Those who work in the public eye come under a lot of different influences, making it hard for them to formulate their own world views. The same is true of those who have had to mould themselves from a young age to achieve a certain goal. But Jung Kook is different. His pursuits outside BTS suggest that he has very clear ideas about what he wants to do and show that he can seal himself off from outside influences. This is one of the things we like about Jung Kook.
How has he managed to foster his own ideas? Jung Kook, who listens attentively while making eye contact, replies: “I don’t have clear answers like, ‘This is how I’ll live!’ But what’s clear is that I want to decide for myself how to live my life. Perhaps there will be an afterlife, but who knows? This is the only life I’ve got, and it’s short. I’d never do something that everybody agrees is wrong, but where various ways are acceptable, I want to live on my own terms. I settled on this fairly early on.” Curious about Jung Kook’s thoughts on life’s fleeting nature, I respond: “They say that life is short, but art is eternal. What is eternal to you?” Jung Kook says: “Let’s assume that what I do is art. Would this be the most important thing? Isn’t life itself more important? The time I’ve lived is distilled in me. So, life is finite but also eternal.”
Jung Kook is preoccupied with all sorts of art, not just music. Some fans want Jung Kook, the ‘Golden Maknae’ (or ‘youngest of the family’) of BTS, to showcase his talents in other areas more, such as painting, photography and video editing. Jung Kook humbly says: “These are just some of my other interests, and I don’t feel the need to develop all of them.” But multitalented individuals must surely hear an inner voice urging them to make use of such talents. It must be difficult to ignore the desire to express oneself in various ways besides music.
“I have realistic as well as idealistic goals,” says Jung Kook. “I used to be greedy and did what I wanted to do without giving it much thought. But the way one thinks changes over time, as does life in general, and relationships, too. These days, I’m more realistic. What I need to do is more important than what I want to do.” On top of this, Jung Kook doesn’t like to reveal his creations until he is fully satisfied with them. “They’ll never be perfect, but they at least have to be at a level I’m happy with,” he tells me. “I’ll work hard, and one day I’ll be able to unveil them to the public. Right now, I don’t have the mental energy to spend on improving them.”
“There are lots of things I still want to do. I want to continue expanding as an artist and achieve even greater things”
Over the past couple of years, it has not been easy for Jung Kook to work—even on his hobbies, like painting and photography. “If the stage set is the same every time one performs, there’ll be less excitement for the performing artist and the spectator alike,” he says. “I need to keep seeking change and challenge myself. The same goes for photography and painting. I carried a camera with me when we worked, but we couldn’t move around much due to COVID-19, so the photos all looked pretty similar. And going on risky trips that weren’t really necessary wasn’t an option.” Instead, Jung Kook found joy in books, portals into other worlds. He is making an effort to read more books in his spare time in order to become better at writing lyrics. His current fascination with writing lyrics links up with his other artistic pursuits. “My lyrics reflect my speech and individuality,” he explains. “This is another area where I can express myself.”
Hopefully, Jung Kook will soon be enjoying a change of scenery. He was thrilled by the chance to visit the UN General Assembly to sing ‘Permission to Dance’ in September 2021. “Every time we prepare an album and record a performance on stage, I have the same mindset,” he says. “But there was something extra when we filmed a video with dancers on the lawn in front of the UN General Assembly. Having fun dancing and singing together outdoors made me feel that better days were on the way. I felt that the day was drawing near when we’d be able to meet ARMY up close, or the day when I could go out alone at dawn and enjoy tasty snacks.” I ask whether it is even possible for a superstar to go to a late-night restaurant alone, but Jung Kook smiles and says: “There’s always a way.”
BTS has changed Jung Kook’s life dramatically. In 2014, BTS went out on the street in Los Angeles and invited random passers-by to attend their free concert. This was being filmed as part of a TV show, but they worked hard to promote their group by handing out flyers. Since then, BTS have skyrocketed. In 2021, tickets for their concert at SoFi Stadium, near Los Angeles, sold out in minutes. Comparing then to now, Jung Kook is tongue-tied. “I always wonder why people love and adore us,” he admits. “I’ve thought a lot about how I arrived at this point. Firstly, I was lucky to have talented team members! Secondly, we have a CEO who really loves music. Apart from that, perhaps the synergy of BTS’s songs, lyrics, messages, performances and public appearances attracted more and more fans? Lately, it’s become even more difficult for me to wrap my mind around the situation. I guess it’s because I’m unable to meet the audience members in person. I need to work harder to prove that I’m worth their support.”
Jung Kook is also very mindful of BTS’s positive influence. “As I get older, I feel more pressure,” he confesses. “I’m not particularly great; and I’m not that good and virtuous. I’m a very ordinary person, and I’m often scolded by the other members for my immature behaviour. If the world sees us as having a positive influence, then I need to try to adjust and match my actions and thoughts to those values.”
ARMY has been putting BTS’s positive messages into action. Their environmental projects, like saving rainforests and whales, and their fundraising for vulnerable groups such as refugees and LGBTQ people have been astonishing in terms of their scope and speed. ARMY seems to have become a global cultural movement that goes beyond the fandom. Jung Kook is amazed and intrigued by ARMY. “I’m just someone who loves to sing and dance, but ARMY is achieving greater things for us,” he says. “I can’t thank them enough for their support for us, but they’re also doing such wonderful things. I’m deeply moved by ARMY, which started as a group of BTS supporters but has evolved into a real force for good. I’m inspired by them.” Jung Kook wanted to find a way to repay ARMY, the group’s proud flagbearers, but found himself at a loss. “It seemed there was nothing special I could do,” he says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that being good at my job, as I’ve been doing, is what I can do for ARMY.”
“If the world sees us as having a positive influence, then I need to try to adjust and match my actions and thoughts to those values”
Jung Kook has approached his work with excitement rather than apprehension. It’s not that he’s been free of anxiety because each album was a success or because he is loved by the fans, but because he has believed in himself and his group mates. “We did our best with every album and on every stage,” Jung Kook says. “Nobody can be perfect, but I’ve been able to enjoy it because I do everything that’s required of me. That’s why I can accept an occasional poor result.”
This seems to be Jung Kook’s attitude toward life. “I understand that hard work and the outcome are two separate things,” he explains. “I’ve learnt how to accept the result. Of course, having the ambition to improve myself is another matter.” As Jung Kook debuted at age 15, he must surely have matured more than any other BTS member. On the other hand, they tell him: “It’s great that you haven’t changed at all.” What about him has changed the most and how has he remained the same over the past decade? “I was warm-hearted and trusting as a child, and I still am,” he admits. “Until they break my heart, I give my all to those I love. My group mates all acknowledge this. Sometimes, I worry about what’s going to happen, but I’m lucky enough to have my group mates beside me, which is reassuring. But if I depended on them too much, it would be like hiding behind them, so I need to be able to stand on my own.” Except for this, he adds, everything from the way he speaks to the way he thinks has changed. I believe that another thing that remains the same is his energy. Jung Kook shows no signs of tiring during the photo shoot for Vogue, which proceeds at a fast pace and without a break. He raises the energy of the set, moving with the rhythm of the background music and approaching group mates to massage their shoulders or straighten their clothes.
As Jung Kook puts it, after an incredible 10 years, what will the next 10 be like? ‘Permission to Dance’ contains the words, “We don’t need to worry. ’Cause when we fall, we know how to land.” I ask Jung Kook if he has thought much about how to land. “Obviously, many people are more successful than me, and as I get older and time goes by, my career is bound to taper off,” he reflects. “But I don’t think about landing. There are lots of things I still want to do. I want to continue expanding as an artist and achieve even greater things.”
All clothing and accessories are by Louis Vuitton.
Fashion editor Eunyoung Sohn
Photography Hyea W. Kang
Styling Hajung Lee
Hair Naejoo Park/Bit&Boot
Make-up Dareum Kim
For the full cover story, pre-order your copy of the January/February ‘Grace’ issue of Vogue Singapore online now or pick it up on newsstands from 3 January 2022.