South Korean boy band BTS will perform together on Saturday for the first time since its shocking announcement in June of an indefinite hiatus, attracting fans desperate to see the group together for the last time in what could be years.
The concert in Busan, aimed to promote South Korea's second-biggest city as a candidate to host the 2030 World Expo, is expected to draw tens of thousands of fans from around the world, underscoring the group's role as cultural superstars as well as an economic powerhouse that will be hard to replace.
The band has said its members want to focus on solo projects. While it hasn't said how long the hiatus will last, members in coming years also face military service, compulsory in South Korea, meaning it could take years before they can get back together.
"It's not exactly the last chance, but there probably won't be any concerts in the near future since some of them are going to enlist soon," said Jessica Wan, a 32-year-old Hong Kong resident and one of fans visiting Busan for the concert to be held at 50,000-seat Asiad Main Stadium. She's been following the band since its early days, seeing them play in cities such as Bangkok and Paris. "Being a fan of them can feel like really having walked the whole journey with them."
The seven-member pop group has been central to South Korea's creative wave, known as hallyu, that rippled through Asia before reaching mainstream consumers in the US and Europe. Together with Psy's viral hit song "Gangnam Style" and black comedy thriller Parasite, K-pop has helped to boost the country's appeal as a cultural force and tourist destination.
A study in 2018 by Hyundai Research Institute showed the total economic value that the group could create between 2014 and 2023 would be worth 56 trillion won ($39 billion). South Korea posted a record trade surplus in intellectual property rights in the first half of this year, according to Bank of Korea data, helped by the overseas popularity of BTS as well as K-dramas and movies.
That's why some polls show a majority of South Koreans, not just the group's dedicated fans who are known as Army, think the group's members should be allowed exemptions from, or be offered some alternative to, military duties.
Some Korean lawmakers have pitched bills that would add award-winning pop artists to the list of people such as sports medalists and classical musicians exempted from service. Earlier this year, then-Culture Minister Hwang Hee called for allowing an exemption for BTS members, saying it would be a "cultural loss for mankind" otherwise.
Military service exemptions, however, are controversial in a country where inequality and privilege are highly touchy subjects. All male citizens aged 18 to 28 are required to serve for about two years to guard against North Korea. Kim Seok-jin, BTS' oldest member, is required to join the army after he turns 30 on Dec 4, and the second-oldest member Min Yoon-ki is due to be enlisted in 2024 under a revised law.
BTS has said its members will continue its diplomatic activities, such as Saturday's concert to help the Korean government's bid to host the World Expo. But few believe there will be many more events any time soon. The announcement of the group going on break triggered a $10 billion sell-off in shares of BTS' management company Hybe Co. It's unclear who could fill BTS' shoes. All-female band BlackPink is achieving some global success through YouTube and streaming services, but few K-pop acts have the star power of BTS. Since its debut in 2013, BTS gained a following for its intricately choreographed dancing and mix of synth-pop beats with hip-hop influences, as well as for songs referencing mental health and societal pressures. The group was invited to the White House earlier this year to talk about anti-Asian hate crimes.
The Busan concert will be shown live on several large screens in the city, including at Haeundae Beach, and will be livestreamed on online platforms. Organizers are also expecting fans from Japan and Taiwan, as the government has extended its temporary visa waiver program for arrivals from those places.
The southeastern port city's landmarks, including Namhang Bridge and Busan Tower, have been lit purple, the band's symbol color. Backers of Busan's bid to host the World Expo believe it could draw about 50 million visitors, create 500,000 jobs and generate more than $40 billion worth of economic value. Its competitors include Saudi Arabia, Italy and Ukraine.