YEONCHEON, South Korea — Jin, the oldest member of K-pop supergroup BTS, began 18 months of mandatory military service at a South Korean frontline training camp on Tuesday, as fans gathered near the base to bid farewell to their star.
Six more young members of BTS will be enlisting one after the other in the following years, meaning the world’s biggest boy band will have to take a few years off. Their conscription has sparked a heated internal debate about whether it’s time to overhaul the country’s conscription system, or whether it’s time to expand the exemption to include popular entertainers like BTS, or to grant no such exemption to anyone.
Their governing agency said in October that all BTS members would complete their compulsory military service, as MPs squabbled in parliament and polls showed public opinion sharply divided over whether to offer benefits to BTS members. Big Hit Music said that both the company and BTS members “look forward to reuniting as a group in 2025 after their service commitment.”
Jin, who turned 30 earlier this month, arrived at a training camp in Yeonchon, near the tense border with North Korea, for five weeks of basic military training with other new recruits, the defense ministry said. After training that includes rifle shooting, grenade throwing and marching drills, he and other recruits are assigned to Army units across the country.
About 20 to 30 fans — some holding photos of Jin — and dozens of reporters gathered near the camp. But Jin did not meet them, because the car carrying him moved to the cargo camp without taking him out.
Before Jin entered the camp, Hong Kong’s Mandy Lee said, “I want to wait for Jin and see him go to the military, and I wish him the best.”
“Actually, it’s complicated. I want to be sad. I want to be happy for him, – said Angelina from Indonesia. “Mixed feelings. He should serve his country.” Angelina, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.
Given Gin’s popularity, a few dozen fans could be seen as a small turnout. But Jin and his management agency had previously asked fans not to enter the site and announced that there would be no special event featuring the singer to prevent trouble from the crowd.
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According to the army, authorities have deployed 300 policemen, soldiers, emergency personnel and others to maintain order and guard against any mishaps. South Korea was still expected to tighten security after Halloween in Seoul in October, which killed 158 people.
Hours before entering the camp, Jin – whose real name is Kim Seok-jin – wrote on the online fan platform Weverse, “It’s curtain call time.” He posted a picture of himself with a military fanfare on Sunday and wrote, “Ha ha ha. It was more pleasant than I expected.’
By law, all able-bodied men in South Korea must serve 18 to 21 months under a conscription system set up to counter threats from North Korea. But the law gives special privileges to athletes, classical and traditional musicians, ballet and other dancers who have won top prizes in certain competitions and increased national prestige. K-pop stars and other entertainers are not given such privileges, even if they have gained worldwide fame and won major international awards.
“Although the members of BTS chose to go into the military, there are still regrets,” said pop culture commentator Jung Duk Hyun. “People in the pop culture sector face a little bit of disadvantage and unfairness compared to the pure art sector or athletes. This can be a controversial issue, so I wonder if it should be discussed on an ongoing basis.
Duty exemption or duty evasion is a sensitive issue in South Korea, and the draft forces young people to stop their studies or work. Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and South Korea’s conscription chief Lee Ki-sik previously said it would be “purposeful” for BTS members to perform their military duties to ensure fairness in the country’s military service.
Retired Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum, who commanded South Korea’s special forces, said the government should try to end any exemptions because the shrinking army recruitment pool is a “very serious” problem at a time when the country’s birth rate is falling. He called the controversy over BTS’s military service “unnecessary” because it was not raised by BTS members who are willing to do their duty.
BTS was formed in 2013 and has a large global fan base that calls themselves the “Army”. Its other members are RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook, the youngest of whom is 25. The group expanded its popularity in the West with the 2020 megahit “Dynamite”, the group’s first English song. BTS is the number one K-pop group on Billboard’s Hot 100. The band has performed to sold-out arenas around the world and has even been invited to speak at United Nations meetings.
Big Hit’s parent company Hybe Corp. in October, each member of the group said that for now, they are focusing on individual activities planned for their military service plans. In October, Jin released the single “Astronaut”, co-written with Coldplay.
According to commentator Jung, the sold-out projects could give the members of BTS the time they need to develop themselves after working together as a group for many years. But K-pop commentator Cha Woo-jin said it’s unclear whether BTS will be as popular as the group when they reunite after completing their military service in a few years.
In August, Defense Minister Lee said serving BTS members would be allowed to continue training and other non-serving BTS members would be allowed to join group tours overseas.
Cha said that K-pop’s global influence will not suffer much due to the inclusion of BTS members because they “represent k-pop, but not all of K-pop.” Chung said that other K-pop groups such as BLACKPINK, Stray Kids and aespa could rise further.