And on Wednesday in rainy Seoul, Atsushi Harada, a correspondent for Japan’s NTV News, headed to the headquarters of BTS’s management company, where he noted the harrowing weather in a tweet about how a poster of BTS member Jungkook got wet. “He looks sad,” Harada wrote.
That was the impact of what seemed to be the end of an era for not only the most successful K-pop act ever, but also one of the most successful music groups of all time. BTS announced at a live-streamed event Tuesday that its members were taking time off to pursue solo projects and take stock of how to move forward as a group act.
K-pop supergroup BTS announces hiatus to pursue solo projects
“I hope you don’t see this as something negative, but as a healthy plan,” J-Hope said in Korean. “I think BTS will get stronger that way.” He referred in English to what would ostensibly be the group’s comeback as “chapter two.”
The group also lamented some of the less lustrous aspects of K-pop stardom, such as the constant pressure and the sense that they were losing their sense of direction as individuals. The venting session was a rare public acknowledgment of the intense nature of the K-pop industry, in which stars — known as “idols” — are trained from an early age to look, speak, dress, dance and sing in specific ways.
“I just felt really sad that they were sad,” Titus, 19, said in a phone call from her home in Oahu, Hawaii late Tuesday. “They felt all this pressure that people would get mad at them” before announcing the breakup, she said.
Since becoming the first Korean act to win a Billboard music award in 2017, BTS has been one of South Korea’s biggest exports, with billions in ticket sales, sponsorships, music downloads and merchandise. It took top prize at the American Music Awards last year, and in 2019 it became the first group since the Beatles to have three #1 hits on Billboard’s Top 200 in one year.
The brand genius of K-pop band BTS
HYBE, BTS’s management company, released a statement saying that the group will not be taking a break, but would “start solo projects while remaining active as a group.”
Still, Tuesday’s announcement sent HYBE shares down nearly 25 percent. It also came amid a growing debate in South Korea over whether BTS and other K-pop stars should be exempted from the country’s mandatory military service.
In April, South Korea’s culture minister called for an exemption from BTS, saying it would be “a cultural loss to humanity” if K-pop stars interrupted their work for military service. Critics say proposed exemptions would bend conscription rules to help the rich and powerful evade national duty.
All able-bodied South Korean men must enlist at the age of 28, although parliament in 2020 revised a law to allow K-pop stars to defer military service until they are 30. The band’s oldest member, Jin, 29, said in an April press conference that he would leave any military service decisions to his management company. Lee Jin-hyeong, chief commercial officer at HYBE, told the conference that “conscription laws keep changing in unpredictable ways, which is actually making it difficult for our artists.”
Jin is expected to enter service this year unless a related law is revised to exempt the K-pop stars in recognition of their contributions to South Korea’s international reputation.
“BTS definitely needs a break after years of tireless work, but the impending reality of military service must have been a major factor in their new decision,” said Lim Jin-mo, a pop music critic in South Korea. He said national duty is a sensitive topic, even for top K-pop stars like BTS, because “an exemption can be seen as preferential treatment, potentially evoking a sense of deprivation and dissatisfaction among fellow Korean citizens.”
Although the news of BTS shocked the K-pop industry, Lee Kee-woong, a pop culture expert at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, said the impact will likely be short-lived. “I think it will bounce back pretty quickly,” Lee said. With the exponential growth of the industry in recent years, there is now a large number of emerging bands that can quickly fill the gap while BTS takes a break.
When asked if she doubted the group would keep its promise for a second chapter, Titus said she had faith: “It can’t end like this!”