UIJEONGBU, South Korea (AP) — South Korean pop star Rain bid farewell to tearful fans as he put one of Asia's most successful entertainment careers on hold to enter boot camp and begin nearly two years of military service.
The 29-year-old singer and actor, his hair neatly cropped, gave a military salute to fans Tuesday before he disappeared into an army base in Uijeongbu north of Seoul — more than 50 years after Elvis Presley was drafted in the U.S. army from the heights of stardom.
"Thank you for the 10 years of love," Rain told hundreds of gathered fans as tears welled in his eyes. Many of the fans were from Japan and China and held banners with messages meant to cheer him.
Rain is fulfilling his compulsory military service at a relatively late age and risks losing career momentum during the 21 months he spends out of the public eye. But he could otherwise face a backlash given South Korea's hostility toward draft dodgers.
Rain, whose real name is Jung Ji-hoon, is not expected to receive any special treatment in South Korea's 650,000-strong military. All able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve about two to three years, in a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Military service has agonized many young South Korean entertainers and athletes hoping to continue their successful careers. Athletes can be exempted from service if they win an Olympic gold medal or otherwise improve the country's image with major achievements. But entertainers — no matter how successful they are abroad — enjoy no such lenience from the government.
"Entertainers are thought to work for their own sakes. That's the difference," said Hwang Sang-min, a Yonsei University psychology professor and frequent commentator on popular entertainment.
Recent years have seen a series of draft-dodging scandals involving top stars.
Song Seung-heon, a Korean drama star hugely popular in Japan and other Asian countries, suffered a massive public backlash in 2004 over attempts 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.
In the past, a two- or three-year hiatus often meant irrevocable damage to an entertainer's career in South Korea as the public moved on to new faces, but nowadays military service can actually enhance a star's image, Ha said.
Rain's musical career includes seven albums, and he has acted in several South Korean film. Time magazines named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He made his Hollywood film debut in "Speed Racer" in 2008.
Kim Hee-ra, a 21-year-old Sogang University student in Seoul, said she was sad to see Rain go but glad that he was fulfilling his duties.
"The fact that Rain entered the army without any attempts to be exempted will positively affect his future career," she said.
Lee Jin-young, 22, fretted that Rain may not be as popular after a two-year publicity blackout. He 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.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writer Jiyoung Won in Seoul also contributed to this report.