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K-pop military enlistment
VIXX’s N shaving his head before military enlistmentvia YouTube @achahakyeon

Why male K-pop idols have to swap their careers for the military

In South Korea, all military age males are required to serve, meaning K-pop idols sometimes have to put their career on hiatus for up to two years

Today (March 4), three of K-pop’s biggest stars will temporarily bid farewell to fans as they enlist in the South Korean military. SHINee’s Key, VIXX’s N, and 2AM’s Jinwoon have announced that they will serve in the country’s military band for nearly two years, putting their careers on hiatus to complete their mandatory military service.

Mandatory enlistment, co-ordinated by the country’s Military Manpower Administration, is a sensitive subject in South Korea. Article 39 of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea states that all citizens have “the duty of national defense”. While women can voluntarily join the military, men are required to serve and become eligible from age 18; those assigned active duty will serve around two years, dependant on their assigned military branch. Exemptions from service are currently given to award-winning athletes, classical musicians and dancers, and artists, but not to actors or K-pop idols.

If you’re a fan of Key, N, or Jinwoon, or just curious about the process for when your favourite artist enlists, we’ve broken down all the information you need to know below.

WHY DO ARTISTS HAVE TO ENLIST?

Currently, K-pop idols are not among those exempted from conscription. While idols can defer their service for a period of time by attending undergraduate and postgraduate schooling, new regulation requires all men to enroll for military service by age 28, as Yonhap News Agency write. This means that idols born in 1990 must enlist this year – besides the aforementioned artists, the likes of EXO’s Xiumin, Big Bang’s Seungri, B.A.P’s Yongguk, Block B’s Taeil, and more are also among this year’s crop. Prior to enlistment, artists try to maximise time spent with their fans by releasing new music, holding concerts, or even throwing a farewell fan meet, like Kyuhyun’s event The Day We Meet Again.

Access to phones and the internet is limited during their time away, so hearing from your ‘bias’ (your favourite member of a group) is rare, but not impossible. During his five-week training period, for example, SHINee’s Onew, who enlisted in December, penned two-line letters updating fans on his condition that were shared online via The Camp, an app that gathers information about military units for loved ones. Other artists occasionally share photoswrite letters, and perform in musicals like the upcoming production of Shinheung Military Academy, which features 2AM’s Jo Kwon, INFINITE’s Sunggyu, and SHINee’s Onew. Once they’re discharged, artists can hold a secondary fan meet to reunite with their audience, like Super Junior’s Ryeowook did just two days after finishing his service.

WHAT IMPACT DOES ENLISTMENT HAVE ON A K-POP GROUP?

The impact that military service has on a group is really dependant on how many members are enlisting concurrently. Most groups will stagger their enlistments so that they can continue to promote new material without having to lose public interest – BTOB did this last November, releasing a special album while member Eunkwang served. The biggest difficulty stems from when an entire group enlists simultaneously, because it puts them on hiatus for around two years, usually at a crucial point in their career. To circumvent that issue, groups like Big Bang and SHINee have one member who continues to release music, star in television programs, and tour in the meantime while other members serve.

For members who aren’t yet ready to enlist, this time is perfect for debuting as a solo artist, exploring other interests like acting, hosting their own radio shows, or releasing music with other members as a sub-unit.

WHICH IDOLS HAVE ALREADY ENLISTED?

K-pop idols who are discharged from service have returned to make music with their group or as solo artists. In 2017, TVXQ’s Changmin and Yunho were both discharged and went on tour before releasing their eighth album the following year. Shinhwa released their tenth album just three weeks after member Minwoo was discharged in 2012, and have since held tours, released multiple albums, and even celebrated their 20th anniversary together last year. JYJ’s members have dabbled in solo activities since they all returned: Jaejoong made his Japanese solo debut, Junsu held his 2018 Way Back XIA concerts, and Yoochun has plans to release a solo album this year. All current members of Super Junior have completed their enlistment and continue to release hits while they wait for Kyuhyun to return this May.

Some idols are currently serving, but will be discharged this year, including ZE:A’s Siwan, CNBLUE’s Yonghwa, Kyuhyun, MBLAQ’s Seungho, MYNAME’s Insoo, and Big Bang’s Daesung, Taeyang, G-Dragon, and T.O.P.

WILL MILITARY ENLISTMENT FOR IDOLS CHANGE IN FUTURE?

Potentially. Last July, Ha Tae Kyung of the Bareunmirae Party compared the prestige of BTS topping the US Billboard charts to winning classical music competitions, and suggested a revision of military exemption law to reflect the viewpoint of the country’s younger generation, discussing exemptions for K-pop idols, actors, and pro-gamers, according to Soompi. Do Jong Hwan, head of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, later confirmed that BTS will serve, and that “the Ministry of Defense will work with the culture and arts department head to devise a reasonable alternative solution for artists”, the Korea Herald reported.

In September, Military Affairs Director Ki Chan Soo told Yonhap that they “plan to conduct an overall review of the system for athletes and artists”. In October, the Manpower Military Administration announced they were working alongside the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to make sure the exemption program is “implemented fairly” and seeking “to commission an outside agency to conduct research on it and hold a public hearing to solicit public opinions”. It’s not certain if these hearings will lead to new exemptions for idols, or instead tighten up the current exemption regulations for athletes and artists.

However, some military service regulations are already changing. According to the Korea Joongang Daily, there are plans to gradually shorten enlistment periods to between 18-20 months by 2021. This not only means that idols will be back to work much faster than ever before, but also reunite sooner with all of their dedicated fans who eagerly await their return.