The K-pop group BTS announced Tuesday June 14 to stop to rest and work on personal projects. But the conscription, compulsory in South Korea, could be at the origin of this decision more than an alleged exhaustion.
Nine years after its creation, the Korean group with 50 million albums sold, surprised everyone by announcing that it was taking a break. The third in nine years of career. What if behind BTS’s decision to take a break was an unspoken reason: compulsory military service? That’s what an expert says. The announcement of a temporary stop in the career of the K-pop group, whose members say “exhausted” and want to devote themselves to a solo career, has moved many fans, but specialists believe that there could be a more strategic reason. Any South Korean man under the age of 30 must complete two years of military service, partly because of the threat posed by North Korea.
The prospect of conscription is getting closer for the members of BTS, aged 24, for Jungkook, at 29, for Jin, who must enlist by next year or risk being imprisoned. “The question of military service was clearly present in the announcement”, said Lee Moon-won, a K-pop culture commentator interviewed by AFP. Allowing band members to focus on their own solo careers was “a logical decision”he adds, since the call to the flag of the seven boys will disrupt the composition of the group in the years to come.
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Other K-pop outfits, like Super Junior, have tried to continue performing and recording without their stars being held in the barracks. But BTS clearly does not want to continue their music if the group is not complete, Lee Moon-won believes.
Compulsory military service, even for stars
Seoul grants exemptions from military service to some top athletes, such as Olympic medalists, and classical music artists, but not to pop stars. The lack of a waiver for BTS, which would generate billions of dollars for the South Korean economy, has sparked debate, even resulting in a proposed law. But the text was not adopted by Parliament and BTS, faced with the approach of the deadline, took the “sensible decision to end his activities”explains the K-pop specialist.
It is difficult to avoid military service unless you are declared unfit. Refusing to serve is a crime that can lead to imprisonment and social ostracization, but despite this, some South Koreans go so far as to gain weight or undergo unnecessary surgeries, such as tooth extraction, to escape service. A 1990s pop star, Steve Yoo, renounced his South Korean citizenship to escape military service. But then his popularity plummeted and his career with it.
BTS has never taken a stand against mobilization: “As a young South Korean, I believe military service is a natural path. And as I have always said, I will answer the call of my country when it arrives”said Jin, one of the seven members of the group, in 2020.
The need for a “creative renewal”
BTS members have already benefited from a reform that, in 2020, raised the draft age for some artists from 28 to 30. A majority of South Koreans, 59 percent, say they support broader exemptions, but young men who have served in the military are strongly opposed, according to local media. For BTS, which has been producing music non-stop for nine years, creative burnout must have also weighed in on their decision to take a break, said Jeff Benjamin, K-pop columnist at Billboard, interviewed by AFP.
Even though the group has already announced breaks in the past, this one seems more “meaningful” because all BTS members will be working on new personal projects, he adds. The seven boys remain under contract with their label until 2026, which is “essential to keep them together”, underlines Mr. Benjamin. A label whose share price fell on the announcement of this break.
“If they have the freedom to try new things from a creative standpoint, it can put them in a better position to work together.he believes. I’ve always said BTS’s key to reaching out more broadly has been their honesty and openness, and it continues…even though this news seems more serious.”
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