News / Features

Idols And The Military: The Service That Separates K-Pop Stars From The Rest

By Rachelle D. | September 25, 2014 08:09 AM EDT


It's a common story in the K-Pop universe - a popular group and their team are trying to decide when their young, male members should serve their mandatory military service, or orchestrating a comeback with recently returned members.

For most idols and their Korean fans, the call to serve is yes, compulsory, but also a patriotic duty that can't be left unanswered. For the people working behind the scenes in the industry, then, conscription means navigating the K-Pop world to ensure that a star can disappear for 21 months without saying good-bye to his career.

Of course, Korean artists aren't the only stars that have experience with military service. When the U.S. had a draft, a handful of performers served their country, most famously Elvis Presley. And a number of other countries, including Israel and Singapore, still have mandatory service for the able, young members of its country.

None of those countries have the global entertainment industry that relies on young male stars that Korea does, though. The billions of dollars that pour into that industry come largely from a rabid fan base. Under normal circumstances, their loyalty is unabashed. But that adulation can be difficult to sustain if a star is a two-year-long no-show in a field where fresh sensations can emerge overnight, said Rick Goetz, founder of

"This is a youth-focused industry," he told KpopStarz. "Audiences can be fickle in an industry that moves this quickly, especially when we're talking about young fans. Two years is a long time in the life of a teenager."

They can also be unforgiving when it comes to stars that are hoping to get out of their service for what are perceived as the wrong reasons, said Dr. Crystal Anderson, professor at Elon University and co-founder of Kpop Kollective.

"Within Korean society, military service is serious," she told KpopStarz. "It's a measure of your support of the Korean government. Korea does not have an option for those who want to consciously object, so guys who don't serve are kind of looked down upon."

With the right planning, though, serving in the military doesn't have to be a career killer - if only because a career might be dead before a star enters the service, said Mark Russell, author of Pop Goes Korea and K-Pop Now.

"Most men can delay their service until their late 20s, and most of the time, most pop stars are less hot and vital by that stage in their careers," he told KpopStarz. "In their past, when a singer got started in his early 20s, military service could be a bigger obstacle. But now for K-Pop, most singers debut in their teens, so they have a good decade before they have to enlist. And let's face it, 98 percent of careers don't last a decade."

Managers also have a better handle on how to deal with scheduling military service, especially for large K-Pop groups. Anderson noted. Big groups like Super Junior can rotate out members without much upheaval, or a group can leave at the same time and coordinate a comeback, as in the case of Shinhwa.

The potential for a reunion like takes the right star with a strong team behind him, said Goetz. With the right timing, people, and media savvy, a K-Pop idol doesn't have to choose between serving his country and advancing his career.

"I would advise an artist to stockpile as much new recording and video footage as possible before entering, and if possible have you or someone else release that content over the course of service," Goetz suggested. "This can be a difficult thing to recover from, but if you can keep your image out there and get fans excited about a comeback, it could be possible." 

Tagged :  military service, Shinhwa, Super Junior, JYJ, Rain


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