Why would K-pop titans BTS decide to step back from their supergroup and focus on solo careers while at the pinnacle of their success?

South Korea’s mandatory military service, analysts say. Many of the group’s fans — known as ARMY — were moved by the “exhausted” pop stars’ emotional plea for time apart to grow, but analysts say there may be a more strategic reason behind the pending hiatus.

All South Korean able-bodied young men under the age of 30 must perform around two years of military service, mainly due to the fact that the country remains technically at war with nuclear-armed North Korea.

The spectre of conscription has long hovered over BTS, with its seven male stars ranging in age from 24-year-old Jungkook to Jin, 29, who must sign up by next year or risk jail time.

“The issue of military service was clearly involved in the announcement,” Lee Moon-won, a K-pop culture commentator, told AFP, adding that it seemed clear the band did not want to continue making music unless all members were available.

Allowing the band members to focus on their solo careers was a “logical move”, said Lee, as successive stints of military service look set to disrupt the septet’s globetrotting schedule for the next several years.

Other K-pop groups, such as Super Junior, have tried to continue performing and recording while some of their stars take enforced career breaks during active duty service.

Exemption questions

South Korea grants exemptions from military service to some elite athletes, such as Olympic medallists, and classical musicians — but pop stars do not qualify.

Analysts say that South Korea's mandatory military service for young men may be a major factor behind BTS' decision
Analysts say that South Korea’s mandatory military service for young men may be a major factor behind BTS’ decision MARK RALSTON AFP/File

The lack of exemptions for BTS, who are credited with generating billions of dollars for the South Korean economy, sparked debate and even prompted a possible law revision.

But the draft bill went nowhere in parliament, and with mandatory service looming, the band made a “sensible decision to halt their group activity”, Lee said.

From K-pop stars like G-Dragon to Hallyu heartthrobs like Song Joong-ki, many South Korean male entertainers have performed their military service and continued their careers after.

Who does — and does not — undertake military service is a highly-charged issue in South Korea and suspicions of evading active duty can sound a death knell for careers.

One 1990s pop star, Steve Yoo, renounced his South Korean citizenship to avoid service but inadvertently torpedoed his career as his popularity plunged after he was seen as shirking his duty.

Refusing to serve is a crime, and can lead to imprisonment and social stigma, but even so some South Koreans go to extreme measures — trying to gain weight or having unnecessary surgery, for example — to evade service, AFP has reported.

But BTS have not shown any signs of trying to evade the draft.

“As a South Korean young man, I believe military service is a natural course. And as I have always said, I will answer the country’s call whenever it comes,” Jin said in 2020.

The group had already benefited from a 2020 revision to South Korea’s conscription law, which moved the age limit for some entertainers to sign up from 28 to 30 years old.

A majority of South Koreans — 59 percent — favour expanding military service exemptions, but there is staunch opposition from young men who have already done it, local reports say.

Going solo

For BTS, who have been making music non-stop for nine years, it is likely that creative burnout is a factor in their decision to take time apart, Jeff Benjamin, Billboard’s K-pop columnist, told AFP.

Although the band have announced breaks before, this time feels more “significant” as all members will work independently on new projects, he said.

Band members will focus on solo projects in the immediate future, the group said, and all of them remain signed to the same label until 2026
Band members will focus on solo projects in the immediate future, the group said, and all of them remain signed to the same label until 2026 LISA O’CONNOR AFP/File

All BTS members remain signed to their label until 2026, which “is key to keeping them together”, Benjamin said.

“If they get the freedom to try new things creatively then it can help them come work together in a better place,” he said.

“I’ve always said that BTS’ key to connecting in a larger way has been their honesty and openness, and this continues… even if this news feels more ominous.”

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