They are arguably South Korea’s most prominent cultural export, and now, at the peak of their fame, the members of BTS, the world’s biggest pop band, are taking a break to fulfill their mandatory military service. On Tuesday, lead vocalist Jung Kook joined his fellow K-pop bandmates in enlisting, a compulsory requirement for all able-bodied South Korean men aged 18-28. Just four weeks ago, he was basking in the success of his solo career crossover in New York.
Jung Kook wowed Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon with a Michael Jackson-esque performance, followed by a spontaneous public concert in Times Square that went viral on TikTok. Over the past few weeks, he collaborated with Justin Timberlake and Usher, topped charts with his debut album “Golden,” and his dance solo for the hit single “Standing Next to You” became a TikTok sensation. However, as he was ascending to new heights of stardom, he abruptly halted and returned to Seoul.
In a recent pizza party livestream, the 26-year-old and three other BTS members informed fans that it was time to follow three other bandmates into military duty. Fans couldn’t help but notice the shift in hairstyles, as the familiar fluffy perms of K-pop stardom were replaced by “eggheads,” anonymized buzzcuts befitting soldiers on the frontline.
Despite their global fame, there had been speculation over whether BTS, South Korea’s leading cultural export, would be exempt from military service. While previous exemptions were granted to Olympic medallists and classical musicians, a 2020 bill allowed BTS to delay their compulsory service until the age of 30. However, in October, their agency BigHit Music, owned by HYBE, confirmed that all seven members would fulfill their obligation, starting with the eldest, Jin, who enlisted in December 2022.
This hiatus not only accommodates military service but also provides members with time for individual projects. K-pop academic Grace Kao notes that, while it may seem harsh to Western audiences, such breaks are commonplace in South Korea for K-pop idols and K-drama stars.
BTS’ hiatus has been anticipated globally, with fans preparing for the departure of their favorite band members. Still, the actual departure days of RM, V, Jimin, and Jungkook heading off to camp were met with bittersweet emotions, as fans from various countries expressed their love in multiple languages.
BTS’ fandom, known as ARMY, has been recognized as the most engaged social media fanbase. With the departure of the four members, some fans are reported to be experiencing a brief “depression.” Nevertheless, the display of love continues, with BTS songs, including the lesser-known single “Spring Day,” unexpectedly topping charts in the US.
Industry watchers believe that BTS’s dedicated fanbase will likely sustain the band’s status during their hiatus. K-pop columnist Jeff Benjamin suggests that BTS’s management strategy, involving a consistent flow of content prepared by the members before enlistment, is crucial in maintaining support. Meanwhile, the absence of BTS in the K-pop scene presents opportunities for other emerging bands to shine on the global stage.
Associate Prof Jimmyn Parc notes that the break from media attention could benefit other K-pop groups, allowing them to receive more spotlight. While BTS is on hiatus, the industry may witness a win-win situation as other groups seize the opportunity to rise to prominence.