The Strange Affair of BTS in Busan

BTS's first concert since its hiatus is facing accusations of corrupt quid pro quo.

The Strange Affair of BTS in Busan

Image: Poster announcing the BTS concert in Busan at Ilgwang Beach.  Credit: HYBE Entertainment.

In a bid to put itself on the map, Busan 부산 has been pushing to host the 2030 world Expo, competing against Rome, Italy and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (See Starter Kit, “Get to Know Busan.”) It has enlisted many celebrities for that endeavor, including new Emmy winner Lee Jeong-jae 이정재 and K-pop megastars BTS 방탄소년단. But BTS’s involvement in Busan’s campaign has been blemished with greed and allegations of corrupt quid pro quo.

To promote Busan’s bid, BTS said it would host a free concert for a crowd of 100k in Busan in October - an unusual move in itself, as the group said it would go on hiatus in June. Whispers began that BTS was tempted out of its hiatus because the South Korean government dangled an exemption from military duty. (See previous coverage, “Public Favors BTS Military Exemption.”) Busan’s conservative mayor Park Hyeong-jun 박형준 explicitly made the case on a radio interview, arguing that BTS’s participation in Busan’s campaign should count as an alternative to military service.

Then came the greed. After the announcement, Busan-area hotel prices began skyrocketing, with some charging KRW 5m (USD 3.5k) per night. A number of hotels unilaterally canceled existing reservations, telling the guests they must pay 10x the price if they wanted to keep their rooms. Meanwhile, the media reported that Busan would not contribute a single won to the BTS concert. Even without charging for the appearance of the world’s hottest musicians, it costs more than KRW 7b (USD 5m) to put together the concert - and BTS cannot sell tickets to recoup its expenses, because the concert is supposed to be free.

Then there was the logistics. Initially, Busan proposed an outdoor concert at the Ilgwang Beach 일광해수욕장, an absurd suggestion for anyone who is familiar with the Busan area. The beach is an isolated cove with just a single lane road connecting it to the city. It has little parking space, and no restaurant or other amenities. The temporary venue at the beach that Busan envisioned would only have 50k seats, plus a crowd of 50k in standing room, and just one gate - a crowd control disaster waiting to happen. After a wave of criticism, Busan belatedly switched the venue to the Busan Asiad Main Stadium 부산 아시아드 주경기장, which holds 53k persons.

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