South Korean powerhouse BTS is unstoppable. Every day the group seems to garner yet another accolade, and rises even higher in critical and public esteem.
But while the septet seems like they have a clear, ascendant path ahead, a looming challenge waits for them in 2020 — one that not only impacts BTS and ARMY, but also their country’s music industry as a whole. Because what many of those outside of the South Korean music world might not know is that BTS don’t have all the time in the world — in fact, they face a ticking clock.
For the nearly six years that the seven men of BTS — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook — have been together, they’ve operated with the fast metabolism demanded of male Korean artists that face South Korea's mandatory military enlistment.
According to Article 39 of the South Korean constitution, men are required to serve in the military for at least two years (depending on which branch they choose to join) and become eligible from age 18. The measure was put in place as a deterrent to possible threats from North Korea. As of last August, the laws regarding the maximum age to delay enlistment changed from 30 to 28. Women can volunteer to join, but aren’t required, as they are in countries like Israel. Exemptions from service exist, but currently don’t apply to K-pop idols: only Olympic medalists and first place winners at the Asian games, classical musicians who win certain awards, as well as ballet dancers.
This is part of the reason why BTS have been so nonstop since their 2013 debut. In only six years, the band has released 11 full-length and compilation albums and two reissues, five EPs, and have embarked on six solo concert tours, in addition to countless fan meet-ups and TV appearances. To put this in perspective, One Direction released five albums and went on four tours in the same amount of time. And they had all the time in the world.
Jin — whose real name is Kim Seokjin — is the oldest in BTS at 26, so will likely enlist in 2020. When recently asked about it, the group replied matter-of-factly, but somberly. "As a Korean, it's natural," Jin told CBS. "And, someday, when duty calls we'll be ready to respond and do our best." The 21-year-old youngest member, Jungkook added, "I don't want to think about it at this point. We have something really good going."
The K-pop industry has struggled to contend with the challenges caused by enlistment, as gaps in promotion can cause the public to lose interest in musical acts. Management companies have tried forming groups with younger members, releasing music more quickly, and other inventive methods to keep bands together once everyone has served. Most bands stagger their enlistment rather than go all at once. Idols are often supported by their fellow band members and label when they release solo music, so many younger members take the opportunity to perform on their own while the older members serve, like 25-year-old Taemin of SM Entertainment juggernauts SHINee. Eleven-member group Super Junior has been splintered by military enlistment over the past eight years, though some of the group’s members have still managed to release hits together, like 2017’s “Lo Siento,” while others were away. (The group’s youngest member, Kyuhyun, was discharged from service this week, making it officially complete again.)
But in many cases, idol groups lose momentum or don’t stay intact at all, as members pursue other careers like acting, radio show hosting, or TV gigs after enlistment.
Some fans have tried to game out potential scenarios for BTS’ enlistment. Suga will have to enlist by 2022 at the latest (the same year Jin would return from his), followed by RM and J-Hope in 2023. Some have hypothesized that if Jungkook enlists early with Jimin and V (who are only 2 years older) in 2024, the group would be back together in 2026 instead of 2028.
But these conspiracies to keep the band's relevance might not even be necessary, as BTS have already proved themselves as more than capable soloists. Each of the three rappers — RM, Suga, and J-Hope — have released well-received solo mixtapes, and though none of the vocalists have released full albums, their various Soundcloud singles, covers, and solo tracks within BTS albums are among many fan-favorites. BTS have even tested sub-units within the group: “Jamais Vu” on the band’s most recent album Map of the Soul: Persona, features Jungkook, Jin, and J-Hope, and there are likely to be more combinations in the following chapters of the Map of the Soul series. These sub-groups could just be for fun, or they could be clues that BTS is creating a solid and diversified plan for releasing music for ARMY in the coming years.
The group has even publicly pledged their commitment to their management company, Big Hit Entertainment. Last year, BTS announced that they had renewed their contracts with Big Hit a year early for another seven years, securing their future together for the next eight years in total.
BTS’ unprecedented success abroad, and the rather contentious topic of mandatory enlistment in South Korea in general, has led to some public figures calling for a reexamination of the enlistment rules. “The general public, including young people, wonder what makes topping the Billboard chart different from winning in other international competitions?” said lawmaker Ha Taekyung during a meeting at the national legislature, following BTS’ first No.1 album on the Billboard 200. “Of course, I am not underestimating international classical music competitions. But they are very specific and special areas,” he added. “Many fields that inspire more of the general public are conspicuously absent from the list.” After all, the point is to exempt those who “raise the national image on a global stage and enriched the culture and sports sectors.” And a study by Hyundai Research Institute found that BTS is worth more than $3.6 billion yearly to the country’s economy, and one in every 13 of South Korea’s tourists in 2017 reportedly went to the country because of BTS.
But BTS members try not to concern themselves with anything but their current work and goals. "That's the answer,” said leader RM of Jungkook’s sentiment to not focus too much on the future. “We just enjoy the ride, live in the moment, and that's all we can do."