It’s been a hard year saying goodbye to some of the idols who introduced me to the world of K-pop. Between December and March, SHINee members Onew, Key and Minho, entered the South Korean military. It was comforting at least to know they all answered the call of duty to country at nearly the same time, making a possible comeback all the more sooner, just two years from now.
All South Korean men who pass physical and mental eligibility tests are required to spend 21 to 24 months in the military between the ages of 18 and 28. The Military Service Act calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve. South Korean military enlistment laws changed Aug. 1, 2018, cutting the maximum age a Korean male can delay mandatory service by two years to 28 instead of 30. Previously, men could delay enlistment for reasons such as attending graduate school, serving at the same time as a sibling, or being a ambassador for Korea promotions. Famously, Big Bang’s Seungri is delaying his enlistment due to continuing investigations regarding the Burning Sun scandal.
I underestimated how sad it would feel because I wasn’t very empathetic when others talked about their groups being gone. I would think, “Oh well, they’re kind of over anyway.” But K-pop often leads to cultish behavior and the feeling of a personal relationship with a particular group because of the facade of constant access via live feeds, travelogues and other constant updates. On any day, you can just check VLive or Instagram to find out what the members are up to. So it really feels like the loss of friends.
Now, it is EXO-Ls’ turn to feel the loss. Xiumin was the first to leave for military service on May 7, and it will take much longer to see a full reunion soon because of their range of ages. For instance, with the return of Kyuhyun from the military just two days ago, it’s taken Super Junior nine years to fulfill their service and perhaps return as a full unit soon.
The need to enlist is considered a societal duty so when politicians floated the idea of exempting BTS from military service because of their valuable status as international cultural ambassadors, the backlash was swift. Even though BTS was not involved with this proposal, angry citizens started circulating petitions last year requesting that they disband because of perceived disloyalty to country who did not like the idea that they were perceived as superior to any other idol group. BTS members quickly responded that they would all serve, but the wound was revealed in their tears during the MAMA )Mnet Asian Music Awards) ceremony in Hong Kong in December. The eldest, Jin, will be 28 in Korean age next year and will likely have to enlist by early 2021.
People have been asking me what will become of EXO in the meantime, will they need to stop promoting and will they be able to make a comeback? I can’t predict the future, but in a radio interview, Chen said their contract with SM Entertainment has three years until expiration, taking us to 2022.
Moreso than most bands, EXO may be well-positioned for a comeback after service. For a long time, EXO, which debuted in 2012, has been considered the national group of Korea, recognized by the Korean government and serving as honorary Korea Tourism Public Ambassadors.
In the best-case scenario, Chinese member Lay (Zhang Yixing), who appears only occasionally with EXO, will return from his solo promotions in China to augment the group’s vocal, rap and dance lines as he is skilled in all three areas. I am not sure he will do this because he is very ambitious and has some momentum with his solo career. Without him, they may have some trouble in 2020-21, when their main vocals are gone. Although China also has a mandatory military service policy, it has not been implemented since 1949. Because of the country’s large population, it has been able to rely on volunteers.
Journalists are not known to be good at math, but I have tried to figure this out. Here’s a list of the members birthdays and a possible timeline of members’ enlistment based on their ages, and how it might affect the group’s ability to promote.
Xiumin (Kim Min Seok): Born March 26, 1990, age 29 (Korean age is one year older, which would make him 30 overseas); vocalist, dancer, rapper.
Suho (Kim Jun Myeon): Born May 22, 1991; leader, lead vocal. He will be 28 by year’s end, so he will go by end of the year or possibly extend into early 2020. He will already be 29 in Korean age.
Lay (Zhang Yixing): Born Oct. 7, 1991, 27; main dancer, vocalist. Korean service law does not apply to him, but he rarely performs with the group.
Baekhyun (Byun Baek Hyun): Born May 6, 1992; main vocal. Most fans have been calculating that the ’92 liners won’t enlist until 2021, but with the new age change I am thinking that they will also have to enlist by the end of 2020.
Chen (Kim Jong Dae): Born Sept. 21, 1992; main vocal
Chanyeol (Park Chan Yeol): Born Nov. 27, 1992; rapper, sub-vocal.
D.O. (Do Kyung So): Born Jan. 12, 1993, should be going in 2021.
Kai (Kim Jong In): Born Jan. 14, 1994; main dancer, visual, center, rapper. The ’94 liners should be going in 2022.
Sehun (Oh Se Hun): Born April 12, 1994; lead dancer, visual, rapper.
If they follow this timeline they will be able to reunite as a full group in 2024, five years from now. Depending on the group’s promotional capability without certain members, some of the members might decide to enlist earlier to reduce the group’s hiatus period. In the best case scenarios, those born toward the end of the year may be able to push their enlistment to early the following year.
Seven members, missing Xiumin. Still able to promote well. Although he is a very good dancer, Sehun and Kai can capably fill this void. Xiumin considers himself to not be the best singer or dancer in EXO, but has a strong presence and provides a vital supporting role that bolsters EXO’s group dynamic. Although he is the oldest, he looks like the youngest in the group and also has the role of “fake maknae,” bringing cuteness to the group’s appearances. The real maknae, Sehun, may have to step up his role in this regard.
Best case scenario: Five members, missing Xiumin, Suho and Baekhyun. Vocals: D.O. and Chen
Rappers: Chanyeol, Sehun and Kai
Dance line: Sehun, Kai
In this case they will be missing one main vocalist, but may still be able to promote well with only Chen and D.O., with Kai, Sehun and Chanyeol contributing more vocals.
Worst case scenario: Three members; missing Xiumin, Suho, Baekhyun, Chen and Chanyeol.
Rappers: Sehun and Kai
Dance line: Sehun, Kai
With two main vocalists gone and essentially only one vocal and two dancers outside, they probably won’t be able to promote EXO material. Perhaps they will tailor new material to remaining members. This could work if Lay were to take a more active role the next three years.
Best case scenario: Five members. Xiumin will return in spring. Missing Suho, Baekhyun, Chen and Chanyeol. Lay fills in.
Vocals: Xiumin, D.O., Lay
Rappers: Sehun, Kai, Lay
Dance line: Sehun, Kai, Lay
This will give them two vocalists and two dancer/vocalists/rappers, which could sound good with new material tailored to their strengths.
Worst case scenario: Three members (Xiumin, Kai and Sehun) if D.O. leaves.
Rappers: Sehun, Kai
Dance line: Sehun, Kai
It may be impossible for them to promote as EXO, but perhaps Kai will try going Taemin’s (SM label mate and member of SHINee who is promoting solo while the other members are in the military) route as a solo dancer. I don’t know whether his vocals are strong enough to duplicate Taemin’s success. If Kai and Sehun were to leave this year, a year ahead of their mandatory time, the group would also be able to reunite a year earlier, in 2023.
Best case scenario: Six members. Suho, Baekhyun, Chen and Chanyeol return. Missing D.O., Kai and Sehun. Lay fills in.
Vocals: Suho, Baekhyun, Chen, Xiumin, Lay
Rapper: Chanyeol, Lay
Dance line: Xiumin, Baekhyun, Chen, Lay
Worst case scenario: Three members. Suho and Baekhyun return. Missing Chen, Chanyeol, D.O., Kai and Sehun.
Vocals: Xiumin, Suho, Baekhyun
Dance line: Xiumin, Baekhyun
At this point they will have suitable vocals, but will be missing their main dancers, center and visuals. Perhaps they would be able to move forward with more vocal/acoustic style concerts.
Five members. Chen and Chanyeol return. Missing D.O. Kai and Sehun.
Vocals: Chen, Baekhyun, Xiumin, Suho
Dance line: Xiumin, Baekyun, Chen
They are starting to look like EXO again but missing main dancers. Again, Lay’s presence would help considerably, but Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin have proven themselves more than capable as subunit EXO-CBX.
Full reunion with the return of the youngest, Kai and Sehun. At this point, Xiumin will be the oldest at 34.
In the worst scenarios, EXO may not be able to carry on with three members, but with four members they could pull it off if you consider what SHINee has done with only four members, three of whom are not as strong vocalists as most of EXO. In the meantime, I think we can try to be happy and enjoy most of EXO intact for the next two years. After that, it gets tricky for them to perform their material as is. Be strong EXO-Ls! Remember, as the chart below shows, Super Junior fans had it worse, waiting nearly a decade!