Inside BTS ARMY’s plans to boycott South Korea until the band returns from military service

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Oct 18, 2022 at 03:35 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

On Saturday 15 October 2022, global Kpop sensation BTS performed their ‘Yet to Come’ concert at the Asiad Main Stadium in Busan, South Korea. Drawing over 55,000 fans, the 90-minute event was free and livestreamed on both Weverse and South Korean television, and was organised in support of Busan’s bid to host the World City Expo in 2030.

While the concert briefly captured the legacy of the biggest boy band in the world and proved to be a reminder of their fierce hard work and sincerity—with all seven members lingering to look at the Yoon-iverse they built together—it also raised questions about whether the event could be the group’s final on-stage bow, and what the future holds for them following the 16 June announcement of their temporary hiatus to focus on solo projects.

Less than 48 hours after the concert, on Monday 17 October, BTS’ label and management company BIGHIT Music broke the news that all seven boys of the supergroup will be serving in the South Korean military—starting with the oldest member Kim Seokjin (Jin) in late October. “Both the company and the members of BTS are looking forward to reconvening as a group again around 2025 following their service commitment,” the HYBE-owned agency further detailed in its Twitter statement.

Military service is mandatory in South Korea, where almost all able-bodied men are required to serve in the army for a minimum of 18 months by the time they are 28 years old as part of the country’s efforts to defend itself against its nuclear-armed neighbour, North Korea. Some citizens, however, have won exemptions or served shorter terms, including Olympics and Asian Games medal winners and classical musicians and dancers. To date, over 170 athletes and 280 performers have qualified for the exemption.

On these terms, when Jin turned 28 back in 2020, the South Korean government offered the member a two-year delay for enlistment in recognition of BTS’ efforts in “enhancing Korea’s international image.” He was one of the first Kpop stars to be offered such a reprieve. According to BIGHIT Music, the agency has long been looking to time the boy group’s military service “to respect the needs of the country and for these healthy young men,” and said that the time was “now.”

“Group member Jin will initiate the process as soon as his schedule for his solo release is concluded at the end of October. He will then follow the enlistment procedure of the Korean government,” the label said, adding that “other members of the group plan to carry out their military service based on their own individual plans.”

While the announcement tumbled ARMYs into a heartbreaking spiral, certain moments from the band’s recent ‘Yet to Come’ concert felt even more poignant upon rewatching. A part of the fandom took to Twitter and highlighted how the term isn’t that long when compared to western artists who take whopping seven year breaks from the limelight. Meanwhile, others quickly dubbed themselves “military wives” and started churning memes about each member serving in the army. A parallel trend also witnessed fans manifesting a monetary chance at grabbing their coveted concert tickets in 2025.

I swear, ARMYs are so unserious that it’s hard to stay in the uncertain rabbit hole of spending the next few years minus OT7 (One True 7, referring to all seven members of the group) without letting out a breathy chuckle along the way.

At the other end of the discourse, however, some fans have publicised their views on “boycotting South Korea” until the boys return home from their mandatory military enlistment in 2025. These claims majorly stem from the projections that, according to analysts, between 2014 to 2023, BTS would have contributed a staggering total of $29.1 trillion to the South Korean economy in a bid to build its soft power.

According to the Hyundai Research Institute, the supergroup brought 800,000 tourists, over seven per cent of foreign visitors, into the country in 2018 and generated an estimated $1.1 billion from consumer goods exports like merchandise and cosmetics in a single year. Mind you, these numbers are before they hit global success with their chart-topping hits. As of today, in light of the band members’ military conscription, HYBE shares fell 2.5 per cent, as noted by Fortune.

“To be honest, I don’t want international ARMY to buy Korean products and consume Kpop until our boys finish their military service. I am Korean but I am not a fan of Kpop, I am a fan of BTS and I am not a fan of the Korean government. They must realise what they have done,” a Twitter user initially wrote, highlighting how the revenue from the boy band’s previous album cannot be taken by the Ministry of National Defence given that it was announced when they were civilians. “You can keep buying the album,” the user added.

Several ARMYs gathered in support under the Twitter thread. “I wanted to study in Korea but not anymore. I’ll go anywhere else. South Korea ain’t getting any of my money until BTS comes back. If we can wait for BTS, so can they,” a user wrote. “I will definitely not plan my travel to Korea until the boys are out of enlistment… but I need my Innisfree and The Face Shop or I will break out nasty,” another commented.

It should be noted that the debate has garnered some (arguably, rightful) backlash from other members of the fandom itself, who have highlighted the fact that South Korea is more than its government. “I am an ARMY, not a Kpop stan,” one admitted. “But: I will buy Korean products if I think they would benefit me, I will continue watching Kdrama as they are entertaining, eat Korean food cause 🤤, learn the language and culture because it’s interesting.”

Meanwhile, others pointed out that the boycott essentially fetishises the entire country based on one single boy band. “Imagine all these people getting mad at an entire country because of a choice BTS made,” an ARMY replied. “I don’t think it’s right to make such a blanket statement about ‘Korean products’. The Korean economy is made up of millions of people who have nothing to do with Kpop OR the government, and their livelihoods should not be adversely affected by all of this,” wrote a second.

At the same time, a parallel debate discussed the repercussions of a hypothetical timeline, where BTS is given a military exemption “with too many strings attached and milking them for a long time.” Here, ARMYs highlighted the fact that the ‘Dynamite’ hitmakers chose the path because they know what’s best for themselves. “I’m relieved they won’t be under the government’s thumb for an extended period of time, being sent to do events and whatnot when we know they’re not allowed to earn anything [while in] mandatory service,” a tweet read.

Being the torchbearers of the Hallyu Wave (the global popularity of South Korea’s cultural economy exporting pop culture, entertainment, music, TV dramas, and movies), the latter tweet links to the August 2022 debate when Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup spoke up about a special allowance during a parliamentary session “for BTS to be given time to practice and perform overseas after they enlist.”

“Even if they join the military, there would be a way to give them a chance to practice and perform together if there are scheduled concerts abroad,” he said. “As many people highly value [artists serving] in the military, that may help boost their popularity even more.” A report by Allkpop further noted that in the case all seven members enlist, there is a separate proposal that will allow them “temporary overseas travel and permit them to stay outside of their unit for about 120 days per year.”

Simply put, the band can still make passive income from their works that have been filmed before their enlistment (for example, any tracks they’ve pre-recorded and is set to go live while they’re serving in the army). However, they are not allowed to make money off the content filmed during their military duty. This makes the entire proposal that also suggests that the members be “allowed to hold online and offline promotion activities, including concerts in Korea and overseas, award ceremony attendance, and broadcast appearances” appear rather sketchy.

On these terms, several publications have noted the lack of details as to whether the government would be the sole beneficiary of the income earned during the time.

Back to the hypothetical situation of alternate exemptions, the possibility of the group being dragged for their exemption later on in their careers can’t be denied either. “This way nobody can ride on their tailcoats,” one summed up. As many fans continue to slam the ARMYs rallying behind the boycott for projecting a false image of the fandom, remember that 2025 is just over the horizon and the best things in the BTS universe are yet to come…

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