In the world of K-pop, an artist’s most precious commodity isn’t necessarily their angelic voice or tight double pirouette — it’s time. That’s because for the majority of male K-pop idols, looming in the distance is the guarantee that once you reach your late twenties, you’ll have to serve in the Korean military for 18 months.
So when Suho, the 30-year-old leader of multi-platinum juggernaut EXO, appears onscreen as he calls in from Seoul a week after his discharge, the most noticeable thing about him is a sense of serenity. He takes long pauses to think; he breathes and sighs and lets himself get lost in a chuckle; he chews on his words, letting them linger in his mouth.
“I tried to spend my time in service … meaningfully,” he says in English, one of the many skills he sharpened when he wasn’t busy in his role as a social service worker. He read (he says that Holes, Louis Sachar’s beloved 1998 YA novel, is popular among Koreans for honing their English), worked out, practiced guitar, and cooked. But even as he was faced with a change in focus, his mind couldn’t help from wandering back to performing. “I had dreams about having concerts with my members,” he says. He also began to ruminate on his next solo project.
Looking at Suho today, it’s easy to forget that not long ago, he was an idol at the mercy of the unrelenting K-pop timeline. And his career started early — at 15, in fact, after the singer, born Kim Junmyeon, was scouted by a rep at SM Entertainment, home of some of the biggest acts in the industry. His teacher parents were disappointed that their son hadn’t opted to become a doctor or lawyer, but his passion for performing, ignited by a love for Stevie Wonder, was too fierce for them to ignore. So they offered him one chance to give music a shot — and six years later, he debuted as Suho, the affable captain of EXO. During the next decade or so, the group would go on to release seven full-lengths and a number of EPs, sell out venues around the world, perform at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and earn their place among the most successful boy bands in history.
Suho’s light tenor adds a unique character to the group’s discography. But beyond his artistic contribution, he’s taken his leadership role in EXO especially seriously. “At first I wanted to do everything I could to protect my members when we debuted, so it was a tough time for me. It took a pretty long time for me to realize that I could never really control that, especially since there are so many different characters and personalities — not even their parents could probably manage that,” he says, laughing. “So as much as possible I tried to bring people together — be a glue for when we went through tough times.”
And he kept his promise, dedicating himself to his team so fervently that fans, known as EXO-Ls, often joke that he’s the group’s “mom.” And when he wasn’t singing, he was devoting himself to embodying different characters through his various TV, theater, and film pursuits. When the Seoul native finally decided to look inward and release his first solo work in 2020, it offered a rare glimpse of a Suho defined only by himself. Aptly named Self-Portrait, the EP found the singer, who has spent most of his career steeped in pop or ballads, experimenting with lush soft-rock textures.
Suho enlisted shortly after putting out the EP. But even during his time in the service, he never fully let go of the EXO reins. “It was comfortable to not be at the top making decisions for once, but while I was in service I still visited my members when they had [shoots and events], so in many ways I never really stopped having the responsibility of being a leader,” he says.
At the same time, the success of a certain viral Korean export got him thinking about how he could branch out. “Squid Game became popular while I was gone,” he says excitedly. “I thought about how now that Korea and our actors have captured the world’s attention, it would give me a bigger chance to star in a Hollywood movie. The time gave me a chance to think about my acting career.” When asked if he aspires to anything other than work, he grins. “I also started studying and drinking wine, so someday, I want to make my own winery in Napa Valley.”
Suho says that the lessons he’s learned from the K-pop industry served him well in the military. “Regardless of what I’m doing, it’s taught me to be more open-minded and has given me the tools to connect and communicate with all kinds of people,” he explains.
And the experience also inspired his upcoming second project, whose release date is yet to be announced. “I want to spoil a bit about my album,” he says quietly, a mischievous glint in his eye. He reveals that he actually already shared a small teaser, a gray suit, at the end of his recent stream on YouTube Live. “I wrote about my time spent in the military. I drew inspiration from a novel called Momo [by Michael Ende]. That’s all I can say for now.”
As an artist, he believes he has more “potential and depth” than people think. “It’s something I had to learn over time,” he says, turning serious as he runs a hand through his jet-black hair. “At first I really wanted to show a certain image of myself to get people to like me, but then more and more I’d try to express myself for who I truly am, and became more comfortable showing my true self to the audience.”
Suho now stands firmly in a position that so many young K-pop stars fear — a place of ambiguity and unpredictability, where bright careers have been known to dim. But this idol, at least, is unfazed. “I’m not scared about getting old,” he says. “Because I’m an artist, more experiences and [people I meet] actually make me more … perfect. So I’m happy to get old.” He pauses, chucking to himself. “Actually — not happy, but … I’m OK.”