comment on the matter, while individual members have previously said they are willing to complete their service.

“Military service is the natural duty and when duty calls, I will respond any time,” Jin told a news conference in February.

Big Hit, which plans to list on Oct. 15, has said in its IPO prospectus that military service is a key risk for investors.

That has not stopped investors jumping on the offering, however, with orders from retail investors totalling some 58.4 trillion won ($50.3 billion), some 607 times the value of shares on offer, lead arranger NH Investment & Securities said on Tuesday.

($1 = 1,161.9500 won)

Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Minwoo Park and Cynthia Kim; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

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