BTS Break sparks debate on activism and military exemptions

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — BTS’ surprise announcement last week that they were taking a break to focus on the members’ solo projects stunned their global fanbase, jolting their label’s stock price and leaving many questions about the future of the K-pop supergroup.

HYBE, the company behind the band, denied that the group was taking a hiatus – a word used in the translation of the group’s emotional video ad at dinner. Over the next few days, the band members remained active on social media, continuing the flow of posts, photos and reassurances that the band was not breaking up.

Despite the immediate impacts – HYBE shares initially dropped more than 25% and have yet to fully recover – several factors could still affect BTS’ future. One is approaching military enlistment for the older members of BTS, as well as the involvement of the group and their dedicated fans, known as ARMY, who will continue on social issues.

In 2020, at the height of BTS’ success, the South Korean government revised the country’s military law that requires able-bodied South Korean men to serve approximately two years of military service. The revised law allows top K-pop stars — including Jin, the oldest member of BTS — to defer their military service until they turn 30 if they have received government medals for enhancing the country’s cultural reputation and apply for a deferment. All BTS members meet the criteria as recipients of government medals in 2018.

“Obviously, there is a military enlistment 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 enlistment was the biggest factor,” said Lee Dong Yeun, a professor at the National University. from Korea. of the Arts.

BTS arrives at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2022 in Las Vegas.

Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, Archive

There have been calls – including from South Korea’s former Minister of Culture – for an exemption for BTS because of its contribution to increasing South Korea’s international reputation. But critics say such an exemption would be bending recruitment rules to favor the privileged.

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

Military enlistment of members has always been a headache for HYBE; BTS was once responsible for 90% of the label’s profit. The group currently accounts for 50% to 60% of the label’s profit, 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 activities as a whole group may be uncertain after being discharged from the military.”

HYBE has been trying to diversify its portfolio by debuting new K-pop bands, making online games and releasing tutorials in Korean.

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

“Once you achieve success like BTS achieved success, it means there’s a constant expectation to keep doing something that’s connected to what you’ve done, where you’ve been. In the most recent releases that BTS has released, we can also see how they continually reflect on where they were,” 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 find “where they’re going without interference from other people” and “to be able to choose their own path as artists.”

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

But the group has faced growing questions about why it is not as vocal about discrimination in its own country.

A leading South Korean newspaper recently published a column in which the author reflected on why South Korea, despite having BTS – “the ambassador for anti-discrimination and human rights” – has struggled to enact an anti-discrimination law for 15 years.

“It’s an irony,” said the writer. “South Korea needs your strength forever.”

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

Jumin Lee, author of the book “Why Anti-Discrimination Law?” told the Associated Press that there is a dire need for an anti-discrimination law in the country.

“South Korea is essentially in the same situation legally as Jim Crow South of the United States. Equal protection exists as a constitutional concept, but there is no implementing legislation that would allow the government to force private companies to comply,” Lee said. “What this means in practice is that if I am a businessman, I could put a sign on my door tomorrow saying ‘not gay’, ‘not black’ or ‘not elderly’, 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 disappointment with the band for not talking about the important domestic issue.

“BTS and their management know that speaking in the US is profitable, but doing the same at home would be more trouble than it’s worth. So they don’t,” Lee tweeted after the band’s visit to Washington.

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

Some South Korean celebrities such as singers Harisu and Ha:tfelt has been talking on sensitive issues such as anti-discrimination law and feminism, despite backlash.

After speaking out about the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014, which killed 304 people in one of the country’s worst disasters, Cannes-winning actor Song Kang-ho and director Park Chan-wook were blacklisted by the deposed president’s government. Park Geun-wook. hye, noted Areum Jeong, a Korean pop culture scholar.

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

Several members of BTS said during last week’s announcement that they were struggling with the group’s hits and having trouble writing new music.

“For me, it was like the group BTS 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 anymore. said RM. “Whenever I write lyrics and music, it’s really important what kind of story and message I want to give, but it was like that was over now.”

Meanwhile, it obscures what BTS’s next steps might be, Saeji said that his continued sincerity was necessary because of how much the group has impacted their fan base.

“They’re serving the fans just as honestly and telling them, ‘You guys had my help when I needed it. And now I need my help,’” she said. “’I need to be alone. Think for myself, know what I want to write lyrics about, understand my own mind, get inspired.’”

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