For K-pop supergroup BTS, questions remain about their future

HYBE, the company behind the band, denied that the group was taking a hiatus, a word used in a translation of the group’s emotional dinner video announcement. In the days since, the band members have remained active on social media, continuing the flow of posts, photos and assurances that the band was not breaking up.

Despite the immediate shocks (HYBE’s stock initially fell over 25% and has yet to fully recover), several factors may still affect BTS’s future. One is the looming military enlistment for older members of BTS, as well as how committed the group and their devoted fans, known as ARMYs, will remain to social issues.

In 2020, at the height of BTS’s success, the South Korean government revised the country’s military law requiring able-bodied South Korean men to perform approximately two years of military service. The revised law allows top K-pop stars, including Jin, the oldest member of BTS, to defer their military service until their 30th birthday if they have received medals from the government for increasing the country’s cultural reputation and apply for the deferment. All seven members of BTS meet the criteria to receive government medals in 2018.

“Obviously, there is an imminent military enlistment, so they might have thought it would be good to do something individually before it’s too late, and that’s why I think military enlistment was the biggest factor,” said Lee Dong Yeun, a professor. from the National University of Korea. of Arts.

There have been calls, including from South Korea’s former culture minister, for an exemption for BTS due to their contribution to increasing South Korea’s international reputation. But critics say such an exemption would be twisting recruiting rules to favor the privileged.

Jin, 29, is expected to enlist this year unless he receives a waiver.

Military enlistment of members has always been a headache for HYBE; BTS once accounted for 90% of the label’s profits. Currently, the group accounts for between 50% and 60% of the label’s earnings, according to a report by eBest Investment & Securities.

The eBest report noted that the rapid drop in stocks could have resulted from an “anticipation that the activities of the entire group could be uncertain after being discharged from the military.”

HYBE has been trying to diversify its portfolio by introducing new K-pop bands, creating online games, and releasing tutorials in Korean.

As the most successful K-pop band to date with hits like “Dynamite” and “Butter,” BTS has drawn massive attention on social media and with each new music release for years. They recently performed several sold-out shows in the United States, became the first K-pop act to earn a Grammy Award nomination, released an anthology album, “Proof,” and channeled their global influence with a speech at the United Nations and a trip to the White House to campaign against hate crimes targeting Asians.

“Once you achieve success like BTS did, it means that there is a constant expectation to continue doing something that is connected to what you have already done, where you have already been. In the most recent releases that BTS have released, we can also see how they continually reflect on where they have been,” said CedarBough Saeji, Professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan ​​National University.

She said Tuesday’s announcement signaled the band’s intention to discover “where they are going on their own without interference from other people” and “be able to choose their own path as artists.”

Last week’s announcement also calls into question the group’s social justice efforts, which have included vocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement and campaigns against violence. Legions of BTS fans have embraced the causes, matching a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd.

But the group has faced growing questions about why it doesn’t speak out as much about discrimination in its own country.

A leading South Korean newspaper recently published a column in which the author reflected on why South Korea, despite having BTS, “the ambassador of anti-discrimination and human rights,” has fought to enact a anti-discrimination law for 15 years.

“It’s an irony,” said the writer. “South Korea needs your strength forever.”

The lack of an anti-discrimination law in the country has led to unfair treatment of women and foreigners, among others.

Jumin Lee, author of the book “Why the Anti-Discrimination Law?” told the Associated Press that there is a great need for an anti-discrimination law in the country.

“South Korea is in essentially the same legal situation as America’s Jim Crow South. Equal protection exists as a constitutional concept, but there is no implementing legislation that allows the government to force private companies to comply,” Lee said. “What that means in practice is that if I own a business, tomorrow I could put a sign on my door saying ‘no gays,’ ‘no blacks,’ or ‘no seniors,’ and absent extraordinary intervention from the Constitutional Court, there is very little the law can do to stop me.”

Lee recently expressed his disappointment with the band for not talking about the important domestic issue.

“BTS and their business people know that talking in the US is profitable, but doing the same thing at home would be more trouble than it’s worth. So they don’t,” Lee tweeted after the band’s visit to Washington.

Despite that, Lee said the band’s silence is understandable, stating that BTS would be met with “indifference at best and hostility at worst” from politicians if they spoke up.

Some South Korean celebrities, such as singers Harisu and Ha:tfelt, have spoken out on sensitive issues such as anti-discrimination law and feminism, despite negative reactions.

After speaking out about the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking, which killed 304 people in one of the country’s worst disasters, Cannes-winning actor Song Kang-ho and director Park Chan-wook were blacklisted by the administration of ousted President Park Geun-hye, said Areum Jeong, a scholar of Korean pop culture.

“So even though many idols may be politically conscious, they may choose not to talk about social issues,” Jeong said.

Several BTS members said during last week’s announcement that they were struggling with the group’s hits and having trouble writing new songs.

“For me, it was like the group BTS was within my reach until ‘On’ and ‘Dynamite,’ but after ‘Butter’ and ‘Permission to Dance,’ I didn’t know what kind of group we were anymore,” the member said. RM said. “Whenever I write lyrics and songs, it’s really important what kind of story and message I want to convey, but it was like that didn’t exist anymore.”

While that clouds what BTS’s next steps might be, Saeji said his continued candor was necessary given how much the group has impacted its fanbase.

“They’re meeting with the fans just as honestly and telling them, ‘You had my help when I needed it. And now I need my help,’” she said. “‘I need to be alone. To think for myself, to know what I want to write a lyric about, to understand my own mind, to be inspired by myself.’”

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