South Korean boy band BTS will perform together on Saturday for the first time since the shocking announcement in June that the band would take an indefinite hiatus, attracting fans desperate to see the group together for what could be the last time in years.
The concert in Busan is to promote South Korea’s second-biggest city as a candidate to host the 2030 World Expo and is expected to draw tens of thousands of fans from around the world, underscoring the group’s role as cultural superstars as well as an economic powerhouse that will be hard to replace.
The band has said its members want to focus on solo projects and, while it hasn’t said how long the hiatus would last, the oldest singer in the group faces a deadline this year to begin compulsory military service, so it could be years before the whole band could get back together.
“It’s not exactly the last chance, but there probably won’t be any concerts in the near future since some of them are going to enlist soon,” said Jessica Wan, a 32-year-old Hong Kong resident who traveled to Busan for the concert at the 50,000-seat Asiad Main Stadium. She’s “walked the whole journey with them,” she said, following the band since their early days, and seeing them play in cities such as Bangkok and Paris.
The seven-member pop group has been central to South Korea’s creative wave, known as hallyu, that rippled through Asia before reaching mainstream consumers in the US and Europe. Together with Psy’s viral hit song “Gangnam Style” and black comedy thriller Parasite, K-pop has helped to boost the country’s appeal as a cultural force and tourist destination.
A study in 2018 by Hyundai Research Institute showed the total economic value that the group could create between 2014 and 2023 would be worth 56 trillion won ($39 billion). South Korea posted a record trade surplus in intellectual property rights in the first half of this year, according to Bank of Korea data, helped by the overseas popularity of BTS as well as K-dramas and movies.
That’s why some polls show a majority of South Koreans, not just the dedicated fans who are known as Army, think the group’s members should be given exemptions from military service, or offered an alternative.
Some Korean lawmakers have pitched bills that would add award-winning pop artists to the list of people such as sports medalists and classical musicians who are not required to do service. Earlier this year, then-Culture Minister Hwang Hee said it would be a “cultural loss for mankind” if the group had to enlist and called for an exemption.
Such exemptions, however, are controversial in a country where inequality and privilege are touchy subjects. Male citizens aged 18 to 28 are required to serve for about two years to guard against North Korea. Kim Seok-jin, BTS’ oldest member, was given a two-year reprieve just prior to his 28th birthday when parliament passed the so-called BTS law, a revision that raised the age for valued K-pop stars to 30. That reprieve expires this year as he turns 30 on Dec. 4, and the second-oldest member Min Yoon-ki is due to be enlisted in 2024. Culture minister Park Bo-gyoon said earlier this month that there will be a decision on the matter by December, Yonhap reported.
BTS has said its members will continue their diplomatic activities, such as Saturday’s concert to help the Korean government’s World Expo bid, an event that backers say could draw about 50 million visitors, create 500,000 jobs and generate more than $40 billion worth of economic value. Competitors for the expo include Saudi Arabia, Italy and Ukraine.
Busan’s landmarks, including Namhang Bridge and Busan Tower, have been lit purple, the band’s symbol color and the concert will be shown live on several large screens around the city, including at Haeundae Beach. It will be livestreamed on online platforms around the world. The government extended its temporary visa waiver program for Japan and Taiwan to accommodate an expected influx of fans for the show.
Few, though, believe there will be many more such events any time soon. The announcement of the group going on break triggered a $10 billion sell-off in shares of BTS’ management company Hybe Co.
It’s unclear who could fill their shoes. All-female band BlackPink is achieving some global success through YouTube and streaming services, but few K-pop acts have the star power of BTS. Since its debut in 2013, the group gained a following for intricately choreographed dancing and a mix of synth-pop beats with hip-hop influences, as well as for songs referencing mental health and societal pressures. The band was invited to the White House earlier this year to talk about anti-Asian hate crimes.
“This Busan concert sounds like the last one to many fans,” said Kei Ng, 34, a fan from Hong Kong who’s in Korea to study the language. “There may be another group which can sell more albums or achieve more No. 1 hits in different charts than BTS, but BTS will still be the first one which smashed the whole world and gained such influence.”