By HYUNG-JIN KIM and JUWON PARK
YEONCHEON, South Korea (AP) — Jin, the oldest member of K-pop supergroup BTS, began his 18 months of mandatory military service at a front-line South Korean boot camp on Dec. 13 as fans gathered near the base to say goodbye to their star.
Six other younger BTS members are to join the military in coming years one after another, meaning that the world’s biggest boy band must take a hiatus, likely for a few years. Their enlistments have prompted a fierce domestic debate over whether it’s time to revise the country’s conscription system to expand exemptions to include prominent entertainers like BTS, or not to provide such benefits to anyone.
Their management agency said in October that all members would perform their compulsory military duties. Big Hit Music said that both the company and the members of BTS “are looking forward to reconvening as a group again around 2025 following their service commitment.”
Jin, who turned 30 earlier this month, entered the boot camp at Yeoncheon, a town near the tense border with North Korea, for five weeks of basic military training together with other new conscript soldiers, the Defense Ministry said. After the training involving rifle shooting, grenade throwing and marching practices, he and other conscripts would be assigned to army units across the country.
About 20-30 fans—some holding Jin’s photos—and dozens of journalists gathered near the camp. But a vehicle carrying Jin moved into the camp without him getting out. The BTS official Twitter account later posted photos showing Jin with other members, likely at the camp, with a message saying: “Our bro!! Have a safe service!! Love you.”
Jin and his management agency had earlier asked fans not to visit the site and notified them there wouldn’t be any special event involving the singer, in order to prevent any issue caused by crowding.
Authorities still mobilized 300 police officers, soldiers, emergency workers and others to maintain order and guard against any accidents.
Jin—whose real name is Kim Seok-jin—wrote on the online fan platform Weverse earlier that “It’s time for a curtain call.” He posted a photo of himself on Dec. 11 with a military buzz cut and a message saying, “Ha ha ha. It’s cuter than I had expected.”
By law, all able-bodied South Korean men must serve in the military for 18-21 months under a conscription system established to deal with threats from North Korea. But the law gives special exemptions to athletes, classical and traditional musicians, and ballet and other dancers if they have won top prizes in certain competitions and enhance national prestige. K-pop stars and other entertainers aren’t given such benefits even if they gain worldwide fame and win big international awards.
“Those in the pop culture sector experience little bit of disadvantages and unfairness, compared with those in the pure art sector or athletes,“ Jung Duk-hyun, a pop culture commentator, said. “This will likely continue to be an issue of controversy.”
Exemptions or dodging of duties are a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, where the draft forces young men to suspend their studies or professional careers. Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup previously said it would be “desirable” for BTS members to fulfill their military duties to ensure fairness in the country’s military service.
Chun In-bum, a retired lieutenant general who commanded South Korea’s special forces, said the government must move to repeal any exemptions as the military’s shrinking recruitment pool is “a very serious” problem amid the country’s declining fertility rate.
BTS was created in 2013 and its other members are RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook, who is the youngest at 25. The group expanded its popularity in the West with its 2020 megahit “Dynamite,” the band’s first all-English song that made BTS the first K-pop act to top Billboard’s Hot 100. The band has performed in sold-out arenas around the world and was even invited to speak at United Nations meetings.
K-pop commentator Cha Woo-jin said K-pop’s global influence wouldn’t be hurt much because of BTS members’ enlistments. Jung agreed, saying that other K-pop groups like BLACKPINK, Stray Kids and aespa could rise further.