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Celebrities and the Reality of Military Service

2004/12/02 | 2002 views | Permalink | Source

By Han Eun-jung
Staff Reporter

In a country whose draft laws stipulate all adult males must serve and protect his country, evading conscription is a deeply rooted social problem. Every few years, the public watches as actors, singers and athletes are thrown into the spotlight upon being found guilty of manipulating health records and bribing influential officials.

The most recent example occurred earlier this month when a trio of popular actors were found guilty of dodging the mandatory military service and were forced to enlist. However, actors Song Seung-hun, Jang Hyuk and Han Jae-sok were just three in the ring of 80 professional athletes and actors that forked over large sums of money to learn how to taint urine test results in routine physical check-ups by the Military Manpower Administration (MMA).

Song, Jang and Han are now in basic training, beginning their 24 months of military service, while comedian Shin Seung-whan and SK Wyverns' Cho Chin-ho were given light prison sentences. However, attempts to avoid military duty by entertainers and athletes continue time and time again. Each time, more people and more cunning methods are discovered and this leads to greater public uproar. Usually, public sentiment conflicts _ some are quick to criticize while others express sympathy.

Why do high profile celebrities resort to illegal and risky measures to avoid serving in the military?

The answer may have to do with timing. All men holding South Korean citizenship must go in for a physical when they reach the age of 19 to determine whether they are eligible to serve and the majority enlist in their early 20s.

This becomes a problem for celebrities in show business or the world of sports, who are either already at the peak of their careers or are just beginning. And their celebrity status depends not only on themselves, but the fickle public.

For budding stars and the ones already in full bloom, putting everything on hold for two years isn't an easy task. Song and others said the same thing _ they acted out of fear that they may lose what they had or what they could achieve in the future.

Celebrities Who Go Willingly

Not all celebrities avoid the draft. There have been cases of entertainers going willingly. Actors Cha In-pyo and Lee Hoon are two who enlisted without a fight despite their status as top stars. Upon completion, they received the same love and attention from their fans as they did before enlisting, perhaps even more so for having served. In fact, stars that serve outnumber the ones who avoid the draft.

Many may remember two years ago, when singer Hong Kyung-min flashed a bright smile and waved to his fans before joining his assigned military unit, despite the fact that he was leaving just as his music was at the height of its popularity.

Hong was discharged upon completion of military service one day after Song and the others in the draft-dodging scandal were enlisted, making for an obvious contrast. "I haven't done anything to receive all this attention. All I did was serve my country, like every other Korean man", Hong said, in the same manner he did back in 2002 to the flock of reporters who were waiting for him outside his post.

While the media turned its attention to those involved in the scandal, Park Jung-chul, a well-known television soap actor, enlisted last week, while 28 year-old actor Hong Kyong-in joined yesterday. Actor and former member of boy band G.O.D. Yoon Kye-sang received a December date, while actor Soh Ji-sup, currently starring in the KBS drama "Saranghada Mianhada (I'm Sorry, I Love You)", said he will enlist this January. Movie star Won Bin has said on numerous occasions he intends to join sometime next year.

However, there are cases of stars that fade away, never able to recapture their popularity before joining the military. One example is singer Kim Min-woo.

In 1990, not much had changed from the late '80s music scene, which was saturated with lush ballads directed at the sentimentalist in all of us. Kim just released "Sarangilbbunyam" and "Ibyongyolcha-aneso", a pair of sappy love songs resembling the ones that veteran balladeers like Byun Jin-sup were making popular. Kim also had a certain boyish charm, complete with a shy smile and sad puppy dog eyes. Overall, Kim was set for a promising career.

Or so he thought. A year of hard work resulted in a successful album, but while Kim was concentrating on his career, the time to enlist silently crept up to his side.

"Of course I was scared and worried. Who wouldn't have been? I was riding the top of the charts but I was still a fresh face", Kim Min-woo said, recalling the moment of his enlistment.

"Having already graduated college, there really wasn't any reason for me to delay my draft date", he said. "I knew that at some point or other I would have to serve so I decided that I was going to do it.

"I remember thinking to myself that as long as I was going to go, I might as well do it willingly and happily".

He spent the next 18 months in the civil defense unit and played the drums in the military band, awaiting his discharge date so that he could pick up where he left off. However, when he finally completed his service, Kim found himself returning to a very different scene. It didn't take long to realize that during his time away, the musical landscape had undergone a complete makeover. Rappers like Seotaiji and Boys and the pounding rhythms of hip _ hop and dance music drowned out ballads.

Kim has shifted to a completely different path in life, working as a Jaguar and Land Rover salesman in Seoul. However, he has recently taken up singing again and is currently preparing a new album

On the other hand, Byun Woo-min, who a decade ago was one of the most sought-after actors, also made the mistake of trying to get out of the compulsory conscription. He later enlisted like Song and the rest, but in time, the scandal was forgotten and he was able to return to acting after completing his service.

If the public can learn to forgive, entertainers with true talent will withstand any time and generation and not have anything to worry about. And this goes to celebrities up for the draft in the near future. It really is and has always been up to the individuals themselves, which proves once again that there never was nor will be a shortcut or an easy way out.

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