The decision of K-pop sensations, BTS, to go on hiatus is breaking hearts around the world. But unlike the Beatles Where A directiontheir decision is tied to Korean Peninsula politics and the challenge of balancing national security and South Korea’s soft power ambitions.
The seven members of BTS announced the news at their annual dinner party, which was streamed live to fans around the world on June 15, citing exhaustion and a desire to pursue solo projects. Some confusion later arose when, in an attempt to slow down their share price drop, the group’s entertainment company, Hybe, said that BTS continue to work together and individually.
However, savvy fans suspect the decision is more calculated than suggested, speculating that some BTS members will soon fulfill their military service duties. The split comes just weeks after a intense political debate in South Korea on whether the band members should be exempt from South Korea’s mandatory military service.
As a general rule, exemptions are only allowed for medical reasons, although the exemption system has been subject to abuse over the years. Winners of major international competitions may do forms of community service instead, such as that performed by Heung-min, the son of Tottenham Hotspur in 2022. This involved a few weeks of basic military training and volunteer football coaching for schoolchildren in London.
The debate over military service has not been limited to K-pop stars. It has also been the subject of wider public debate in recent years. These debates have mostly been driven by disgruntled young men who are growing increasingly frustrated at having to interrupt their studies and work to strengthen South Korea’s defenses, mainly against North Korea.
Military service was introduced in founding of the South Korean state in 1948. It became necessary after the Korean War (1950-1953) to ensure that South Korea could defend itself against a new attack from North Korea.
The soldiers then remained front and center of korean nation building throughout the country’s rapid industrialization under a succession of military dictatorships from the 1960s until democratization in the late 1980s.
Even though Korea has had a series of non-military civilian presidents since 1993, serving in the military continues to be central to men’s qualifications for work and life, linking them to the persistent culture of nation-state militarism.
For example, the accomplishment of national service is always taken as proof that a man is engaged. South Korean citizen. It is a prerequisite for many government and corporate jobs, and ex-military networks continue to influence a man’s opportunities throughout his life.
While young men no longer need to serve the three-year conscription demanded of their fathers and grandfathers, the current 18 months required before the age of 28 is consistently cited as one of the main complaints of young South Koreans in recent years.
In 2015, young people began to describe life in South Korea’s hyper-competitive society as “Joseon Hell”. It is, they say, a reincarnation of the feudal and hierarchical society of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), which was marred by extreme social and economic inequality.
Military service is considered one of the many requirements of a country already overcrowded male demographic struggling for access to a trustworthy education, a secure job and a good marriage in a system that is stacked against them.
Competing national interests
In this controversial environment, allowing seven seemingly healthy young men to skip military service might not be a good move for South Korea’s newly elected President Yoon Suk-Yeol. Yoon has been eager to win over young male voters, the main voices of discontent in the “Hell Joseon” debate. But Yoon also knows the need to maintain a credible defense capability in the face of threat posed by North Korea.
The South Korean government faces another pressure, however: the need to continue to promote and exploit the success of its popular culture industries.
The “Korean Wave”, which refers to the worldwide popularity of music, movies, television and other aspects of Korean popular culture, is a major source of export income which also generates a lot soft power gains for Korea. BTS was on top of the wave for years, alongside Korea’s worldwide success in cinema (Parasite2020) and tv dramas (squid game2021). BTS was the first Korean pop group to “break america” and the worldthanks to the English lyrics, catchy melodies, digital fan network and high-level international collaborations.
Beyond music, BTS’s influence on legions of Korean and international fans earned them a spot on the podium at the opening of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly alongside President Moon Jae-In in 2021. Most recently, they appeared at a White House summit on anti-Asian hatred. They are UNICEF Ambassadors and have traveled the world to spread their message of love. Their success has been accompanied by considerable gains for South Korea’s international reputation.
So there is a tension between South Korea’s soft power imperatives and its need to maintain conscription. K-pop groups since the 1990s gave up lucrative successes to meet their country’s national security needs. Members of K-pop groups SHINee, VIXX and 2am have all announced a break to complete their military service.
BTS’ global fame, however, may make them an exception. It is possible for members to fulfill their national service duty and return to the K-Wave fold, either individually, in pairs or threes, or all together. Judging by the outpouring of love for them online now, they would be welcome on any stage, anywhere, if the opportunity to come together presents itself.
Sarah a son is a lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Sheffield.
This article first appeared on The conversation.