SEOUL: A K-pop singer who was deported and barred from South Korea for avoiding military service by changing nationality came a step closer to being allowed to return in a surprise ruling on Thursday.
South Korea’s highest court said it was unlawful to deny a visa to Steve Yoo, who had huge success in the 1990s, more than 15 years after he was kicked out of the country.
Every able-bodied South Korean man is required to serve nearly two years of military service, often in remote areas along the heavily militarised border with North Korea.
Just as he was about to be called up in 2002, Yoo, better known in South Korea as Yoo Seung Jun, gave up his South Korean citizenship to became a naturalised US citizen and so did not have to serve, sparking public outrage.
The former star, now aged 42, filed a lawsuit four years ago challenging the decision of a South Korean consulate in the US to deny him a visa.
The case had already been dismissed twice by lower courts, which said his return would demoralise troops and provoke teenagers to evade conscription.
But in a ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court sent the case back to Seoul High Court for review, saying in a statement that “the law has no restrictions that prevent (him) from visiting South Korea”.
A recent survey showed that almost 70% of South Koreans thought his ban should be upheld.
Decades after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, for many young Korean men military service is an unwanted and deeply resented intrusion that interferes with their studies and career.
Some have taken extreme measures to avoid conscription, including a dozen music students who were caught last year having deliberately put on weight before their medical exam, hoping to be declared too heavy for service.
Others have undergone unnecessary surgery, including extracting their own teeth, and given themselves broken bones.
And like Yoo, some – including adult children of the country’s powerful lawmakers – have avoided the duty by obtaining foreign passports and giving up their South Korean citizenship.
Refusing to serve the duty is a crime in the South, which is still technically at war with nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
It can lead to jail terms and stigma that can affect social standing and employment prospects.
To justify Yoo’s re-entry ban, the South Korean government said that as a public figure Yoo violated the immigration act, which states that foreigners may be stopped from entering the country if they “pose a threat to public health and interest”.
Lee Yong-suk, an activist at Seoul-based NGO World Without War, said the government has been taking the wrong approach to the issue.
“Those who have served the duty are angry because there are so many problems with the country’s military,” Lee told AFP.
“Rather than really trying to improve the situation and make things better for conscripts, they have unfairly targeted and singled out an individual.”