BTS star Jin begins his mandatory South Korean military service on Tuesday, becoming the first member of the band to enlist since a hiatus was announced earlier this year, and has left fans heartbroken over the uncertain future of the K-pop juggernaut.
The septet is widely regarded as the country’s greatest cultural phenomenon of all time – selling stadiums around the world and dominating the charts while raking in billions and building a global legion of fans known as the Army.
But all able-bodied men in South Korea are required to serve at least 18 months in the military, and while there has been years of debate over whether BTS deserves an exception, the band confirmed in October that all members will enlist.
Jin – whose full name is Kim Seok-jin – will begin five-week training on Tuesday, the military said.
Yonhap news agency reported that the star is expected to be deployed to a “front-line unit” near the border with North Korea, with which South Korea is technically still at war.
“We ask that you keep your heartwarming words of support and farewell in your hearts,” BTS label Big Hit Music told fans last week, urging them to stay away from the family-only entrance ceremony.
Fans were stunned in June when the group announced they were going on hiatus, citing exhaustion and pressure and a desire to pursue solo careers. But analysts said the announcement was strategically timed due to mandatory military service.
The group will reunite around 2025 when its seven members have finished their service.
“For a while it was true that there were a lot of fans who spent days just crying,” a South Korean fan who runs the @5heterotopia Twitter account told AFP.
Nimah Mustafa, a 20-year-old fan from Dubai, added: “[Jin’s absence] will be like a huge…emptiness to me.”
South Korea exempts classical musicians and some top athletes, such as B. Olympic medalists, but pop stars do not qualify.
However, BTS has already benefited from a 2020 draft law revision that extended the draft period for some entertainers from 28 to 30 years. Jin, the oldest member of the band, turned 30 on December 4th.
The seismic shifts for BTS in 2022 have sparked feverish speculation among fans and K-pop viewers alike as to what the future holds for the group: will they maintain their fame or fight to reignite that success?
Some male K-pop stars are struggling to resume their careers after military service in a cutthroat industry where artists are easy to replace.
“For the K-pop industry, the withdrawal of BTS will be a big thing,” Lee Taek-gwang, a professor of cultural studies at Kyung Hee University (KHU), told AFP. “They may lose public interest while they’re away, and the drop in popularity will hurt their business. It wouldn’t be easy for the boy band to reunite.”
However, other pundits have pointed to the massive success of BTS, saying the stars will be an exception to this trend.
They “gained another level of popularity, influence and credibility,” said Lee Ji-young, BTS expert and professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “So they won’t be forgotten by other artists in a highly competitive K-pop industry.”
Since their debut in 2013, BTS have been widely credited with doing more than any diplomat or celebrity to bolster the image and soft power of South Korea, which is now considered a global cultural powerhouse.
They were invited to address the United Nations and meet US President Joe Biden at the White House. They are also official ambassadors for the 2030 World Expo in Busan, South Korea.
The South Korean government has credited BTS with bringing billions of dollars into the economy. But despite this success, a draft proposal to grant them service exemptions proved too controversial and never made it through Parliament.
“In South Korea, military service is the indicator of egalitarianism… [where] all men are equal,” said KHU’s Lee, adding that it is a “necessary” symbol of citizenship.