How K-pop Idols Are Affected by South Korea’s Mandatory Military Service

As if the country's music industry wasn't competitive enough, members of popular music groups must eventually face the additional challenge of serving in the military.
January 11, 2022
8 mins read

In South Korea, men aged 18-28 are required to participate in mandatory military service for an average of about 18 months. This has affected many K-pop idols and groups, who are not exempt from this. Fans are very aware of the fact that one day their favorite K-pop idols will inevitably have to enlist. Whenever idols serve in the military, they usually can only make occasional contact with fans.

Many K-pop fans enjoy the constant interaction and content they get from their favorite idols, and many groups communicate with their fans through livestreams like Instagram Live or messaging apps like Lysn or Weverse. BTS members recently joined Instagram and acquired record-breaking follower counts on their first day, showing that social media has become one of the number one ways that fans and K-pop idols connect. However, this “always-on” presentation from K-pop idols gets dropped when they enter the service, which is a very big step down from the constant attention fans expect; this ultimately disrupts the fan-idol relationship, which can sometimes affect the popularity of the idol or their group as a whole.

Putting your career on hold for two years would be a hard change for anyone, but for K-pop idols, it can undermine their popularity and future success. The K-pop world moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop and look around even briefly, you could miss it! It can be difficult for groups to stay relevant even as an active group, so if a group were to lose a few members for their service period, it can be hard for them to bounce back.

However, some groups have managed to maintain their success even after a long hiatus, like the group SHINee. Members Lee Jin-ki, Choi Min-ho and Kim Ki-bum all enlisted in 2018 and 2019, and were released in 2020. The last member to enlist is Lee Tae-min, who began his service in May 2020 and is scheduled to be released in November 2022. The fully reunited SHINee was able to come back in full force with their album “Atlantis,” which was very successful and considered by many K-pop fans to be one of the best K-pop albums of 2021. While fans are waiting for Tae-min to come back, they are excited to have the other members of SHINee back, who have all been able to talk to fans again and release music as a band and as solo artists.

Other groups have not been as lucky. When members begin to enlist, it usually breaks the group apart in a way. While they sometimes stay active, the missing members start to feel like holes in the group. For example, when EXO members Do Kyung-soo and Kim Min-seok entered the army, they were missing from the group’s “Obsession” album. Many fans were upset, proclaiming that Kyung-soo and Min-seok’s vocals were the missing piece that would have really brought the album together. K-pop groups are created in a way that combines the greatest assets of each member, and every person in a group has a role. Losing two main vocalists was a huge setback for EXO, and while both members are back now, many still feel as if the group needs a great comeback song to make up for it. Some members of EXO still need to enlist, so we’ll have to see how the group will do going forward.

Recently, the government of South Korea has been discussing an extension for idols, since K-pop idols and groups have brought both popularity and revenue to the country. The age for required enlistment has been changed to 30 years old for idols, as long as they fill out an application. Of course, this new change isn’t just for K-pop idols; it also allows for classical musicians and famous athletes to defer their service for a bit longer.

For some K-pop groups like BTS, their popularity could be dampened if they were to lose a member, so they want to put off their service for as long as they can. However, other K-pop idols seem to have a “just get it over with” mindset and take their service whenever it’s convenient for them. South Korean lawmaker Jeon Yong-gi explained that he thought the 47-year-old bill needed to be changed in order to help maintain the country’s soft power. K-pop has always been a huge reason why the world has seen more of South Korea, and with the recent explosive growth of K-pop and other aspects of hallyu, it makes sense that the government wants to allow K-pop groups to continue on. BTS alone has been cited as bringing in $5 billion a year for South Korea, which is roughly 0.5% of its entire economy.

Before the South Korean government’s decision to rewrite the law, the suggestion sparked a huge debate online in the K-pop fan community. Social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok became places where fans could talk over their opinions about the proposed change. Many people were upset that BTS was the group that started the discussion about extending the time frame, as many groups before them were affected by the previous law’s age requirement. While fans debated over whether or not the age should be changed, a small group of fans asserted that only fans from South Korea should have an opinion on the matter. I agree with those fans since, as foreign fans of K-pop, we don’t know the intricacies of their military service laws or the culture behind the proposed law change. Regardless, it’s not our place to assert our beliefs on what the South Korean government should or should not do.

While military enlistment certainly affects K-pop idols and their groups, fans hold on to their favorite members and wait (as patiently as they can!) for a cheerful comeback. When enlistment threatens to take your favorite idols, it can feel a bit sad, but remember to cheer them on and support them no matter what. It seems like a long time, but they will be back to their synchronized singing and dancing soon enough.

Peyton Conner, Indiana University

Writer Profile

Peyton Conner

Indiana University
Interactive and Digital Media with a Specialization in Game Production

Peyton Conner is a student studying game production and graphic design at Indiana University. She hopes to take her passion for games worldwide and create positive change in the video game industry.

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