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[Feature] No more a career crisis: How K-pop singers are overcoming military hiatus

By Choi Ji-won

Published : Nov. 14, 2022 - 20:41

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ONF members perform the act's ONF members perform the act's "Ugly Dance" during the Gyeryong World Military Culture Expo 2022 held in Gyeryong, South Chungcheong Province, on Oct. 13. (Screenshot of video posted by YouTube channel Gustav)

It's taken a long time to confirm that even BTS cannot avoid South Korea's mandatory military duty.

All able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve in the military for around 1 1/2 years, inevitably forcing most K-pop stars to leave the limelight at the peak of their careers.

So it was once considered that military service was like a death sentence for a K-pop career. Most aspiring artists cram their youth with efforts to establish their name, and a nearly two-year absence was often long enough for their fame to dissipate.

But while many artists once tried to postpone their service or even avoid it -- draft-dodging scandals have marred several stars' reputations -- singers are increasingly embracing service as a natural part of their career path.

Profit-making activities are prohibited while serving in the military, so artists stay connected with the fans online. For instance, Exo member Baekhyun prepared monthly video uploads, while boy band Day6 released a new unit music video while they were away.

"Fans have become more mature in dealing with their stars' hiatus. Moreover, agencies are increasingly preparing content in advance. So rather than considering that time as a loss, the companies are now considering it a natural step," pop-culture critic Park Hee-a told The Korea Herald.

The steady stream of videos from singers sometimes brings unexpected publicity for the idols.

This was the case of Junho of 2PM, whose video of him performing the band's 2015 song "My House" on a music show went viral. 2PM members admitted the video played a big role in their full-group comeback in 2021, following the members' discharge.

Boy band 2PM poses during the comeback media showcase held on June 28, 2021 (JYP Entertainment) Boy band 2PM poses during the comeback media showcase held on June 28, 2021 (JYP Entertainment)

Boy band ONF has gained more fame during their military hiatus. A YouTube video of the act's members J-Us and E-Tion dancing to New Jeans' "Hype Boy" during a military-organized event racked up over 2 million views in just few days, making their name known to many for the first time.

ONF is the first K-pop group whose members -- except for Japanese member U -- have enlisted in the army together. In a letter to fans, leader Hyojin said they decided to enlist in December 2021 after a long discussion between the members so that "ONF can meet the fans as a full-group as quickly as possible."

Backed by the upsurge in popularity, the boys even set a new record while in service. The music video of "Your Song," the lead track off of its special album "Storage of ONF," racked up 20 million views in four days, the act's best performance yet.

ONF (WM Entertainment) ONF (WM Entertainment)

Pop music critic Kim Do-heon said these kind of changes surrounding the enlistment of entertainers began in the 2010s, especially following the abolition of the entertainment soldier system in 2013.

"In the past, many served their duties as entertainment soldiers, which meant they performed inside the military. The military band also failed to bring attention to individual talents," Kim said.

But now it seems that the military has realized how to make better use of the entertainer personnel, Kim said. Rather than granting special privileges, many singers and actors are given the chance to perform at local military-organized events while serving regularly.

The average life span of K-pop acts itself has also become longer. While even the big names, such as Seo Taiji and Boys, Fin.K.L and H.O.T, barely lasted five years in the 1990s, reports show that bands lasted five to seven years in average in the 2010s. In more recent years, an increasing number of groups are even overcoming the notorious "seven-year crisis." Previously , groups often split up at the end of their contracts, which were legally limited to seven years.

Groups BtoB and Highlight each made successful comebacks following the members doing their military service, Highlight with "Not The End" in May 2021 and BtoB with "Be Together" in February. SHINee also returned after a 2 1/2-year absence last year with its seventh LP "Don't Call Me," following the discharge of its three elder members. With "Don't Call Me," the quartet swept the major music charts and recorded its strongest ever sales performance.

Image of SHINee's repackage seventh LP Image of SHINee's repackage seventh LP
Day 6 (JYP Entertainment) Day 6 (JYP Entertainment)

Many artists are also using their group's break in activities to explore solo careers. While solo debuts were limited to only the most promising group members in the past, more K-pop acts are attempting solo projects early in their careers, which allows them to embark officially as soloists when group activities grind to a halt. SHINee's Taemin released solo albums and held concerts when Onew, Key and Minho were away, and with Taemin now in service, the other three are each flourishing as soloists.

Day6 is also giving no time for fans to feel their absence through solo and unit releases. Following Sungjin's enlistment in March 2021, the other three members continued as a unit, Even of Day, and debuted solo. The three also enlisted in sequence, with Wonpil beginning his service as the last member in March. But fans had little time for the group's absence to sink in as Sungjin returned on Sept. 6. This was followed by the announcement of the quartet's complete renewal of its contract with JYP Entertainment a few days later.

"The military hiatus has become like a milestone for the second chapter in a career. For a group like Day6, which had garnered a good reputation until then, they are passing the period smoothly to greet their next stage," Park commented.

The experts, however, both stressed this optimistic outlook may only apply to the most successful groups.

"The overall size of the K-pop industry has increased, and we mustn't forget there are more groups that are vanishing even before getting the limelight. Military hiatus is still a threat to them," Park said, adding, "Even for the successful few, the idol industry pushes them to keep making new music in order to stay inside the realm of fame. There's just so many new groups and music getting released these days."

The fact that a full-group comeback takes so long is part of what makes the military hiatus a crisis for boy bands, Kim said. In the case of Super Junior, it took almost 10 years for the nine-piece to make a complete comeback.

K-pop band BTS performs during its concert K-pop band BTS performs during its concert

BTS, which will begin its military hiatus with Jin's enlistment at the end of this year, is expected to return as a group between 2025 and 2027, according to its agency Hybe. The company is currently working on the members' solo releases to minimize the impact of the absence of group activities, Kim explained.

Even though BTS are set to carry out their service, Kim added the discussion on granting exemptions or alternative choices to prominent pop celebrities should continue.

"It's not just about giving exemptions, but providing the right treatment to artists who have contributed on a national level, and also about placing them in the right positions to make full use of their service," Kim continued.

"Even if the artists must carry out their duties, there will be means for the military to better utilize their reputation and fame."