The decision of K-pop sensations, BTS, to go on hiatus is breaking hearts around the world. But, unlike The Beatles or One Direction, their decision is tied to Korean Peninsula politics and the challenge of balancing national security and Korea’s soft power ambitions.
The seven members of BTS announced the news at their annual dinner party, which was livestreamed to fans around the world on June 15, citing exhaustion and a desire to pursue solo projects. Some confusion later arose when, in an effort to slow down their stock price drop, the group’s entertainment company, Hybe, said that BTS would continue to work both together and individually.
However, in-the-know fans suspect the decision is more calculated than suggested, speculating that some BTS members will soon be fulfilling their military service duties. The split comes just weeks after an intense political debate in South Korea over whether members of the group should be exempt from compulsory military service in South Korea.
Generally, exemptions are only allowed for medical reasons, although the exemption system has been abused over the years. Big winners in international competitions can do forms of community service instead, like the one performed by Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min in 2022. This involved a few weeks of basic military training and volunteer football coaching for schoolchildren from London.
There had been speculation that winning a Grammy in 2022 could secure BTS an exemption, but they came away empty-handed – despite being one of the best-selling artists in the world.
The debate over military service has not been limited to K-pop stars. It has also been the subject of wider public debate in recent years. These debates have mostly been driven by disgruntled young men who are growing increasingly frustrated at having to interrupt their studies and work to strengthen South Korea’s defenses, primarily against North Korea.
Military service was introduced when the South Korean state was founded in 1948. It became necessary after the Korean War (1950-53) to ensure that South Korea could defend itself against another attack. of North Korea.
The military then remained at the center of Korean nation-building throughout the country’s rapid industrialization under a succession of military dictatorships from the 1960s until democratization in the late 1980s.
Even though Korea has had a string of non-military civilian presidents since 1993, serving in the military continues to be central to men’s qualifications for work and life, tying them to the country’s lingering culture of militarism. nation-state. For example, completion of national service is still considered proof that a man is a committed South Korean citizen. It’s a prerequisite for many government and corporate jobs, and ex-military networks continue to influence a man’s opportunities throughout his life.
While young men no longer need to serve the three years of conscription demanded of their fathers and grandfathers, the current 18 months required before turning 28 is regularly cited as one of the main complaints of young southerners. -Koreans in recent years.
In 2015, young people began to describe life in South Korea’s hyper-competitive society as “Hell Joseon”. It is, they say, a reincarnation of the feudal and hierarchical society of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), which was marred by extreme social and economic inequality. Military service is seen as one of the many demands of an already overstretched male population struggling for access to a trustworthy education, secure employment and a good marriage in a system that is stacked against them.
In this controversial environment, allowing seven seemingly healthy young men to skip military service might not be a good move for South Korea’s newly elected President Yoon Suk-Yeol. Yoon was keen to convince young male voters, the main voices of discontent in the “Hell Joseondebate. But Yoon also knows the need to maintain a credible defense capability in the face of the North Korean threat.
The South Korean government faces another pressure, however: the need to continue to promote and exploit the success of its popular culture industries.
The “Korean wave”, which refers to the global popularity of music, film, television and other aspects of Korean popular culture, is a major source of export revenue that also generates power gains considerable soft for Korea. BTS has been riding the crest of the wave for years, alongside Korea’s worldwide success in film (Parasite2020) and TV series (squid game, 2021). BTS was the first Korean pop group to “break America” and the world, thanks to English lyrics, catchy tunes, a digital fan network and high-profile international collaborations.
Beyond music, BTS’s influence on legions of Korean and international fans earned them a place on the podium at the opening of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly alongside President Moon. Jae-In in 2021. Most recently, they appeared at a White House Summit on Anti-Asian Hatred. They are Unicef ambassadors and have traveled the world spreading their message of love. Their success has been accompanied by considerable gains for South Korea’s international reputation.
So there is a tension between South Korea’s soft power imperatives and its need to maintain conscription. K-pop groups since the 1990s have given up lucrative success to meet their country’s national security needs. Members of K-pop groups SHINee, VIXX and 2AM have all announced a hiatus to complete their military service.
BTS’ global fame, however, may make them an exception. It is possible for members to fulfill their national service duty and return to the K-Wave fold, either individually, in pairs or threes, or all together. Judging by the outpouring of love for them online right now, they would be welcome on any stage, anywhere, if the opportunity to reunite presents itself.
Sarah A. SonLecturer in Korean Studies, University of Sheffield
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Featured Image: Reuters