BTS ARMY, the dedicated fanbase of South Korean boy band BTS, is distraught after news that the pop superstars will take a hiatus to serve in the actual army. BTS was the first K-pop act to take the top spot on the Billboard 200 (Forbes) and is at the leading edge of the “Korean Wave” of U.S. interest in South Korean movies and music, bringing $3.54 billion for the South Korean economy annually (LA Times). BTS members chose not to pursue an exemption to the universal conscription of men between 18 and 30 for 18 months of military service (BuzzFeed). South Korean men are subject to the draft because the Korean War never ended (The New Inquiry). The so-called “Forgotten War” has gone on for the last 70 years, a proxy war whose burden has fallen on Korean citizens on both sides of the border (Grunge).
In the 1950s, the U.S. military pivoted to a small country on the other side of the world. Though the U.S. had obliterated 64 Japanese cities during World War II, two with atomic bombs, the “U.S. Air Force estimated that North Korea’s destruction was proportionately greater.” Millions of civilians were killed by tens of thousands of tons of U.S. napalm, which almost entirely deforested and leveled the northern half of Korea (Asia-Pacific Journal). When refugees fled to South Korea, U.S. Army units mowed them down with automatic rifles (BBC News). Americans like 23-year-old Donald Nichols suddenly found themselves overseeing mass killings with a “self-proclaimed ‘legal license to murder” (Daily Beast). Al Gore Sr., the father of former Vice President Al Gore, suggested dropping dozens of nuclear bombs on North Korea to create a permanent “atomic death belt” (History News Network, NYTimes). The slaughter ended with a socialist one-party state in the north, a far-right, U.S.-supported dictatorship in the south, and an armistice between the U.S., China, and North Korea that paused hostilities without formally ending the war (History).
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The United States didn’t carpet-bomb Korea to defend democracy. U.S.-installed dictator Syngman Rhee had hundreds of thousands of South Koreans summarily executed and sent hundreds of thousands more suspected socialists to “re-education camps” over 12 years of brutal, autocratic rule (Sydney Morning Herald). For the United States, millions of Koreans were collateral damage in an attempt to gain a foothold in the new Cold War against China and the Soviet Union (Wilson Center).
Since then, South Korea has existed as a well-funded U.S. client state (Foreign Policy). The nation’s current president is a virulent anti-feminist (Time, Mel) who has celebrated U.S.-trained military dictator Chun Doo-hwan (YNA). A booming international sex trafficking industry (Politico) serves tens of thousands of U.S. troops (Al Jazeera), which supplies a massive international adoption complex (The New Inquiry). The Korean military is under the chain of command of U.S. generals; should fighting break out, it could be President Biden sending BTS to the front line (Lowy).
Dozens have been injured in protests against the deployment of a U.S. missile system (Financial Express, MSN) and the expansion of a U.S. military base in Jeju Island, where entire villages were massacred in an “eradication campaign” the U.S. oversaw two years before the Korean War (GMU, Korea Herald).
In the event of armed hostilities between the United States and North Korea or China, those first to suffer would not be U.S. residents living on the other side of the Pacific. Los Angeles or St. Louis residents have far less to fear if the Korean War once again becomes a shooting war than the 10 million residents of Seoul, living only 35 miles from the border with North Korea (SFGate). Those who would suffer from brutal U.S.-led sanctions against North Korea are not predominantly the upper echelons of government but its 26 million everyday residents. Any person or economic entity faces getting banned from the U.S. financial system entirely for doing business with North Korea, which is banned from exporting food, wood, and coal and cannot import industrial machinery, natural gas, or metal (CFR). The prohibition on financial transactions with North Korea has led to 40% of the population being undernourished, according to the United Nations (CBC).
News of the BTS army draft is a reminder that the U.S. government’s global overreach has real consequences on the lives of hundreds of millions worldwide, even when these actions are largely ignored or forgotten domestically. Groups in the United States and Korea are acting to remedy these harms by promoting people-to-people contacts, humanitarian aid, and de-escalating United States’ longest war. It’s a reminder that our solidarity with marginalized communities can’t stop at national borders.
• K-pop group BTS is taking a break for its members to complete mandatory military service.
• Universal male conscription in South Korea is a result of the unfinished Korean War.
• U.S. policies in the Korean peninsula endanger millions of people on both sides of the border.