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Why Do Korean Actors Go to Military?

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Last updated:

Korean actors make their way into the movie and theater industry, becoming huge stars in the heyday of their youth. 

But, once they turn 18, almost all males end up serving in the South Korean military.

So, why do Korean actors go to military? According to South Korean law, it’s compulsory. Once men turn 18, they must enlist. 

However, some celebrities can defer enlistment or receive an exemption. Even still, this is difficult to come by, and conscription is a heated debate in South Korea.

This is because of South Korea’s long history with war, particularly in terms of the Korean War (1950 to 1953). 

Their tense relationship with North Korea ever since has made military reinforcement crucial to their safety and survival.

Basic Rules of Enlistment

Once Korean national men turn 18 years of age and graduate high school, it is mandatory for them to report for active duty. 

In fact, the government expects all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 to perform some aspect of military service. 

This can include battle training but also research, industrial technology, records, and social work.

This mandate holds for Koreans with dual citizenship living in another country as well. However, they must choose their loyalty prior to becoming a citizen and by their18th birthday.

If they choose to revoke their Korean citizenship, they will classify as a foreigner. For Korean nationals abroad, they will have problems returning to Korea as a natural-born citizen. 

They will have to go back to their residential country and present a visa along with all the typical restrictions for other foreigners.

Deferments & Exemptions

Some men can defer their enlistment until they are 28 years old. This is common for many Korean actors and idols, so they don’t impede the progress of their careers. 

In other cases, some will wait until after graduating college, but they must display exemplary intelligence and proficiency in their chosen field.

Most finish their mandatory service in their early 20s. 

But, other men can complete military duty without stepping one foot onto an army base. This is the case with things like prior experience in police work.

Even if someone is in poor health, they will find receiving an exemption difficult to obtain. 

They can enlist for non-active duty by doing other services for the government. Things like clerical or social work are the most common of these. 

But, if the person has a serious illness like cancer or diabetes, they will receive an exemption.

Automatic & Allowable Exemptions

Some specific groups of people are automatically exempt from serving in the South Korean military. 

For instance, women do not have the same mandate, but the army does accept them if they wish to join.

Also, particular professions and exceptional skills don’t have to join. Ballet performers, musicians, and gold-medal athletes are some examples of these. 

However, they will complete basic military training over a month. 

As long as they stay on with their profession, they’ll attend a few days of training each year over the following six years.

Length of Time Required to Serve

The length of time required for the Korean military is the fourth longest in the world. However, many factors go into this. The biggest one is the branch of the military a person serves. 

The Air Force is 24 months, and the Navy is 23 months while the Marines and Army are 21 months.

The second other determining factor is their status in non-active or active duty. These are usually 24 and 36 months respectively. 

However, there may be more or less time depending on particular exemption rules and other such conditions. 

Nationwide Debates about Enlistment

There’s a huge debate over conscripted enlistment like this in South Korea that has grown since the early 2000s. 

First, it is not permissible to object to military service for any reason whatsoever and can lead to an arrest.

This is unlike the US, where you will get drafted, you can do it under protest and no one will arrest you for it. They just mark it down in your file.

Then there is the matter around people wanting to shorten the length of time due to South Korea’s relationship with North Korea. 

However, the government doesn’t seem like it will budge on this point any time soon.

Celebrity Controversies

Also, many scandals and controversies directly involve Korean celebrities, particularly athletes, idols, and actors. 

At one time, there was a specific branch designated for these particular Koreans. This made it easier for them to serve while also maintaining their careers.

But, public outrage at celebrities’ preferential treatment and issues with the branch forced the government to shut it down permanently. 

Additionally, there is a push to pass the “BTS Law,” which will revise Korea’s Military Service act.

Preferential Treatment

Celebrities will be exempt from service if the government has recognized an individual’s contribution to spreading Korean culture. 

All the males comprising the K-pop group, BTS, have received such honors. But, some argue this would weaken the country and open the door to other non-essential exemptions.

However, this doesn’t come without precedent. After all, athletes who are in perfectly good health and excellent physical shape can receive a military exemption. 

Therefore, there is heavy consideration and support for doing away with exemptions altogether.

These debates do not appear to be going away anytime soon. 

Unless they change the method and rules for enlistment or things change with North Korea, these arguments will continue.


Because military service is compulsory in South Korea, many actors go into it because they have to. 

They face serious repercussions such as jail time if they don’t, especially if they complain or object.

However, it’s important to understand Korea’s long and intense history, especially since the Korean War.

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    About The Author

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    Jason Park

    Jason has been living in Seoul for over 4 years, and during that time, he has experienced many of the city's hidden stores. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others. Jason has been quoted and referenced by different major media companies like Mashed, Distractify, ThePrint and TastingTable. In his free time, he likes to watch Korean dramas and learn more about Korean culture.

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