BTS Break sparks debate over activism and military exemptions

BTS’ surprise announcement last week that they were taking a break to focus on the members’ solo projects stunned their global fan base, rocking their label’s stock price and leaving many questions about the future of the K-pop supergroup.

HYBE, the company behind the band, denied the band was taking a break – a word used in a translation of the band’s emotional dinnertime video announcement. In the days that followed, the band members remained active on social media, continuing the stream of messages, photos and assurances that the band was not breaking up.

Despite the immediate impacts — HYBE’s stock initially fell more than 25% and has yet to fully recover — several factors may still affect BTS’s future. One is the impending military enlistment for older members of BTS, as well as how the group and its devoted fans, known as ARMY, will continue to be engaged in social issues.

In 2020, at the height of BTS’s success, the South Korean government revised the country’s military law that requires able-bodied South Korean males to perform approximately two years of military service. Revised law allows top K-pop stars — including BTS’ oldest member Jin — to defer military service until they turn 30 if they’ve received government medals for boosting reputation culture of the country and request the postponement. All BTS members meet the criteria as recipients of government medals in 2018.

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

There have been calls – including from South Korea’s former culture minister – for an exemption for BTS due to their contribution to improving South Korea’s international reputation. But critics say such an exemption would circumvent conscription rules to favor the privileged.

Jin, 29, is expected to enlist this year unless he receives an exemption.

The 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 50% to 60% of the label’s profits according to a report by eBest Investment & Securities.

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

HYBE has attempted to diversify its portfolio by launching new K-pop groups, creating online games, and rolling out Korean-language tutorials.

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

“Once you’ve succeeded like BTS has, it means there’s a constant expectation to keep doing something that ties into what you’ve already done, where you’ve already been. In the most recent releases that BTS has 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 figure out “where they’re going on their own without interference from other people” and “to be able to choose their own path as artists.”

Last week’s announcement also cast doubt on the group’s social justice efforts, which have included vocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-violence campaigns. Legions of BTS fans have embraced the causes, matching a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd.

But the band have faced growing questions about why they don’t talk so much about discrimination in their own country.

A major South Korean newspaper recently published a column in which the author questions why South Korea, despite BTS – “the ambassador of anti-discrimination and human rights – struggled to enact anti-discrimination law for 15 years.

“It’s an irony,” said the writer. “South Korea needs their strength for good.”

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

Jumin Lee, the author of the book “Why an anti-discrimination law? told The Associated Press that there is an urgent need for an anti-discrimination law in the country.

“South Korea is essentially in the same legal position as American 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 this means in practice is that if I’m a business owner, I could put a sign on my door tomorrow saying ‘no gays’, ‘no blacks’ or ‘no old people’. and in the absence of extraordinary intervention by the Constitutional Court, there is very little the law can do to stop me.

Lee recently expressed his disappointment with the group for not talking about the important national issue.

“BTS and their business people know talking in the US is profitable, but doing the same back home would be harder than it’s worth. So they’re not doing it,” Lee tweeted after. the group’s visit to Washington.

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

Some South Korean celebrities like singers Harisu and Ha:tfelt have spoken out on sensitive topics such as anti-discrimination law and feminism, despite the backlash.

After speaking out about the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014, which killed 304 people in one of the country’s worst disasters, Cannes actor Song Kang-ho and director Park Chan-wook were blasted. index by the administration of deposed President Park Geun-hye, noted Areum Jeong, an expert on Korean pop culture.

“So while many idols might be politically conscious, they might choose not to discuss social issues,” Jeong said.

Several BTS members said during last week’s announcement that they were struggling with the group’s successes and struggling to write new songs.

“For me, it was like the BTS group 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.” , member says RM. “Whenever I write lyrics and songs, the kind of story and message I want to convey is really important, but it felt like it’s gone now.”

While that obscures BTS’s next steps, Saeji said their continued candour was necessary due to the group’s impact on their fan base.

“They meet the fans with the same honesty and say, ‘You had my help when I needed it. And now I need my help,'” she said. need to be alone Thinking for myself, knowing what I want to write a lyric about, understanding my own mind, inspiring myself.

James C. Tibbs