South Korea’s military appears to want to conscript members of the K-pop supergroup BTS for mandatory military duties, as the public remains sharply divided over whether they should be given exemptions. Lee Ki Sik, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, told lawmakers on Friday that it’s “desirable” for BTS members to fulfill their military duties to ensure fairness in the country’s military service. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup made almost identical comments about BTS at a parliamentary committee meeting, and Culture Minister Park Bo Gyoon said his ministry would soon finalize its position on the issue. Whether the band’s seven members must serve in the army is one of the hottest issues in South Korea because its oldest member, Jin, faces possible enlistment early next year after turning 30 in December. Under South Korean law, all able-bodied men are required to perform 18-21 months of military service. But the law provides special exemptions for athletes, classical and traditional musicians, and ballet and other dancers who have won top prizes in certain competitions that enhance national prestige. Without a revision of the law, the government can take steps to grant special exemptions. But past exemptions for people who performed well in non-designated competitions triggered serious debate about the fairness of the system. Read: 3 members of K-pop sensation BTS diagnosed with COVID-19 Since the draft forces young men to suspend their professional careers or studies, the dodging of military duties or creation of exemptions is a highly sensitive issue. In one recent survey, about 61% of respondents supported exemptions for entertainers such as BTS, while in another, about 54% said BTS members should serve in the military. Several amendments of the conscription law that would pave the way for BTS members to be exempted have been introduced in the National Assembly, but haven’t been voted on with lawmakers sharply divided on the matter. Lee, the defense minister, earlier said he had ordered officials to consider conducting a public survey to help determine whether to grant exemptions to BTS. But the Defense Ministry later said it would not carry out such a survey. In August, Lee said if BTS members join the military, they would likely be allowed to continue practicing and to join other non-serving BTS members in overseas group tours. People who are exempted from the draft are released from the military after three weeks of basic training. They are also required to perform 544 hours of volunteer work and continue serving in their professional fields for 34 months.
A new round of deadly attacks and forced conscription has begun against ethnic Tigrayans in an area of Ethiopia now controlled by Amhara regional authorities in collaboration with soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, people fleeing over the border to Sudan tell The Associated Press as the yearlong war intensifies. Urgent diplomatic meetings with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigray leader Debretsion Gebremichael in an attempt to calm the fighting have found a small “window of opportunity" as the rival sides agreed a political solution through dialogue was required, African Union envoy Olesegun Obasanjo said in briefings Monday. The State Department said U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman saw a window to act with Obasanjo and was meeting with him in Ethiopia's capital Monday night. Tigray forces have been approaching Addis Ababa to press the prime minister to step aside, leading Ethiopia’s government to declare a state of emergency last week while the U.S. and other countries urged citizens to leave immediately. The war has killed thousands after political tensions with the Tigray forces who once dominated the national government turned deadly. Those fleeing the western Tigray communities of Adebay and Humera in the past week described warnings from Amhara authorities against supporting the Tigray forces. The accounts confirm warnings by the U.S. and others that Eritrean soldiers remain in the Tigray region, and they indicate that pressure is growing on Tigrayans of mixed heritage who have tried to live quietly amid what the U.S. has alleged as ethnic cleansing in western Tigray. Read: Urgent efforts to calm Ethiopia as war reaches one-year mark As reports grew about the Tigray forces’ momentum, Amhara authorities at a public meeting in Adebay on Oct. 29 warned residents against supporting them, two men who fled to Sudan said. “There are people working for (the Tigray forces). You should give them to us or we will kill you all together,” one who fled, 28-year-old Mawcha Asmelash, recalled authorities saying. Five days later, he said, Amhara militia attacked. “I saw four people being killed on the run,” he said. He and other men hid in the bush for two days, gathering information from local women and trying to judge whether it was safe to return. But the women estimated scores of men had been killed and residents had been forbidden to bury their bodies. The women urged them to flee. Another man who fled Adebay, 36-year-old Berhane Gebremikael, confirmed the public meeting. He said he saw one man killed as he ran from Amhara militia and the Eritrean soldiers, who he said have a camp in the community. “They called it revenge,” he said. He described a perilous situation for Tigrayan residents of Adebay who had remained during the war, with many changing their identity, paying bribes or using mixed heritage for a measure of protection. Berhane, whose mother is Eritrean, now fears he can’t return. “Maybe the worst things will happen in the next days,” he said. “The international community should intervene.” A man who fled to Sudan from the city of Humera, near the Eritrean border, told the AP he had stayed there because of his part-Tigrayan heritage, but last week Amhara authorities “started collecting people. Young men and boys are being forced to join the fighting.” Again, it started with a public warning, 28-year-old Alemu Abraha said. Then Amhara authorities, along with Eritrean soldiers, started visiting homes at night to take people away. His friends were taken, he said, and he believes the men are being sent to the Amhara region, where most fighting has occurred in recent months. Amhara regional spokesman Gizachew Muluneh did not respond to AP questions. Amhara regional officials have asserted that western Tigray is historically their land, and during the war witnesses and humanitarian workers have described scores of thousands of Tigrayans forced from communities there. Read: UN report says Ethiopia’s war marked by ‘extreme brutality’ Meanwhile, reports of mass detentions of Tigrayans continue under the state of emergency. An Ethiopian Orthodox Church official in Addis Ababa, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said dozens of priests, monks, deacons and others had been detained in the capital because of their ethnicity. Ethiopian authorities have said they are detaining people suspected of supporting the Tigray forces. The government-created Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in a statement noted with concern that “arrests appeared to be based on ethnicity” and included the elderly and mothers with children. As the war closes in, Ethiopia’s government insists that life in the capital remains normal. On Sunday, scores of thousands of people rallied in Addis Ababa in a show of support, some carrying signs criticizing the international community, including foreign media. On Monday, AU envoy Obasanjo, a former Nigerian president, told the AU Peace and Security Council he saw a window of opportunity after meeting separately with Ethiopia's prime minister and the Tigray leader over the weekend. The rival sides agree “the differences opposing them are political and require political solution through dialogue," he said. The envoy added, however, that “the window of opportunity we have is very little and that time is paramount for any intervention” in the critical situation facing not only Ethiopia but the Horn of Africa at large. He repeated calls for dialogue without preconditions, an immediate cease-fire and immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that envoy Feltman met with the prime minister Friday and then went to neighboring Kenya to meet its president before returning to Ethiopia on Monday to “urgently press the parties to de-escalate the conflict and negotiate.” There was no indication that Feltman, like Obasanjo, went to the Tigray region. Price simply said that “we have engaged with the (Tigray forces) as well.” The prime minister's spokeswoman has called the meeting with Feltman “constructive," with no details.