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Scandals prompt South Koreans to dissolve celebrity soldier unit

By Frances Cha, CNN
July 23, 2013 -- Updated 0709 GMT (1509 HKT)
K-Pop star Rain's military service mainly involved promotional duties, such as posing for campaigns like this one.
K-Pop star Rain's military service mainly involved promotional duties, such as posing for campaigns like this one.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Celeb unit acting as military public relations department for 16 years is being disbanded
  • K-Pop stars Rain and Se7en's bad behavior at the center of controversial decision
  • Fierce nationwide backlash that meets any hint of special treatment

(CNN) -- From unauthorized dates to drunken massage parlor trips, some of South Korea's biggest K-Pop stars have been giving the military a bad name -- and now the top brass has had enough.

In a country where the mandatory two-year military service for all males is a big deal, the suggestion that celebrity recruits have been enjoying preferential treatment has created a fierce nationwide backlash. In addition to leading the top trending subjects on all nationwide news portals, social media and news sites were swamped by angry user comments, while military barracks rumbled with soldiers' complaints.

So last week the Ministry of National Defense announced it would be scrapping its celebrity soldier unit.

All able-bodied South Korean men must serve approximately two years in the miltary.
All able-bodied South Korean men must serve approximately two years in the miltary.

"Although we initially formed the unit to promote the military, a number of unfortunate incidents damaged the public image of the military and lowered the morale of all the regular soldiers who are in the service," said the ministry's vice-spokesperson Wi Yong-seob at a press conference.

Preferential treatment

On January 1 this year, South Korea awoke to paparazzi photos that showed K-Pop star Rain was secretly dating top actress Kim Tae-hee.

Rain landed himself in hot water because he was halfway through his military service and his secret liaisons involved special leave that is not given to regular soldiers, as well as civilian contact -- which is not permitted during duty.

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Last month, a local TV crew secretly taped a group of celebrity soldiers, including Rain and fellow K-Pop star Seven, drinking together in a private restaurant following a performance to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the Korean War.

Adding insult to injury, two of the celebs, Seven and Sangchu, then reportedly broke away from the group to visit an illegal massage parlor, which was also broadcast on national TV.

The backlash was immediate and furious, with the public demanding disciplinary action and musing about the integrity of military service.

"This news about Seven and Sangchu is a sign of the lack of military discipline even during the 20-month service period. And so the degeneration of the military service will continue," tweeted well-known lawyer Choi Young-ho.

In the barracks

Soldiers currently serving in the army were particularly disgruntled.

"The news made everyone very angry in the barracks," said Yoo-min Kim, 24, whose army service ended in May. "The question we were all asking was 'why do they get to have that kind of special treatment?'"

Some even questioned their entertainment value.

"What soldiers would like to see for those special concerts are the girl groups and not some male singer," said Kim Kwon, 29, who was recently discharged from the Ministry of Defense.

The fallout

With the closure of their unit, the 16 celebrity soldiers will be sent to regular military units -- with eight of them facing punishment for violating military rules. In the past, punishment for a similar offense ranged from reduced leave to a spell in a military jail.

Two members are being deployed to units in the provinces -- which will come as a rude shock after their relatively cushy desk job in the capital.

The history

First formed 16 years ago, the celebrity unit acted as the military's public relations office, and was comprised of singers, actors and comedians who used their various "skills" in public capacities such as concerts for soldiers or military broadcasts.

However, the issue of celebrities enlisting in the military has long been a controversial subject in South Korea.

With the popularity of Korean entertainment soaring overseas, some say that the K-Pop stars and actors should be exempt from army service due to the substantial foreign revenue they bring into the country.

In a similar vein, athletes are exempted from army service if they medal at the Olympic Games or win gold medals in the Asian Games.

But it tends to be a more sensitive issue when it comes to entertainers.

Famous cases

Psy is one of the most high-profile cases -- the "Gangnam Style" star famously repeated his two-year service in 2007 for negligence during duty in the form of private concerts and TV show appearances.

Psy was re-drafted into the army following a controversy over negligent duty.
Psy was re-drafted into the army following a controversy over negligent duty.

The entertainer who started it all, though, was a Korean-American singer in the 1990s called Yoo Seungjun.

The king of the K-Pop scene at the time, Yoo had voiced his eagerness to perform his military duty several times on television. But when the time actually came for him to enlist, the singer did an about-face and applied to become a U.S. citizen.

The public felt massively betrayed and in a stunning move, the South Korean government deported Yoo and banned him from the country for life.

"Since the controversy involving Yoo, the issue of military service has been taken extremely seriously and people have stricter standards toward TV stars," Korean pop columnist Moon Han-pyeong told South Korean newspaper Joongang Daily.

"People think there should be no special treatment or exemption for any group."

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