BTS Image Credit: Twitter

“BTS is back together on the stage! What else could I wish for?” said Kim Ji-yeon, 23, who came to see the K-pop supergroup’s concert in her city, Busan. For the past year, the college senior has been studying day and night for the civil service exam, even on weekends. “I had to skip my studies,” she said, “because tonight might be the last opportunity for me to see BTS perform live.”

On Saturday, the septet reunited for its first concert since the surprise announcement in June that its members are taking a break to focus on their solo careers, which sent shock waves across the band’s global fan base.

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BTS Image Credit: Reuters

“We were all crying when we announced that our activities as a group will stop and solo pursuits were to follow,” vocalist V told the concertgoers. “And yet we are here having a concert as a group again.”

His remarks were met with collective “ahhs” and “ohhs” from disheartened fans, and his bandmates quickly intervened, saying that they are not “stopping” but just taking some time off.

The announcement in June came as the deadline loomed for a decision on whether the band will be granted an exemption from the country’s mandatory military service. The band’s oldest member, Jin, faces possible conscription after turning 30 in December. “For now, this is our final scheduled concert,” Jin said in an emotional voice.

The concert, which was put on for free to support South Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan, drew more than 50,000 fans. Tens of thousands more fans, even without tickets, gathered in different parts of Busan to watch the concert live streams on large screens and snap photos at the city’s landmarks lit up in purple, the color of BTS.

Authorities said the weekend events were expected to attract some 100,000 domestic and international visitors to the southern port city.

As the clock ticks for BTS to enlist, Busan officials are concerned about losing support for their expo bid from the world’s biggest boy band. Busan’s mayor even petitioned to the central government to excuse BTS from mandatory military service so that the cultural juggernaut can continue as the face of the bid.

Kim, the college student in Busan, said she was not interested in the expo bid initially, as she wanted her city to focus on long-term issues such as youth unemployment rather than the one-time event. Now, she said, “I am just happy that the expo brought my favorite band to my city.”

The “ecstatic” cries from BTS enthusiasts interrupted what might have been a restful weekend for 73-year-old Yoon Jung-sil, who lives in an apartment right next to Busan Asiad Main Stadium. She said the concert has been an “administrative trial” for her city, citing traffic jams and price-gouging in the hospitality sector. To prevent the mega-event from spiraling into a logistical nightmare, Busan authorities flew drones for traffic monitoring and dispatched inspection teams to hotels with excessive prices.

“I have not seen so many foreigners in my neighborhood,” Yoon said. “Is it what the expo is going to look like in Busan?”

While some residents worried the songs and cheers from the open-air stadium would be too loud, lines of fans camping at the venue entrance hoped for exactly that, to listen to the concert from outside. “Even just hearing their voice from afar means a lot for me,” said Janie Aquino, one of the disappointed fans who lost the “click-war” for tickets but still traveled to the venue - from the Philippines in her case.

Bujhoy Aguila, 40, who flew from Manila with Aquino, said the band’s uplifting songs helped them get through the pandemic gloom. “BTS, they let me experience my second youth,” she said, fighting back tears.

As the superstars entertained the crowd with their catchy tunes, emotional lyrics and finely coordinated dance moves, fireworks burst in the night sky above the stadium.

“Some say BTS is too old now,” said Suga, the band’s rapper. The 29-year-old said his near-decade-long career since the group’s debut in 2013 “flashed before my eyes” while going through the concert repertoire. “Let’s grow old together,” he told cheering fans.