A single recent event is poised to shape the economy of South Korea for years to come. No, there isn’t another global pandemic, and the Kaesong Industrial Complex remains closed.
After much debate, the members of boy band BTS are set to begin their mandatory military service.
The conscription of the boy band superstars is expected to cost South Korea billions of dollars in lost revenue.
History of South Korean “Idols” in the Military
South Korean K-pop stars, known as “idols,” shipping off to the military is nothing new. South Korean law requires that all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28 spend about 2 years serving their country. This requirement can put an awkward pause in the middle of Korean men’s university educations, job plans, and in the case of idols, their music careers. The government reserves exemptions to military service for those with serious health conditions, or those who are representing the South Korean nation with extraordinary athletic or musical skills, such as some Olympic athletes and award-winning classical musicians. As a result, hundreds of idols with varying levels of fame have completed their military service over the past 30 years.
In February of 2018, renowned Korean musician and fashion icon G-Dragon began his military service. With a net worth of $30 million, G-Dragon’s absence was undoubtedly felt by the Korean entertainment industry and his managing company, YG Entertainment. However, the expectation that the star would complete his service under South Korean law had been accepted since the beginning of his fame. Though they may not appreciate their favorite idols disappearing from the music scene for months at a time, South Korean K-pop fans are more or less used to the idea. In the past, controversy over celebrities’ military service was more likely to arise over how they performed their service, rather than when and if they would serve. While fans worried over G-Dragon’s well-being during his forced break from stardom, the public scrutinized his use of vacation time and speculated that he received special treatment due to his celebrity status.
As for BTS, their military service has been a debated topic due to unprecedented rise to international stardom. Rumors of exemption have been floating around the boys for the past few years as their popularity continued to rise worldwide. The situation turned into a sort of “will they, won’t they” back and forth among government officials, until a final decision was made in late 2022.
Impact of BTS on the South Korean Economy
South Korea is a fairly small country with a large economic reliance on fairly few large corporations and has been for the past several decades. The major conglomerates of South Korea, known as “chaebols,” include Hyundai Motors and Samsung.
The rise in popularity of Korean entertainment around the world has brought the boy band BTS to global superstar status, and as result, their management agency Hybe Corporation has risen to something akin to chaebol status. The company made $1.098 billion USD in revenue in 2021. This is just Hybe’s direct revenue–it is estimated that BTS contributes $5 billion USD to the South Korean economy every year by increasing tourism and interest in Korean products. Other sources place BTS’ economic impact at about .3% of the country’s entire GDP. The group is not planning to return as a full unit until the year 2025, meaning that billions of dollars of lost revenue is expected in the next 2-3 years.
What Will a BTS Version of Military Service Look Like?
The conscription of BTS has spurred a new wave of internet memes. In fact, the event has its own dedicated page on KnowYourMeme.com. It doesn’t help that the group’s official fandom name is ARMY.
Fans have begun to wonder how the group will look heading off to bootcamp with their newly shaved heads. Korean entertainment Youtubers DKDKTV chuckled about the idea that the band could be sent to Dokdo Island, a remote island claimed by both South Korea and Japan that has served as a symbol of Korean nationalism over the years. Some predict the group will be allowed to participate in certain government-backed projects during their service, to promote the country with an interesting combination of soft and hard power. It’s been done before with other celebrities.
It is hard to imagine that their service will be the same as that of the billions of other Korean men who have gone before them. Mandatory service for the average solider in the South Korean military is known to be an unpleasant, often brutal experience. The 2021 Korean drama “DP,” based on a webtoon of the same name, touches on some of the issues men are known to experience during their stay in the military, including hazing and harassment from higher-ranking soldiers. Reports of these issues have left some BTS fans worried, while others believe the boys’ celebrity status will offer them special protection.
Hybe Corporation’s 3-Year Plan
Rather than send all 7 members of BTS to the military at once, it seems that Hybe Corporation is planning to send them one at a time, allowing the members to release solo projects while off-duty. The possibility of BTS “subunits” is highly anticipated– band “subunits” are something of a K-pop tradition. The first to ship out will be the group’s oldest member, 29-year-old Jin, otherwise known as “Worldwide Handsome.” The last to put on their combat boots will likely be the youngest band member, 25-year-old Jungkook, who recently performed solo at the FIFA World Cup opening ceremony.
Hybe Corporation may also use this time to promote the other popular groups under their many music labels. The company’s band TXT, sometimes touted as BTS’ little brothers, attended this year’s American Music Awards as a nominee for the new category, “Favorite K-pop Artist.” The fact that this category was created is hugely significant for Hybe Corporation and the South Korean entertainment industry as a whole. The first winner of the award, to no surprise, was BTS.
How do you think the absence of BTS from the music scene will affect the South Korean economy in the next few years? Will K-pop continue its path to worldwide mega-popularity? Feel free to leave a comment and join the discussion.