YEONCHEON, South Korea — Jin, the oldest member of K-pop supergroup BTS, was set to enter a South Korean front-line boot camp on Tuesday to begin his 18-month mandatory military service, as fans gathered at the base to say goodbye to their star.
Six other younger BTS members will join the military consecutively in the next few years, meaning South Korea’s most successful music band will have to take a break, probably for a few years. Their hires have sparked a fierce domestic debate over whether it’s time to overhaul the country’s conscription system to extend exemptions to high-profile entertainers like BTS, or not provide such benefits to anyone.
With lawmakers squabbling in parliament and surveys showing public opinion sharply divided over offering exemptions to BTS members, their management agency said in October that all BTS members would fulfill their mandatory military duties. Big Hit Music said that both the company and members of BTS “look forward to reconvening as a group around 2025 following their commitment to service.”
Jin, who turned 30 earlier this month, enters the boot camp in Yeoncheon, a town near the tense border with North Korea, for five weeks of basic military training along with other new enlisted soldiers. After that training, he would be assigned a specific role and sent to a particular army unit, a process all other conscripts go through.
“It’s time for a curtain call,” Jin wrote on online fan platform Weverse on Tuesday morning. He posted a photo of himself sporting a military buzzcut on Sunday and a message that read, “Ha ha ha. It’s cuter than I expected.”
Mandy Lee from Hong Kong was among the first group of people to gather at the base to see Jin off. “I want to wait (for) Jin and see him enter the army and wish him all the best,” said Lee.
About 20-30 fans showed up near the camp, a small number considering Jin’s huge popularity. Jin and Bit Hit Music have separately asked fans not to visit the site to avoid problems caused by a rush and did not schedule any special events involving Jin near the base on Tuesday.
Police officers have continued to close off some streets to maintain order and prevent accidents, and officials have dispatched an ambulance to the scene. Strict security measures were expected as South Korea is still reeling from October’s devastating Halloween crush in Seoul, which left 158 people dead.
By law, all able-bodied South Korean males must serve 18-21 months in the military. But the law gives special exemptions to athletes, classical and traditional musicians, and ballet and other dancers if they have won top prizes in certain competitions and boost national prestige. K-pop stars and other entertainers do not get such benefits even though they gain worldwide fame and win major international awards.
“Even though BTS members have chosen to join the military, there are still some sort of regrets,” said Jung Duk-hyun, a pop culture commentator. “Those in the pop culture sector experience little disadvantage and unfairness, compared to those in the pure arts sector or athletes. This is likely to continue to be a topic of controversy, so I wonder if it should be discussed on an ongoing basis.
Exemptions or evasion of duties are a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, where conscription forces young men to suspend their studies or professional careers. Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and Lee Ki Sik, head of South Korea’s recruitment agency, previously said it would be “desirable” for BTS members to fulfill their military duties to ensure fairness in the country’s military service.
Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general who commanded South Korea’s special forces, said the government must take action to revoke all exemptions as the shrinking army’s recruiting pool is “a very serious” problem is amid the country’s declining fertility rate. He called a debate over BTS’s military conscription “unnecessary” as it was not raised by BTS members, who have shown a willingness to carry out their duties.
Founded in 2013, BTS has a legion of global supporters who call themselves the “Army”. The other members are RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook, who is the youngest at 25. The group expanded its popularity in the West with 2020’s mega hit “Dynamite,” the band’s first all-English song that made BTS the first K-pop act to top Billboard’s Hot 100. The band performed in sold-out arenas around the world and was even invited to speak at United Nations rallies.
Hybe Corp., Big Hit’s parent company, said in October that each member of the band would focus on individual activities around their military service plans for now. In October, Jin released “The Astronaut,” a single co-written by Coldplay.
Jung, the commentator, said sold projects could give BTS members much-needed time to develop themselves after many years of working together as a group. But Cha Woo-jin, a K-pop commentator, said it’s unclear whether BTS would enjoy the same popularity as a group when they reunite in a few years after finishing their military duties.
In August, Defense Secretary Lee said that serving BTS members would likely be allowed to continue practicing and join other non-serving BTS members in overseas group tours.
Cha said K-pop’s global influence wouldn’t be much hurt by BTS members’ sign-ups, as they “seem to represent K-pop, but aren’t all K-pop.” Chung agreed, saying other K-pop groups like BLACKPINK, Stray Kids, and aespa could rise further.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea.