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For BTS fans in South Korea, there's resignation as the band takes a break

A poster showing K-pop group BTS members is displayed at a tourist information center in Seoul on June 15. Global superstars BTS said they are taking time to focus on solo projects, but the company behind the groundbreaking K-pop group said they are not taking a hiatus.
Ahn Young-joon
/
AP
A poster showing K-pop group BTS members is displayed at a tourist information center in Seoul on June 15. Global superstars BTS said they are taking time to focus on solo projects, but the company behind the groundbreaking K-pop group said they are not taking a hiatus.

Updated June 22, 2022 at 11:47 AM ET

TOKYO — When South Korean boy band BTS announced its decision last week to take a break, it sent shock waves through the music world and sent the band's management company's stock prices tumbling.

And thanks to BTS's frank criticism of their own industry — something that few of their colleagues are free to do — it has cast a spotlight on the inner workings of the K-pop hit-making machinery.

Last week, the band released a video through their management company, in which they explained their need to pause.

"After 10 years of living as BTS and working on all our schedules, it's physically impossible for me to mature anymore," said BTS frontman Kim Nam-joon, also known as RM. He added that he had lost sight of what kind of band BTS is, and what stories they want to tell.

Singer Jeon Jung-kook, 24, the youngest member of BTS, assured fans in the video that they can look forward to the day when the seven band members return.

"We're each going to take some time to have fun and experience lots of things," he says. "We promise we will return someday even more mature than we are now."

After the BTS news broke, stock prices for HYBE — the band's management and production company, talent agency and record label — dropped by 25% and have not recovered. That will affect BTS members too, as they hold HYBE stocks.

The group previously took a break in 2019, but just for a month and not all band members were involved.

The decision this time — their management company denies it is a hiatus — comes at the height of the band's global popularity. Last year, BTS had four of the top 10 bestselling digital hits in the U.S. They addressed the United Nations. They've been nominated for two Grammys. This year, they visited the White House and met with President Biden.

"They're doing so much for this generation," says BTS fan Fernanda Bedin, 30, on a visit to Seoul from Las Vegas. "They've always been honest with us, and I guess that's why we'll do everything for them."

Many fans are aware that BTS members will have to fulfill at least 20 months of military service. Under South Korean law, pop stars and athletes whom the government considers to have burnished the country's reputation may defer service until age 30. BTS members range in age from 24 to 28.

Bedin notes that other boy bands, such as One Direction, have gone on hiatus and never returned. But fans say they can relate to the artists' need to grow and find new inspiration.

"Since they've been part of my life for a long time, it feels like I've grown with them," says Swedish college student Rachel Borromeo, also visiting Seoul. "And growing as a person is never bad, especially if it helps you search for your identity."

Part of the problem, Kim explained, is the K-pop industry's grueling production schedule.

"The problem with K-pop and the whole idol system is that they don't give you time to mature," he said in the video, in which the band members talked, laughed and sometimes cried over a table full of food and drink. "You have to keep producing music and keep doing something. After I get up in the morning and get my makeup done, there's no time left for growth."

In the K-pop industry, "it's fair to say that artists work on the company's schedule, not on their own schedule," says CedarBough Saeji, a Korean and East Asian studies professor at Pusan National University who teaches a course on K-pop.

"There's a huge crew working behind the scenes writing new hits, preparing the music videos, choosing the costumes, all of that," she says. "And so it means that many artists, particularly recently debuted artists, don't have very much control over their career at all."

Some critics of K-pop, Saeji says, unfairly point to this mode of production to denigrate a "factory-made" industrial product, despite its quality, creativity and popularity.

Many aspiring K-pop stars are recruited at a young age and go through rigorous training, which, unless they score a commercial hit, can leave them deep in debt. Occasional scandals involving sexual abuse and cyberbullying have tarnished the industry's image.

BTS members' criticism of their own industry has not generated much surprise, perhaps due to their previous history of social justice activism, including a $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter and speaking out against anti-Asian hate crimes at the White House.

But not every K-pop band is at liberty to speak out the way BTS has. That's because BTS' immense success puts it in a class by itself, and because of the controlling nature of the K-pop industry.

"The tradeoff that a lot of K-pop artists are making is that in exchange for a chance at worldwide fame, they give up a lot of control over their own life," says Saeji. "They may have a lot of things that they want to express, and depending on the management companies that they're working with, they aren't given as much freedom to express their own ideas as they would like."

Even as BTS has been outspoken about racial justice in the U.S., its members have not engaged in activism on similar issues in South Korea. They've been silent, for example, on a push to pass a domestic anti-discrimination law which would protect minorities.

Whether or not BTS members reunite in future or go their separate ways, they've already reached the pinnacle of their profession and made their mark on South Korea's global image. Even so, they're confident that, as they sing in a new song, their "best moment is yet to come."

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.