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A photograph of the K-pop band BTS, with members wearing suits and smiling, making 'V' peace hand signs.

BTS members make peace signs. Image: © HYBE, reproduced under Fair Dealing.

‘I wish I could be a
Piece of peace.’

—J-Hope singing ‘P.O.P (Piece of Peace)’, Lollapalooza, July 2022

Picture this.

It’s summer. You wake up on the couch because the apartment’s central air-con doesn’t reach your bedroom. Bleary-eyed, you pat your surroundings to find your phone and pull up Twitter. The timeline is in shambles. Every news headline reads: ‘Taylor Swift set to begin US military service in December. She will return in 2025.’

It’s hard to imagine your number-one Spotify Wrapped Artist holding a rifle, crouched on the front lines, but for me and other BTS fans (or ARMY—Adorable Representative MC for Youth—as we call ourselves), this was the case on 23 October 2022 as our favourite band declared its intent to serve. Under South Korean law, non-disabled men aged 18 to 28 must do military service (a minimum of 18 to 21 months) due to continuous war threats from North Korea. While BTS has never attempted to avoid conscription, politicians and its parent agency HYBE have tried to lobby for a possible exemption following the 2020 BTS Law, which allows K-pop stars to postpone service until age 30. Though a long time coming, the band’s decision to enlist early didn’t ease our initial flare of indignation, fear for the members’ wellbeing and sadness at the prospect of three years with them missing from our day-to-day.

It’s hard to imagine your number #1 Spotify Wrapped Artist crouched on the front lines.


For many countries, conscription is not a relic of a bygone era but an inherent part of citizenship. While military service has been off the table in Australia since 1973, it has been deeply intertwined with the life trajectory of many people around the world, in countries as geographically and politically disparate as Brazil, Vietnam and Norway. In South Korea, it has signified the shift from one’s boyhood to manhood, garnering the respect of friends, family, and potential partners, as well as securing economic prosperity with higher-paying, corporate-type jobs attained through military alumni networks. Yet as the socioeconomic and cultural landscape of South Korea continues to evolve, military service has been met with less enthusiasm. With plans to travel or work interrupted, it’s understandable for this demographic to have mixed feelings about patriotism when they’ve been thrusted into a bleak job market and housing crises post-pandemic with minimal government support.

Exceptions are rare. Other than conscientious objectors, exemptions have only been granted to individuals who demonstrated global-level excellence in their field, thereby increasing national prestige. Examples include internationally renowned pianist Seong-jin Cho and the footballer Son Leung-min. By this logic, BTS fits the bill as arguably the biggest entertainment contributor to South Korea’s GDP. To risk this success suggests a shift in geo-political power, how it’s understood and deployed.

BTS in 2021. Image: © HYBE, reproduced under Fair Dealing.

K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty—South Korea’s cultural exports are the results of then-president Kim Dae-jung’s 2001 initiative to begin industrialising the country. By 2009, the Korea Creative Content Agency was established, and large businesses pumped significant funding into the media and creative enterprises. Alongside countries such as France, Germany and Japan, South Korea is a master in wielding what political scientist Joseph Nye describes as ‘soft power’, the ability to shape other countries’ perception and decisions through appeal rather than coercion (‘hard power’). South Korean cultural exports are expected to bring in US$70 billion and counting in 2023, a direct result of government investment.

South Korea is a master in wielding ‘soft power’.

Unlike charging in with tanks, explosives and threats, soft power has to feel apolitical to achieve its purpose. In other words, its intrinsic value must resonate with its audience in an organic way. If the audience senses a propagandistic motive, not only will trust be lost, but their perception of the said subject will decline drastically. This strategy has worked so well that North Korea has even created its own pop group, Moranbong Band, and the Sinuiju Cosmetics line—though to little global success.

Beyond a Hallyu (Korean Wave) success story, BTS’ lyrics, performance and artistic sensibility have always been a call for unity, hope and resilience. This messaging is central to the band’s cultural diplomacy efforts, one championed by the South Korean government.

In 2017, for example, BTS launched the ‘Love Yourself’ campaign with UNICEF designed to ‘end child violence and neglect’ as well as promote the ‘self-esteem and well-being’ of youths alongside an album of the same name. It was the first partnership of its kind between global UNICEF, Korean UNICEF and Big Hit Entertainment (now HYBE), rather than the top-down approach of UNICEF appointing a celebrity as ambassador.

The K-pop band BTS during a White House press conference

BTS during a daily press briefing at the White House in May 2021. Image: The White House.

Last year, President Moon Jae-in bestowed BTS the title of ‘special presidential envoys for future generations and culture,’ and, armed with diplomatic passports, the band gave their second address at the UN General Assembly. Alongside the president, they explored youth-centric concerns such as the pandemic, climate emergency, poverty and the job market, and mental health struggles while echoing South Korea’s policy priorities. Over a million tuned in, a number never before seen on the UN’s streaming platforms. Most recently, in May 2022, the band was also invited to the White House for a discussion with President Joe Biden regarding the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in America and the importance of inclusion initiatives.


Elvis Presley poses for the camera during his military service at a US base in Germany. Image: Vittoriano Rastelli.

Musicians acting as critical wielders of soft power can be traced back to the birth of the opera in the 17th century. Embedded in this Italian art form was the intent ‘to project the power of the princes of the time’. In the 20th century, Shostakovich’s Leningrad, composed in 1941 during the siege of the city, was broadcast as an anthem for the Soviet resistance against Nazi invasion. During the Cold War, American jazz musicians participated in a string of international tours as ambassadors of pluralistic values and identities. In contrast, Elvis Presley was famously recruited in order to squash his counter-culture status. More recently, Ukraine’s resounding win at last year’s Eurovision—the performers were given special permission to leave the embattled country—was as much a show of solidarity against the war as a vote for the winning song itself, which has gone on to become a resistance anthem. Today, the conflict has resulted in many deaths, with musicians fighting, and even dying, for their country. The costs of war are real, and musicians are not exempt.

BTS is conscious of its influence. During BTS’ White House speech, member Jeon Jungkook stated:

‘We still feel surprised that music created by South Korean artists reaches so many people around the world, transcending languages and cultural barriers. We believe music is always an amazing and wonderful unifier of all things.’

But is the current political climate too severe for such optimism?

The costs of war are real, and musicians are not exempt.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI), the world’s military spending reached an all-time high in 2021. From the Pacific to Europe, countries are expanding their arsenal, signalling preparedness, cementing allies and growing weary of bordering neighbours. China is creating artificial islands in the middle of the ocean to serve as military bases and territorial outposts—with the US and its allies keeping a watchful eye. Conscription has been re-introduced in Lithuania and Sweden, and continues to be a contentious subject in the US as the country faces falling voluntary recruitment numbers. In South Korea, debates on the conscription of women have sprung up in the last five years. Closer to home, former prime minister Tony Abbott suggested that it ‘wouldn’t be unreasonable’ to expect school leavers to undertake national service.

All this, along with pressing concerns shouldered by the South Korean military, situates BTS’ enlistment as something beyond a matter of ‘fairness’ as Military Manpower Administration commissioner Lee Ki-sik suggests, but as a concerning reflection of our increasingly militarised world.

While ARMY’s reaction to the news has been coloured by unwavering support, a dash of sadness and some added humour to cope, the dissonance between BTS’ core vision and militaristic culture is jarring. Embracing difference, compassion and self-love has been central to BTS’ music and message. In addition, the band is known to speak out on LGBTQ rights and mental health issues, inspiring young fans to rethink society’s expectations. It’s a far cry from state nationalism defined by uniformity, subordination and hierarchical power. Out of all the emotions I felt that October morning, this tension burrowed uncomfortably in me. Despite understanding the band members’ civic duty as South Korean citizens, it felt like our reality was inching further and further from the world they dream for us.

BTS member Kim Seok-jin, professionally know as Jin, begins his military service in December 2022. Image: Twitter.

Fans speculate an exemption was never on the table. If they had been granted one, the rhetoric would’ve been two-fold. On the one hand it would be seen as anti-nationalism: ‘BTS has been Westernised, turns their backs on mandatory military!’ On the other, a form of unjust favouritism: ‘BTS exempted from the military, South Korea’s better-than-everyone darlings.’ The band’s service, then, may have always been a question of when, not if. And the members have demonstrated immense restraint and stratagem by announcing it after their final concert (for now, that is), in Busan. To support the city’s bid to become a World Expo host in 2030, the Borahae-fication of Busan was as unstoppable. The city added 12 additional incoming flights, 50 extra trains across all lines, and rerouted airport busses to accommodate visiting ARMYs from across the globe. Less than 48 hours after demonstrating their social and economic impact, HYBE’s statement that the group would enlist sent government officials into a frenzy. According to The New York Times, this move could cost a projected US$5 billion loss for the South Korean economy. Annually.

The dissonance between BTS’ core vision and militaristic culture is jarring.

Taking charge of their future not only preserves their personal agency and inherent value as cultural leaders, but it demonstrates a consciousness of the power modalities at play and the responsibilities of their citizenship. In the face of global geopolitical and economic upheaval, this decision signals a different kind of future, but one the band members are doing their best to handle with grace. In their acceptance speech at The Fact Music Awards, held in October not long before they made their surprise announcement, Jeon Jungkook said: ‘We will work hard to become your forever artists.’

To me, the completion of BTS’ military service in 2025, this promise, and their unfolding legacy are received twofold. As a global citizen, world events leave me concerned and, at times, jaded. But as an ARMY, I’m still holding onto the hope that the best is yet to come.