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BTS hiatus sparks debate over activism and military exceptions

SEOUL – That surprise announcement from BTS Last week, when they took a hiatus to focus on the members’ solo projects, they stunned their global fan base, rocked their label’s stock price and left many questions about the future of the K-pop supergroup.

HYBE, the company behind the band, denied the group took a break – a word used in a translation of the group’s emotional video dinner announcement. In the days since, the band members have remained active on social media, continuing the stream of posts, photos and reassurances that the band is not breaking up.

Despite the immediate fallout — HYBE’s stock fell more than 25% initially and has yet to fully recover — several factors could be influencing BTS’s future. One is the looming military conscription of senior BTS members, as well as the group’s and their loyal fans, known as ARMY,’ continued involvement in social issues.

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In 2020, at the height of BTS’s success, the South Korean government revised the country’s military law, which requires able-bodied South Korean men to complete approximately two years of military service. The revised law allows top K-pop stars – including Jin, the oldest member of BTS – to defer military service until age 30 if they have received government medals for enhancing the country’s cultural reputation and request the deferral. All BTS members meet the criteria as Government medal recipients in 2018.

“Obviously military conscription is imminent, so maybe they thought it would be good to do something individually before it’s too late, and that’s why I think military conscription was the biggest factor,” said Lee Dong Yeun, professor at the Korea National University of the Arts.

There have been calls – including from South Korea’s former culture minister – for an exception for BTS for their contribution to enhancing South Korea’s international standing. But critics say such an exception would bend conscription rules in favor of the privileged.

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Jin, 29, is expected to step in this year unless he gets a time off.

Military recruitment has always been a concern for HYBE; BTS once accounted for 90% of the label’s profits. The group currently 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 fall in stocks could be due to an “expectation that the activities of the entire group may be uncertain following their discharge from the military.”

HYBE has sought to diversify its portfolio by debuting new K-pop bands, creating online games, and releasing Korean-language tutorials.

As the most successful K-pop band to date, with hits like “Dynamite” and “Butter,” BTS has garnered massive attention on social media for years and with every new music release. They recently played several sold-out shows in 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 Address at the United Nations and a trip to the White House Campaign Against Hate Crimes aimed at Asians.

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“Once you succeed like BTS has succeeded, it means you have a constant expectation to keep doing something connected to what you’ve already done, where you’ve already been. In the latest releases BTS has put out, we can also see them constantly thinking about where they’ve been,” said CedarBough Saeji, professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at Pusan ​​National University.

She said Tuesday’s announcement signaled the band’s intent to “figure out where they’re going without interference from other people” and “be able to choose their own path as an artist.”

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. The legions of BTS fans have taken on the causes matching a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter after George Floyd’s death.

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But the group has faced many questions as to why they are not so vocal about discrimination in their own country.

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

“It’s ironic,” said the writer. “South Korea needs her power forever.”

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

Jumin Lee, author of Why Anti-Discrimination Law?, told the Associated Press that there is an urgent need for anti-discrimination legislation in the country.

“South Korea is in essentially the same legal position as America’s Jim Crow South. Equal protection exists as a constitutional concept, but there is no implementing legislation that allows the government to compel private companies to comply,” Lee said. “What this means in practice is that as a business owner I could put up a sign on my door tomorrow saying ‘no gays’, ‘no black people’ or ‘no old people’, and without extraordinary intervention by the Constitutional Court, the law can only do very little to stop me.”

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Lee recently expressed disappointment with the band for not speaking out on the important domestic issue.

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

Still, Lee said the band’s silence was understandable, explaining that if politicians spoke up, BTS would be met with “at best, indifference and worse, hostility.”

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

After talking about the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferryIn which 304 people died in one of the country’s worst disasters, Cannes-winning actor Song Kang-ho and director Park Chan-wook were released by the administration of the ousted President Park Geun-hyenoted Areum Jeong, a Korean pop culture scholar.

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“Although many idols are politically conscious, they may 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 achievements and struggling with writing new songs.

“For me, it was like the group BTS was within reach until ‘On’ and ‘Dynamite,’ but after ‘Butter’ and ‘Permission to Dance,’ I didn’t know what kind of group we were,” says Member said RM. “Whenever I write lyrics and songs, it’s really important what kind of story and message I want to convey, but it was like that’s gone now.”

While this clouds BTS’ next moves, Saeji said her continued openness was necessary because the group influenced their fan base.

“They meet the fans with the same honesty and tell them, ‘You had my help when I needed it. And now I need my help,” she said. “‘I need to be alone. To think for myself, to know what I want to write a text about, to understand my own opinion, to let myself be inspired.'”

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https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/06/20/bts-break-sparks-debate-on-activism-military-exemptions/ BTS hiatus sparks debate over activism and military exceptions

Sarah Y. Kim

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