YEONCHEON, South Korea — Jin, the oldest member of K-pop supergroup BTS, was due to enter a frontline recruit training camp in South Korea on Tuesday to begin his 18-month mandatory military service as fans gather near the base to say goodbye to their star.
Six other young BTS members will be enlisting in the army one after another in the coming years, meaning South Korea’s most successful music group will probably need to take a break for a few years. Their enlistment sparked a fierce internal debate over whether it was time for the country to revise its conscription system to extend exemptions to include prominent entertainers like BTS or not to give anyone such advantages.
With lawmakers debating in parliament and polls showing sharply divided public opinion over granting exemptions to BTS members, the governing agency said in October that all BTS members will fulfill their mandatory military duties. Big Hit Music said that both the label and BTS members “look forward to reuniting as a group around 2025 after the service commitment.”
Jin, who turned 30 earlier this month, will enter training camp in Yeoncheon, a town near the tense border with North Korea, for five weeks of basic military training, along with other new recruits. After this training, he was given a specific role and sent to a specific army unit, a process that all other recruits go through.
“It’s curtain search time,” Jin wrote on the online fan platform Weverse on Tuesday morning. He posted a photo of himself on Sunday with a military buzz and said, “Ha ha ha. It’s cuter than I expected.”
Mandy Lee from Hong Kong was one of the first group of people to gather near the base to see Jin off. “I want to wait for Jin and see him enlist and wish him the best,” Lee said.
About 20-30 fans showed up near the camp, a small number considering Jin’s huge popularity. Jin and Bit Hit Music separately asked fans not to visit the site to avoid any problems caused by the crowd, and did not plan any special events involving Jin near the base on Tuesday.
Police officers continued to block some streets to maintain order and prevent any accidents, and authorities sent an ambulance to the area. Tight security was expected as South Korea was still reeling from the devastating Halloween crush that killed 158 people in Seoul in October.
By law, all healthy South Korean men must serve in the military for 18-21 months. However, the law grants special exemptions to athletes, classical and traditional musicians, ballet and other dancers who have won first prizes and increased national prestige in certain competitions. K-pop stars and other entertainers cannot enjoy such benefits, even if they achieve worldwide fame and win major international awards.
Jung Duk-hyun, a pop culture commentator, said, “Even though BTS members chose to enlist, there are still some regrets.” “Those in the popular culture sector experience some disadvantage and injustice compared to those in the pure arts sector or athletes. This will likely continue to be a topic of discussion, so I wonder if it should be discussed all the time.
Exemptions or evasion is a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, where the draft has forced young men to suspend their education or professional careers. Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and the head of South Korea’s recruitment office, Lee Ki Sik, have previously said it would be “desirable” for BTS members to perform their military duties to ensure justice in the country’s military service.
Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general who commanded South Korea’s special forces, said the government should act to remove any exemptions as the army’s dwindling recruiting pool is a “very serious” issue amid the country’s declining fertility rate. He called a discussion about BTS’ military service “unnecessary” because it wasn’t brought up by BTS members who showed a willingness to fulfill their duties.
BTS was founded in 2013 and has a worldwide army of supporters calling themselves the “Army”. Its other members are RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook, the youngest 25 years old. The group expanded their popularity in the West with the band’s 2020 megahit “Dynamite”. BTS is the first K-pop artist to top Billboard’s Hot 100. The group has performed sold-out stages around the world and has even been invited to speak at United Nations meetings.
Big Hit’s parent company, Hybe Corp., said in October that each member of the group will, for now, focus on individual activities planned as part of their military service plans. In October, Jin released the Coldplay co-written single “The Astronaut”.
Commentator Jung said the sold projects could give BTS members much-needed time to develop themselves after working together as a group for many years. However, Cha Woo-jin, a K-pop commentator, said it’s unclear whether BTS will enjoy the same popularity as a group when they reunite after completing their military duties in a few years.
In August, defense minister Lee said that incumbent BTS members would likely be allowed to join and continue to practice with other BTS members who did not serve on overseas group tours.
Cha said that K-pop’s global influence won’t suffer much as BTS members are enlisted because they “seem to represent K-pop but are not everything to K-pop.” Chung agreed, saying that other K-pop groups like BLACKPINK, Stray Kids, and aespa could rise even higher.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea.