The BTS-Led K-Pop Boom Hits a Military Roadblock
SEOUL — Will BTS take a forced break for military service?
That question has vexed many in the music world for over two years as some of the seven members of the K-pop act come of military age. Even before BTS announced in June it was taking a break from group activities to focus on solo projects, sentiment inside South Korea’s government seemed to be building for the boy band to become the first K-pop group to receive a special exemption to mandatory military service, which is required of all able-bodied Korean men ages 18-28.
In recent months, the band’s soft power has surged to the forefront of discussions in Korea, the world’s seventh-largest music market. So much so that Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said during a parliamentary hearing in August that a public poll on whether BTS should be exempted from mandatory military service would figure in the decision. The next day, the defense ministry appeared to change its mind, declaring it “will not arrange a public poll on the matter, nor make decisions on the issue of BTS’ military service solely based on the result of a poll.”
The members of BTS have already deferred their compulsory service thanks to the so-called “BTS law” passed in December 2020 that allows K-pop entertainers awarded government medals to join the armed forces by age 30 — up from 28 — with the recommendation of the culture minister. With or without the deferment, all able-bodied Korean men must serve at least 18 months in the military — a requirement that has to do with the threat of invasion from North Korea.
The issue could come to a head as early as December when Jin, the group’s oldest member, turns 30. With the pressure building, on Wednesday (Oct. 5) Culture Minister Park Bo-gyoon suggested a timeline for a final recommendation, saying, “Our ministry will settle on a position soon, before Jin’s enlistment is decided on in December.”
South Korea’s National Assembly is currently considering at least three revisions to the conscription law. On Sept. 19, Kim Young-bae, a representative from the main opposition party, proposed a law extending to “pop celebrities” like BTS provisions that already allow athletes and artists such as classical musicians to serve as “art and sports personnel,” allowing them to continue their careers in a sort of “alternative service.” (The culture ministry has said it favors that proposal as well.)
The mayor of Busan, Park Hyung-jun, has also expressed support for a BTS military exemption, as the members are ambassadors in an effort to bring the 2030 World Expo to Busan, a southern port city that is hosting a free 90-minute BTS concert on Oct. 15.
The ultimate decision-making power, however, resides with the national assembly, which can either change the law on military conscription or add exemption qualifications for K-pop artists like BTS.
“The national government and its authorities are interested in giving the group an exemption to military service for political advantage and to thwart any risks to the group’s value to the economy,” says Lee Taek-gwang, a professor of cultural studies at Kyung Hee University. “But no one is willing to take responsibility and is deferring making a decision on the possible exemption as it’s such a sensitive matter,” he says. “Sentiments of egalitarianism are still strong in our country.”
For his part, Jin said in 2020 that he would “respond whenever the country called.” Then in April, during BTS’ concert in Las Vegas, he said he “decided to leave most matters in the hands of the label” when it comes to discussions of the military.
While BTS members have expressed their willingness to join the military when called, HYBE, the parent company of BTS label Big Hit, has been more circumspect when it comes to questions about the group’s military duties. It’s an understandable stance considering BTS’ share of HYBE’s revenue was about 60% in 2021, according to one analyst estimate, although that is down from 85% in 2020.
HYBE acquired Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings in April 2021, which has helped diversify its revenue. But with a forced BTS split looming, on Thursday (Oct. 6) NH Investment & Securities, one of South Korea’s largest securities firms, lowered its target stock price for HYBE by 19% to 250,000 won ($177) citing a “delay in growth even after acquiring Ithaca Holdings.”
Other K-pop groups with members who were born in 1994 and 1995 will also face the military deadline soon, including four of 10 members of SM Entertainment’s NCT 127, half the members of YG Entertainment’s iKON, two of nine members of FNC Entertainment’s SF9 and two of seven members of IST Entertainment’s Victon.
Government exemptions have been granted to Olympic medalists, Asian Games gold medalists and winners of domestic and international competitions. In the sports world, exemptions haven’t caused “too much of a commotion,” says Kwon Joon-won, a professor of entertainment management at Dong-ah Institute of Media and Arts. But in music, there is “the perception that these pop stars already have it all when it comes to money, fame and fortune.”
Since 2000, 607 artists have been awarded military exemptions, with 87 receiving them after winning at the Dong-a Korean Traditional Music Competition. (As many as eight competitors per year have been awarded the exception at the annual competition.)
A Gallup Korea poll taken in April found that 59% of respondents want pop stars to receive military exemptions. But a poll in September by marketing firm Jowon C&I showed 54.1% of people thought BTS should carry out its military duties. The pro-military sentiment was even higher among younger respondents: Around 73% in their 20s, and 60% in their 30s, said BTS should serve in the military.
Some have also argued that a BTS breakup could harm the Korean economy, however. The attention around BTS helps generate some $3.54 billion in visits from foreigners and exports of consumer goods like clothes, makeup and food, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. Representative Sung Il-jong of the ruling People Power Party has estimated that a No. 1 song on the Billboard charts — which the band has achieved six times — could create a halo effect that generates an economic boom of $1.38 billion.
Military service hasn’t been kind to other K-pop groups’ careers. K-pop contracts, typically seven years for new acts, can end while members are in the military, leading some members not to re-sign. Boy bands like 2PM and Big Bang have significantly limited their public appearances or paused group activities after its members entered the military.
Big Bang, the first K-pop act to sell out a world tour, hasn’t released a full album or appeared as a five-member group in public since member T.O.P. entered the military in 2017. (Members of Big Bang were also caught up in drug and sex scandals, contributing to the group’s absence.)
In 2PM’s case, it took almost four years for the group to return as a six-member team after their military enlistments.
For BTS, that could be too long. “It will likely be the end of the group in terms of its capital value if the members go to the military,” says Kyung Hee University’s Lee. “There’s just no guarantee that they will be as active as a group afterward.”