What does military service mean for members of BTS – and their fans?

Jin is the first member of the K-pop supergroup to enlist, as fans hope to see ‘busking’ and await his ‘return from war’

On Tuesday, Kim Seok-jin, also known as Jin, became the first member of superstar septet BTS to begin service in the South Korean military. His enlistment follows an announcement in October from BTS’s label Big Hit that confirmed all seven members of the group would serve, beginning with Kim. The label called it a “milestone moment” that made it “possible to respect the needs of the country and for these healthy young men to serve with their countrymen”.

The announcement followed two years of deliberation over whether the biggest band in the world should be exempt from the 18-24 months of service required of all able-bodied South Korean men aged 18 to 28. A private survey conducted earlier this year showed that 60% of South Koreans were in favor of BTS’s exemption and even lawmakers had made efforts to exempt the group given their significant contribution to South Korea’s culture and economy – BTS brings in more than $3.6bn a year.

이션 제이어스 하입보이 pic.twitter.com/XdBPKbL7yA

— 팔팔 (@Aight88) October 18, 2022

Big Hit, a subsidiary of media conglomerate Hybe Corporation, promised that the band would return as a septet in 2025. That’s not a surprise given BTS’s massive popularity, but it is a small relief for their fandom, Army. Some groups, like Super Junior and Exo, stick together through years of uncertainty as individual members leave and return. But for many groups, enlistment is a natural end of the road.

For that reason, fans often worry about the fate of their favorite groups, creating countdown clocks that expire the day members are discharged and posting tongue-in-cheek tweets asking when their favorite idol will “return from war” (the majority of men do not see active service). In June, BTS struck fear in the hearts of some fans when their announcement of a planned “hiatus” as a group was taken as an indicator that their disbandment was imminent.

The South Korean government has said that they will allow BTS members to participate in national events for the “public good”. Clips of enlisted K-pop stars joyfully performing their hit songs in uniform for the public often go viral. In 2018, a YouTube video of Big Bang members Taeyang and Daesung performing their megahits “Bang Bang Bang” and “Fantastic Baby” to a rowdy crowd at the Jisanggun Festival gained popularity and now boasts more than 23m views.

Jin shows off freshly shaved hair on the K-pop social media platform Weverse ahead of his enlistment.
Jin shows off freshly shaved hair on the K-pop social media platform Weverse ahead of his enlistment. Photograph: Jin/AP

In October, a Twitter video of enlisted members of groups ONF and SF9 dancing to Hybe rookie girl group NewJeans’ hit Hype Boy gained more than 5m views. The men have been “busking” – a term that in South Korea describes both public vocal and dance performances – for the last few weeks at the Gyeryong World Military Culture Expo. Replies to the video were filled with BTS fans lightheartedly joking about how they may eventually see the group members in similar videos.

Enlistment preparations are a growing consideration for the industry now that K-pop has become a successful global export. As more groups debut with foreign members in a bid to appeal to an international fanbase, it has become more common to see groups fractured by mandatory military service.

In December 2021, the five South Korean-born members of group ONF surprised the industry when they announced they would enlist together, leaving their 23-year-old Japanese member as the sole active representative of the group. In typical industry fashion, ONF released their sixth EP Goosebumps on 3 December, promoted it until 7 December and began enlistment on 21 December.

Out of 14 Asian artists across seven labels, BTS remains the golden goose of its parent company , bringing in 87% of Hybe’s revenue at the time of its 2020 IPO. BTS’s staggered enlistment means Hybe can deliver lucrative solo projects from not-yet-enlisted members over the next year and a half. Member RM released his album Indigo earlier this month, while Jungkook featured on Dreamers, an official song of the Fifa World Cup, and performed at the games’ opening ceremony in November.

The announcement of BTS’s enlistment resulted in a 4.8% uptick in the company’s stock price, which had closed the day before at an all-time low. “The announcement has put an end to months of speculation about the group’s military service,” a senior analyst at Samsung Securities told Korea JoongAng Daily. “Now that the BTS-related uncertainty has disappeared, Hybe’s share performance should hinge on the results of its business strategy.”

It’s a tradition for Korean groups to post photos commemorating the moment they bid their enlisting teammates farewell. BTS’s photo set, shared to Twitter on Monday 12 December, showed the members gathered around Kim, who was sporting a military-mandated crew cut. The Korean caption read: “Our older brother!! Go and come back safely!! Love you.”

The post garnered over 2m likes and more than 148,000 fan replies, most of which echoed the sentiments expressed by one user whose profile proudly notes that she’s supported BTS since their 2013 debut: “So proud of you, Jin. Army will be here waiting for your safe return.”

Elizabeth de Luna

The GuardianTramp

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