1. Introduction

In an age that sees information spread faster than wildfire, a word can be as dangerous as a spark on dry kindling. As one of the most popular music groups in Asia, BTS attracts the attention (and intentions) of people the world over. Their rise to international stardom has been swift, and the discourse surrounding them has been largely positive. Considering the intensity of the spotlight that shines on these seven young men, perhaps it can be argued in hindsight that they were due a scandal – after all, with global fame comes global scrutiny.

But the recent debate surrounding the group wasn’t the usual pop star controversy.

The Spark

In October 2018, an image of BTS member Jimin began to circulate once again. In the image, taken from the group’s 2018 YouTube Premium series Burn The Stage, Jimin wears a T-shirt featuring an aerial photo of the mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The photo is accompanied by the words “Patriotism,” “Our History,” “Liberation,” and “Korea” in English, as well as a rendering of Korean people celebrating their liberation from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II. The T-shirt was understandably controversial and ignited debate about the propriety of the design as well as the impact of an idol wearing it.

BTS was due to release a new Japanese album on November 7 amid soaring popularity in the country. They were also gearing up for the Japanese leg of their 2018 world tour. Several appearances on Japanese TV programs were scheduled and there was rumor of an almost unprecedented appearance on the hugely popular year-end television program Kōhaku Uta Gassen.

Meanwhile, an October 30 ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court stoked Korean-Japanese political tensions. In the ruling, Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation was ordered to pay 100 million won1 each to four Korean men in compensation for forced labor rendered during WWII.


  1. The equivalent of US$87,680