Leaving behind hundreds of tearful fans, South Korean pop star Rain put on hold one of the most successful entertainment careers in Asia as he entered boot camp Tuesday to begin nearly two years of military service.
The 29-year-old singer and actor gave a military salute and said farewell before he disappeared into an army base in the city of Uijeongbu north of Seoul.
"Thank you for the 10 years of love," Rain told his fans, his hair cropped neatly, tears welling in his eyes. He made his debut about a decade ago. Many of the fans were from Japan and China and held banners with messages meant to cheer up the star.
Rain, whose real name is Jung Ji-hoon, will serve 21 months in South Korea's 650,000-strong military. All able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve about two to three years — a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War — and Rain isn't expected to receive any special treatment.
Military service has agonized many young South Korean entertainers and athletes hoping to continue their successful careers. Athletes can be exempted if they win an Olympic gold medal or other major achievements that help improve the country's image. But entertainers — no matter how successful they are abroad — have not enjoyed such tolerance from the government.
"Entertainers are thought to work for their own sakes. That's the difference," Hwang Sang-min, a Yonsei University psychology professor and frequent commentator on popular entertainment, said.
A series of draft-dodging scandals involving top stars in recent years has also made things more difficult for entertainers.
Song Seung-heon, a Korean drama star hugely popular in Japan and other Asian countries, suffered a massive public backlash in 2004 when he was found to have attempted to avoid the draft. He eventually went to the army and is now back on the path of success.
"The mood against draft dodgers is so hostile that nowadays entertainers feel it's better to simply get it over with," said Ha Jae-keun, a South Korean pop columnist.
A two- or three-year hiatus often meant irrecoverable damage to an entertainer in the past, with stars losing jobs and people moving on to new faces, but Ha said that doesn't seem to be the case any longer. A record of military service can actually enhance an entertainer's image, he said.
Highly popular stars like Zo In-sung, So Ji-sub and Won Bin have seen military service add to their success rather than detract, he said.
Kim Hee-ra, a 21-year-old Sogang University student in Seoul, both grieved and welcomed Rain's enrollment in the army.
"The fact that Rain entered the army without any attempts to be exempted will positively affect his future career," she said.
Still, one South Korean fan worried that Rain may not be as popular after a two-year publicity blackout. Lee Jin-young, 22, also worried that Rain may find his service to be tougher because he is starting at a relatively old age. Many people serve in their early 20s.