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Korean pop band BTS have become a global phenomenon. Since they debuted in 2013, their K-pop formula of slick choreography, bubbly music and exuberant videos has won millions of loyal fans, who call themselves ARMY.
This summer, the band released ‘Dynamite’, their first entirely English single – which debuted top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and broke the record for the most YouTube views in a day. They’re the first group since The Beatles to earn three number one albums in a year.
Last week, the band’s management agency Big Hit Entertainment announced that it would be floating on the South Korean stock market, which will turn the band’s seven members into multi-millionaires, and the CEO into a billionaire. But the band’s spectacular momentum will soon be abruptly curtailed when BTS have to abandon their army of fans, in favour of the actual South Korean army – and it could see them pitched into an international political row.
In South Korea, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 must serve in the military for up to two years. Exemptions have previously been granted to classical musicians and athletes who triumph in international competitions, such as Tottenham striker Son Heung-min, but South Korea’s culture minister has publicly stated that there will be no such exception for BTS.
The band’s oldest member Jin is turning 28 in December, while youngest member Jungkook is 23. Their range of ages will create a revolving door of members, throwing BTS into years of disruption. In the past, male K-pop groups have staggered through military service periods by performing as a smaller unit or allowing members to pursue solo projects. Yet absence does not always make the heart grow fonder, and in the swift and choppy realm of K-pop, dwindling public interest can be detrimental.
The band’s global success this year has prompted fans to renew cries for a reprieve. The ARMY have an astounding power to mobilise online, and with the looming threat of BTS disbanding, they are taking it upon themselves to save their idols. Petitions concerning their military service have tens of thousands of signatures.
These appeals propose a range of alternative solutions. Charlie Lewis’ popular petition, for example, calls for an exemption on the basis that BTS is “quite possibly the most famous and globally impactful group of people ever to come out of South Korea”. But despite good intentions, Lewis received backlash from fellow fans for overlooking the significance of military service in South Korea.
The most popular petition, with nearly 100,000 signatures, requests that the South Korean government allow all seven members of BTS to serve at the same time, in order to dampen the prolonged impact on their career. Others suggest a postponement until their fame eventually wanes.
Others are adamant that the band should serve in the military as normal. K-pop fan Ian argues that anything else would be “unfair for all the idols who finished it already, and also to those who are enlisted at the moment”.
In fact, BTS may have benefited from the efforts of those earlier groups, who laid the foundations of K-pop’s growing global success, and then left a vacuum when they entered the military that the band was able to fill. Some fans see this as a key feature of the genre, allowing new and upcoming bands to take a slice of the pie once the veterans have had their time and are pushing 30.
Military exemptions are controversial in South Korea, particularly given that issues of inequality and privilege are prominent in political debate. The ‘Gangnam Style’ singer PSY was redrafted in 2007 after state prosecutors accused him of neglecting his duties. Korean-American singer Yoo Seung-joon is banned from the country following accusations he became a US citizen in order to dodge the draft.
As their success nears collision with their national duty, BTS fans are becoming increasingly resourceful in proposing alternative avenues. A petition lodged with president Moon Jae-in in September advocates hurling the band into the eye of a political storm to stave off military service.
The proposal, made through the official government channel, calls for an exemption, suggesting that BTS should instead do a month of basic training on the disputed Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan. These two jagged islands are the source of ongoing diplomatic tension between South Korea and Japan. They have been controlled by Seoul since 1954. Yet they are also claimed by Tokyo, which describes South Korea’s presence there as illegal occupation. The South Koreans call the islets Dokdo, while the Japanese call them Takeshima.
Each country believes their historical ties to the rocky outcrop are more legitimate than the others. The Liancourt Rocks, named by nineteenth century French whalers, lie in rich fishing waters, almost equidistant between the two countries. They are also believed to hold natural gas reserves that could be worth billions of dollars.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a reader in international relations at King’s College London and Korea Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, pinpoints Japan’s colonisation of Korea as the main source of tensions. “They have these lingering matters that have never been solved,” he says. “I compare it with what’s happening in the US with Black Lives Matter. They are people who have all their rights guaranteed, but originally their parents, grandparents were second class citizens. It’s similar in South Korea. This generation didn’t suffer under [colonialism] but they realise that in many cases their grandparents were essentially second class citizens.”
The petition argues that BTS doing their basic training with the island’s police guard would bring global attention to the ongoing territorial dispute, and strengthen South Korea’s claim to the land, while dispelling Japan’s alleged misinformation in maintaining sovereignty over it. “The battlefield for BTS to fight is not a place to train with a gun in hand, but to hold a microphone to promote Korea on the battlefield called the world stage,” writes the author of the petition, who has completed his own military service.
This wouldn’t be the first time that K-pop stars have become embroiled in a conflict between Korea and Japan. In 2018, a Japanese TV show cancelled a BTS appearance after one of the members wore a Korean Independence Day shirt with an atomic bomb explosion on it. In 2012, Choi Siwon of K-pop band Super Junior stoked already fraught relations when he tweeted support for South Korean sovereignty over the Liancourt Rocks. High-powered loudspeakers along the buffer zone border to North Korea have been intermittently used to blast K-pop from the south when tensions were high.
Such diplomatic skirmishes in the world of K-pop demonstrate how South Korean entertainment is increasingly crucial as a form of soft power. The meteoric ascension of Korean popular culture since the turn of the millennium has been dubbed the ‘Korean Wave’, and described by Korean academic Cho Hae-Joang as “a sign of global shift.”
South Korean entertainment – from K-Pop to Parasite – can be a form of furthering the government’s foreign policy, says Edward Howell, a politics lecturer at Oxford University. “It is a way of emphasising South Korean identity that avoids higher level conflict,” he says. “It’s not official, it’s small scale, but it’s still there nonetheless.”
The band’s lyrics don’t overtly try and sell the country, says Pardo, but show the reality of what life is like there. “I think this is paradoxically what helps Korean soft power: that it is not propaganda. It’s a very big contrast to what a North Korean movie would show you.”
BTS account for a staggering $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP, as of 2019, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Their popularity has contributed to a surge in tourism and boosted the appeal of South Korean clothes, cosmetics and food. At least a billion dollars’ worth of consumer exports are associated with the band.
“The ultimate aim of these cultural exports is to shed a nuanced outlook on South Korean society,” says Howell. “South Korea is not just going to be seen as the country that has gone from rags to riches since the end of the Korean War; the country that is home to BTS and extra fast broadband. This pop culture dissemination is going to try and make us in the West more cognisant of what’s beneath the surface.”
The band’s global success and financial muscle means fans are now not alone in fretting over what the band’s military hiatus will mean for their longevity. Legislation was proposed in South Korea last month to allow entertainers who have made “great contributions” to popular culture to delay enlisting until they are 30.
If successful, the bill would ensure the members could continue to fuel their own phenomenal growth for at least a couple more years, as they dip their toes into movies and mobile games.
Whichever route the South Korean government takes, it will likely be a controversial decision with ramifications for the country’s industry, economy and culture.
K-pop bands such as Exo are already wrangling with the diminishing effect of missing members. Yet BTS have surpassed all precedents for what a K-pop band can achieve. In ensuring they serve in the military for the sake of fairness, the South Korean government could end up cutting off their nose to spite their face. If the lucrative star power of BTS sinks into quiet obscurity in the barracks of South Korea’s army for two years, will they be best serving their country?
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