Yeoncheon, South Korea
K-pop supergroup BTS entered a new era on Tuesday as Jin, its oldest member, began his mandatory military service amid tight security at an army training center in South Korea.
Jin, 30, will spend 18 months in uniform after crossing into the Yeoncheon army base in northern Gyeonggi province, where security staff and the media outnumbered a few hundred fans who had gathered to catch a glimpse of the star – ignoring his earlier pleas for them to stay away.
A motorcade of six black vans, which was assumed to carry Jin and his security staff, entered the base shortly before 2 p.m.
Numerous banners along the roadway welcomed Jin and the other recruits to the base, which is less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the Demilitarized Zone that separates South Korea from North Korea.
Among the conscripts joining the 5th Infantry Division Tuesday was Kim Seok-jin, 20, from Daejon – who shares the same full name as the superstar recruit.
Waiting outside a restaurant across from the base with his parents, Kim showed off his new buzz haircut – the same style Jin had gotten a few days earlier – and said he was nervous as he waited to go inside.
“But I’m excited too to go in with Jin,” he said, adding that he hoped they might become friends.
Among the BTS fans outside the base Tuesday was Lee Hey-Kyoung, a 40-year-old from Seoul, who combined subway, bus and taxi rides to make the trip to the base Tuesday morning.
“It’s a very cold winter and I’m thinking of him going to suffer in the military. That’s why I came here,” Lee said.
Nearby was Mandy Lee, who flew from Hong Kong to see Jin off.
“We wish him all the best and stay safe and healthy and we will wait him the 18 months,” she said.
Military service is compulsory in South Korea, where almost all able-bodied men are required to serve in the army for 18 months by the time they are 28 years old.
South Korea’s parliament passed a bill in 2020 allowing pop stars – namely those who “excel in popular culture and art” – to defer their service until the age of 30.
In October, BTS’ record label said that all seven members of the group were planning to undertake military service. BTS is expected to reconvene as a group around 2025, according to BIGHIT Music.
Jin’s service will begin with a five-week basic training course before being assigned to a unit, based on standard practice.
Park Si-woo, 23, who underwent training at the base in 2021, told CNN that Jin will likely find himself in barracks with about 40 other recruits sharing bunk beds.
Park said recruits will wake up around 6:30 a.m. to begin their daily routine, which involves physical workouts, plus combat and weapons training.
The recruits must give up their mobile phones, so Jin’s initial contact will be through letters that fans can submit online that will then be printed out and given to him. Military officials said Jin would get limited access to his cell phone at the weekend.
One thing Jin and the other recruits may appreciate is the food, Park said, adding: “We were given a lot of snacks during the training – beef jerky, butter waffle snacks, and drinks.”
Once integrated into South Korea’s forces, Jin will be one of about 560,000 army troops, according to the South Korean army website.
BTS have become worldwide superstars since debuting in 2013, earning No. 1 singles in more than 100 countries, more than 46 million followers on Twitter and awarded Time magazine’s Entertainer of the Year in 2020.
They have also become an important part of the South Korean economy – a 2019 study showed BTS was responsible for 0.3% of the country’s gross domestic product with $4.9 billion in revenue.
Critics say BTS is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.
“BTS’ place in the scene is unique,” said music critic Yoonha Kim. “I think no more needs to be said. In fact, not only in the K-pop scene but looking at the entire Korean music history, no such group existed and it will be difficult for another to emerge in the future.”