BTS performs emotional concert as uncertainty hovers over group’s future

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Global superstars BTS gave a free “Yet to Come in Busan” concert in Busan, South Korea, Saturday night, lending their star power to the port city’s bid to host the World Expo in 2030.

The seven members of BTS delivered a performance that was equal parts reunion, delayed homecoming and civil service as entertainment for the 100,000 fans from around the world who city officials expected to make the journey for the concert and adjacent events. The “sold out” Busan Asiad Main Stadium has a 50,000-person capacity, with an additional 12,000 spots to see the show’s live stream on massive screens at Busan Port and Haeundae Beach.

BTS performs in Busan, Korea on Sept. 15, 2022.Bighit Music

“It feels a little strange to be in my hometown,” said Jimin, one of the two band members from Busan. As part of a K-pop tradition of fan-bought ads for stars’ birthdays, the streets of Busan were adorned with his face for his birthday this week. Introducing the song “Ma City,” which pays tribute to Busan’s seaside, he shouted, “Welcome to my city, let’s go!” 

The “Yet to Come in Busan” concert is the first BTS performance since the group announced a break to focus on solo projects in June, catching fans who were expecting a world tour off guard. 

South Korea’s mandatory military service for men also looms over the band’s future.

The group’s oldest member, Jin, turns 30 in December, and the band has already been granted a two-year extension. The South Korean government grants exemptions to some athletes, classical and traditional musicians, ballet and other dancers who have won top prizes like Olympic medals.

While some fans are hoping for a last-minute exemption, Lee Ki Sik, commissioner of the Military Manpower Administration, said last week it is “desirable” for BTS members to serve.

BTS performs in Busan, Korea on Oct. 15, 2022.
BTS performs in Busan, Korea on Oct. 15, 2022.Bighit Music

The streets, bridges and beachfronts of Busan turned purple, the band’s signature color, in the days leading up to the concert. City lights on major landmarks, including Busan Tower and Gwangan Bridge, and the roads leading to the stadium were adorned in the royal hue. Pictures of all the members ubiquitously appeared on merchandise, billboards and even subway turnstiles accompanying ombre tributes. 

The enlistment of BTS to help South Korea’s second-largest city land the Expo is a clear example of the country flexing its soft power muscles in a moment of unprecedented popularity for Korean culture globally. BTS’s domination of international charts, awards shows and social media has been key to this Korean wave, or hallyu, which also includes Korean film, TV shows, beauty products and food. Italy, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia are also competing for hosting privileges; the decision is expected in 2023.

After the Grammy-nominated septet’s 2020 world tour was canceled because of the pandemic, the group shifted to performing online concerts. Since December, it has played eight shows in the U.S. Three concerts in Seoul in March had reduced capacity, amid a ban on standing, screaming and singing because of Covid, which BTS’ leade, RM, referred to on Saturday, calling the show a long overdue performance for Korean fans.

BTS performs in Busan, Korea on Oct. 15, 2022.
BTS performs in Busan, Korea on Oct. 15, 2022.Bighit Music

Kim Si Hyun, 18, a junior in high school, has been a BTS fan since its debut in 2013. She attended her first show on Saturday, and said the group exceeded expectations. 

“Amazing, if I had to describe it in one word,” she said, noting the their live singing ability, dancing and the lyricism of the members’ onstage speeches. Her friend, An Jeong Bin, 18, said he liked BTS’ music before, but became an Army during the show, because he was blown away by their talent and their speeches.

Several international fans who spoke to NBC News said they booked plane tickets and hotel rooms to Korea before the concert date was even announced.

Gebi Meidina, 35, a director at an advertising agency in Indonesia, bought a ticket in August with six of her friends. For her, the show’s highlight was the first live performance of the new song, “Run BTS.” 

In his opening comments, Jin told the audience, “It’s been a while since I threw a kiss,” a signature over-the-top move that’s become an inside joke in the fandom. Later, close to tears, he told the crowd that he had been battling a sore throat all week and did not know whether he’d be able to sing properly. He also revealed that he’d be the next to release a single.

J-Hope, the first member to release a solo album and give a solo performance as the first Korean headline for Lollapalooza in August, said in his closing comments:. “I missed this so much. I did a solo stage, and I felt the absence of the other six members.”

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.

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