YEONCHEON, South Korea (AP) – Jin, the oldest member of K-pop supergroup BTS, began his 18 months of mandatory military service at a frontline South Korean boot camp Tuesday as fans gathered at the base to say goodbye to their star .
Six other younger BTS members will be entering the military in the next few years, one after the other, meaning the world’s biggest boy band needs to take a break, probably for a few years. Their hires have sparked a fierce domestic debate over whether it’s time to overhaul the country’s conscription system to extend exemptions to high-profile entertainers like BTS, or not provide such benefits to anyone.
With lawmakers bickering in parliament and surveys showing public opinion sharply divided over offering exemptions to BTS members, their management agency said in October that all members would fulfill their mandatory military duties. Big Hit Music said that both the company and members of BTS “look forward to reconvening as a group around 2025 following their commitment to service.”
Jin, who turned 30 earlier this month, entered the training camp in Yeoncheon, a city near the tense border with North Korea, for five weeks of basic military training along with other new enlisted soldiers, the defense ministry said. After training in rifle shooting, grenade throwing and marching, he and other conscripts would be assigned to army units around the country.
About 20-30 fans – some with pictures of Jin – and dozens of journalists gathered near the camp. But a vehicle carrying Jin entered the camp without him getting out. BTS’s official Twitter account later posted photos showing Jin with other members, likely at camp, with a message that read, “Our brother!! Have a safe service!! Love you.”
One image showed members laughing touching Jin’s shaved head.
“I want to wait (for) Jin and see him enter the army and wish him all the best,” said Hong Kong’s Mandy Lee before Jin entered the camp.
“It’s actually complicated. I want to be sad. I want to be happy for him,” said Angelina from Indonesia. “Mixed feelings. He must serve (for) his country.” Like many Indonesians, Angelina only uses one name.
A few dozen fans could be seen as a small turnout, given Jin’s huge popularity. But Jin and his management agency had previously asked fans not to visit the site and informed them that there would be no special event involving the singer to avoid crowding problems.
Authorities continued to mobilize 300 police, soldiers, aid workers and others to maintain order and guard against any accidents. Strict security measures were expected as South Korea is still reeling from October’s devastating Halloween crush in Seoul, which left 158 people dead.
Jin – whose real name is Kim Seok-jin – wrote on online fan platform Weverse earlier Tuesday: “It’s time for a curtain call.” He posted a photo of himself with a military buzz cut on Sunday and a message that read, “Ha ha ha. It’s cuter than I expected.”
By law, all able-bodied South Korean males must serve 18-21 months in the military 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 boost national prestige. K-pop stars and other entertainers do not get such benefits even though they gain worldwide fame and win major international awards.
Jin was about to enlist because the law prohibits most men from further delaying their military service after they turn 30.
“People in the pop culture sector experience few disadvantages and unfairness, compared to people in the pure arts sector or athletes,” said Jung Duk-hyun, a pop culture commentator. “This is likely to continue to be a point of controversy, so I wonder if it should continue to be discussed.”
Exemptions or evasion of duties are a highly sensitive issue in South Korea, where conscription 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 take action to revoke all exemptions as the shrinking army’s recruiting pool is “a very serious” problem is amid the country’s declining fertility rate.
Founded in 2013, BTS has a legion of global supporters who call themselves the “Army”. The 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 2020’s mega hit “Dynamite,” the band’s first all-English song that made BTS the first K-pop act to top Billboard’s Hot 100. The band performed in sold-out arenas around the world and was even invited to speak at United Nations rallies.
Hybe Corp., Big Hit Music’s parent company, said in October that each member of the band would focus on individual activities around their military service plans for now. In October, Jin released “The Astronaut,” a single co-written by Coldplay.
Jung, the commentator, said solo projects could give BTS members much-needed time to develop themselves after many years of working together as a group. But Cha Woo-jin, a K-pop commentator, said it’s unclear whether BTS would enjoy the same popularity as a group when they reunite in a few years after finishing their military duties.
In August, Defense Secretary Lee said that serving BTS members would likely be allowed to continue practicing and join other non-serving BTS members in overseas group tours.
Cha said K-pop’s global influence wouldn’t be much hurt by BTS members’ sign-ups, as they “seem to represent K-pop, but aren’t all K-pop.” Jung agreed, saying other K-pop groups like BLACKPINK, Stray Kids, and aespa could rise further.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea.