Jung Kook, one of the world’s biggest K-pop idols and one of the world’s biggest pop stars, period, is attempting to describe what his gut feeling actually feels like. “It’s kind of like...,” he trails off, toying with the double piercing on the right side of his lip. A pristine white t-shirt makes the sleeve of tattoos on his right arm appear even darker. “It’s kind of indescribable.” And he laughs, giving himself a light palm-tap to the forehead. “I don’t get chills or anything like that, I just have that feeling, like, this is going to work, this is it.”
It was back in March, by his estimation, that he first heard “Seven”, his UK garage-influenced, debut solo single featuring American rapper Latto, and fell instantly in love with it. “We scheduled a recording [in Los Angeles] right away and then the meeting about the video concept. Everything was such smooth sailing,” he recalls.
The track, released in July, spent weeks on the singles chart in the UK and US (where it took the No 1 spot), and snatched the Spotify crown for the fastest song ever, at a mere six days, to reach 100 million plays. On YouTube, its video, featuring South Korean actress Han So-hee, was watched 39 million times in a single day. The only other time he’s ever felt that unshakeable gut reaction about a song, he says, was with “I Need U” (2015), the first single from BTS’s acclaimed third EP, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 1, widely regarded as a significant launchpad towards their superstardom.
Jung Kook holds the instinctual and the intangible in high regard: the former is what guides his present, but his future is cradled by the latter, at least in terms of how he sees himself as an artist. But more on that later, because Jung Kook – who recently turned 26 and has been very, very famous for a decade – is thinking about who he is at this very moment. “I think I’m the type of person who is honest with their emotions,” he says. “I change quickly. I have to do the things I want to do right now.”
We’re talking over Zoom, Jung Kook in a nondescript room within the enormous building that is the Seoul headquarters of HYBE, the multi-label corporation which began as Big Hit Entertainment in 2005, and which had never trained or debuted a K-pop idol group before BTS. A week prior, he’d been in London, and before that, New York City, battling a heavy head cold which he somehow hid from view in the slick perfection of his live television performances.
In the north London studio where this story is photographed, Jung Kook is patient and accommodating but also intensely quiet, his gaze following the frenetic activity around him. He’s an introvert by nature, and there are at least, by a quick headcount, 40 people on set, half of whom are his own entourage, including two suited bodyguards. Everyone’s eyes are fixed on him at all times, watching his every move, every tiny shift of his hair, clothes and expression. It seems utterly exhausting. One of his team smiles and shrugs, “He’s used to it.”
Between shots, Jung Kook comes to say hello. We’ve met before, in 2018, when BTS were on the cusp of going stratospheric, going from playing arenas to selling out stadiums. He was quiet then, too, though he emanated a fidgety restlessness, mentally and physically. He still has an inner itch that he can’t quite seem to scratch but it’s tempered by a new boldness and self-assuredness that he feels was missing before, traits he’s long embodied on stage yet didn’t follow him into everyday life. “When I go on stage, my wandering thoughts and feelings die down,” he says, and he’s always performed so much that the gap between his worlds didn’t seem all that vast.
Until the pandemic forced the cancellation of BTS’s 2020 Map of the Soul tour, Jung Kook had been out on the road with the group every year since 2014. In 2021 and 2022, they held week-long residencies in Seoul, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, before announcing the band’s temporary break in October 2022 for the seven members to explore personal projects and, as is mandatory for all South Korean men, serve 18 months in the military. These interims have offered opportunities to unpick parts of himself, and Jung Kook began working through some of his inner frictions, one being his self-described “laziness” which, left unchecked, pressed down on his ambition and competitive spirit. “I used to dislike that about myself,” says Jung Kook. “I think I lacked self-esteem because of it.” The answer wasn’t to try and eliminate it but to view himself from a different angle. “Ever since I changed my perspective, I’ve found more positive traits within myself. Rather than dwelling on missed opportunities and blaming myself for being lazy, thinking, ‘Why couldn’t I do it when I was capable?’, I accept who I truly am and focus on what I can do. There’s more to gain from doing things at my own pace. And if I want to stay in bed or watch TV all day, why not spend a day like that?”
It has created a domino effect in his understanding of how and why he does what he does. “I wanted to be a famous and popular singer, and to be that there has to be a mutual interaction between fans and artists. You have to give love and accept love, but I’d ask [BTS fan community] Army, ‘Why do you send so much love? Why do you love me?’ I think I tried really hard to receive love, and I don’t take all that love for granted,” says Jung Kook. “I’m very, very grateful for it, but now I think I should humbly accept it. And maybe [it’s because] time has passed but now it’s kind of the opposite: Because I get so much love and support from the fans, I want those people to be more confident, to have more self-assurance because of me, and that’s the reason why I try to do my best.”
“Rather than dwelling on missed opportunities and blaming myself for being lazy... I accept who I truly am and focus on what I can do. There’s more to gain from doing things at my own pace. And if I want to stay in bed or watch TV all day, why not spend a day like that?” – Jung Kook
There is a longstanding phrase among the Army faithful: BTS paved the way. In the US, particularly, they’ve kicked down doors that were only ever previously ajar for east Asian artists. So intense, fast and unexpected was their rise that the American entertainment industry, blindsided, could only dust off the memories of Beatlemania and dub it ‘BTS-mania’. The band’s successes are one record-breaking triumph after the other, making them a five-time Grammy-nominated household name whose global album sales are estimated north of 105m units.
Jung Kook has talked with so many Army members over the years that he understands exactly why the group resonates with people, regardless of their language, age, gender or race. “The messages in our songs and our performances comforted [people],” he says. “I think we’ve helped diversify the range of music that people listen to, and in a cultural perspective, diversity is important.” But he attributes the boundaries that they’ve broken also to their fans’ own efforts to spread their music, and the “many Korean artists who perform on global stages, and from the worlds of film, TV, and fashion. It’s not just us.”
For all Jung Kook’s power as a superstar artist – the mega-brand endorsements with brands like Calvin Klein; the way anything he uses incidentally, from fabric softener to kombucha, sells out; the fans who proudly bear tattoos inspired by his solo BTS tracks, like “Euphoria” – his presence is earthy and modest. Jung Kook debuted aged 15, and although pop culture is generally unkind to its child stars, he grew up under the watchful eyes of his bandmates who pulled him into line when needed. He is attentive, unfailingly polite, curious and wields a mischievous humour. When recording “Seven” with writers/producers Andrew Watt and Cirkut, he was eager to do well with a genre he’d never tried before, visibly nervous at the mic and, just as evidently, chuffed when they showered him with praise.
“I want to do as many genres as possible to test myself on what kind of music I can do with my voice,” he says. The success of his debut solo single, he adds, has no bearing on what his upcoming music sounds like. “When I hear the music and it’s good, I just proceed with it regardless of the genre. It feels really good to hear people say, ‘Oh, he can pull off any genre,’ so it’d be really fun to surprise people.”
A couple of years ago, the singer was deleting almost everything he wrote. He grins thinking back to that time, the light catching on his earrings. “Actually, I’m trying to break out of that habit of making music and throwing it away, but when I listen to the songs I’ve worked on in the past the me in the present is not really satisfied. I didn’t want to release any music at all if it didn’t feel perfect, and I didn’t get the vibe that it was; that’s why I deleted it all.”
Until the time comes for BTS to reunite, the borders that Jung Kook wants to break are entirely his own. In September last year, he wrote a letter that was included in BTS’s Proof (Collector’s Edition), an excerpt from which reads: “I live thinking ‘The main character of my life is no one but me.’ No matter what environment I’m placed in, no matter who’s around me, to safeguard myself without being swept away, having the mindset that I can hold control of myself. I live trying not to forget it.” (A quick aside: There’s no explicit agreement that Jung Kook will shoot shirtless for his Dazed cover shoot; none of the fits were planned for it. But when he emerges from his dressing room, his torso is bare under a black leather jacket. This is what he’s decided he wants to wear. He silently slides behind the wheel of a vintage Mercedes-Benz, abdominals rippling. He stares down the camera lens, and he smoulders.)
Jung Kook, the youngest member of BTS, knows his original bunny-ish, baby-of-the-group image still prevails. “You really like that about me,” he said to fans while in London, during one of his now-frequent livestreams. “Pretend that people like that. And I only follow that. What is something that I can change? Myself, it’s my life. I need to change. I need to tell people who love me, ‘I am like this.’ I’m not forcing anyone. I always look for something new. I want to make that new thing fun. And I want to be accepted by Army at the same time.” He also addressed those questioning why he felt the need for an explicit version of “Seven”, in which the line “And that’s why night after night, I’ll be lovin’ you right” becomes “And that’s why night after night, I’ll be fuckin’ you right”. “If you felt [it] like that,” he said, “there’s nothing I can do... And if you think about it, how old am I?”
“I like extreme things. People always tell me I look round and soft. I want this sharp, powerful image”
In recent years he has taken up boxing, pierced his eyebrow and lip, and added more hardware to his ears. He’s grown out his hair, and got heavily inked. “I like extreme things,” he says with a laugh. “People always tell me I look round and soft. I want this sharp, powerful image.” His debut single, Jung Kook says, “wasn’t [me] trying to break away from my image”. In his eyes, the evolution has already occurred, making “Seven” a direct reflection of who he is now. And so he was steadfast and frank during that pivotal livestream. “It was important for me to show how much I’ve grown as a solo artist through taking on new challenges,” Jung Kook explains, “rather than staying in my comfort zone or settling for the things that I was used to. I wanted to fully explain that to my fans.”
This need for transparency and honesty stems from the deep, emotional relationship he has with Army. When Jung Kook talks about them, his eyes light up. “When I think of, or miss, Army, I go live and hang out with them,” he says. He has livestreamed via HYBE’s Weverse platform two dozen times this year alone, mostly from his bedroom or living room, and often in the middle of the night, spending hours responding to comments, both serious and funny. He’ll do karaoke, cook, drink, even fold his laundry. In June, Jung Kook fell asleep mid-stream, and six million people watched for 45 minutes until one of his team, realising, switched it off.
If Army tells him to go to bed or not to drink too much, he gently rebuffs them, but “they say that because they have interest in me and they like me, so I don’t mind at all”, he says. When fans turn up at his gym or send food to his door, he tells them, firmly but politely, to stop. “It’s not a complicated relationship. I talk to them freely and they can talk to me freely, and it’s my choice to listen to them or not. If they say something inappropriate, it’s also my choice, my freedom, to take that in and accept it or to ignore it.”
In a 2021 interview with Vogue Korea, Jung Kook described himself as a cracked, grey (“a colour that hasn’t become anything yet”) hexagon that wants to be perfect, and as someone who wants to “climb higher”. But he said it matter-of-factly, even somewhat hopefully, because it incentivised him to strive for more. In Jung Kook’s mind, then and now, ‘more’ translates as “becoming a better and cooler singer”, he says intently. “To me, I’m not that singer I imagined myself [to be], that specific image that I had of a singer, that’s why I’m aiming higher.”
But ‘more’ presents a conversational conundrum because it’s part of the future which, for him, is an intangible realm where it’s less about set goals and more about vibes. So Jung Kook can’t tell you what that imagined image is: “I’m still not that sure, it’s that feel, there’s something there.” He points upward, index fingers jabbing at the air. “It’s right there, I just haven’t got to it yet.”
The Jung Kook of 2023 is OK with the not quite knowing-ness of that. He tries to live in the present and keep things simple, even if that’s easier said than done. “It’s impossible to not think at all,” he sighs. “You know when you think of something and it just goes on and on, down this deep rabbit hole? That can lead to positive conclusions but, for me, sometimes it led to negative ones. But now that I’ve gained some self-confidence, I’m more able to exclude those unnecessary thoughts.” In teaching himself how to quieten down his brain, he finds himself “worrying [less] about things that haven’t happened yet or thinking, ‘What if I don’t meet my own expectations?’”
But, with the power of hindsight, Jung Kook, who is working on more music with an eye towards a debut solo album, knows how far he’s come. “I trusted my gut [with my debut single] and thought, ‘Will I be able to reach the audience, and a lot of them?’ And I sort of proved that I could.” And rather than being that ambiguous grey hexagon, Jung Kook – who smiles, the widest smile his face is capable of – says, “I’d be white, and I can colour it in whatever colour I like.”
This story is taken from the autumn issue of Dazed, which is on sale internationally from 14 September 2023. Pre-order a copy here.
Hair SOICHI INAGAKI at ART PARTNER using ORIBE, make up DAREUM KIM, set design JABEZ BARTLETT at STREETERS, movement direction YAGAMOTO at NEW SCHOOL, photographic assistants LUCAS BULLENS, ARIEL MIHÁLY, styling assistants ANDRA-AMELIA BUHAI, LEA ZÖLLER, set design assistants ELLEN WILSON, HARRY BEEDLE, TOM HOPE, tailoring CARSON DARLING-BLAIR, digital technician KRISTOS GIOURGAS, production BELLHOUSE MARKES, production assistants OMER BARR, GEORGIA FAY WILLIAM, executive talent consultant GREG KRELENSTEIN at GK-ID PROJECTS