Before BTS became the biggest boy band in the world, the K-pop group used to have one more trainee

  • At 18, Kim Ji-hun moved from his suburban hometown to live and train in Seoul with six trainees who would one day become BTS
  • After more than a year of eating, sleeping and practising with the boy band members, Kim was cut and spent the next 10 years of his life as a ‘regular’ person
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Kim Ji-hun (left) with BTS members RM (middle) and V (right). Photo: YouTube / Vice Asia

The summer of 2011 burns bright in Kim Ji-hun’s mind for many reasons.

Temperatures in Seoul that July went up to a sweltering 93 degrees. Suitcase in tow, a fresh-faced Kim found himself smack in the middle of the South Korean capital, carrying the hopes and dreams of a teenager who had been dancing since the age of three. He had been encouraged to move to Seoul from his suburban hometown after a chance encounter and successful audition with a talent scout.

Still reeling from the dizzying sights of Seoul, he moved into a nondescript dormitory building on the south side of the city. It was a third-floor unit with blue walls and two tiny rooms.

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He was given the top bunk on the right side of a communal bedroom, sleeping above a dancer his age from Gwangju. Two other boys, a gangly 18-year-old and a reserved, soft-spoken 19-year-old – both budding rappers who lived and breathed hip-hop – inhabited the other set of bunk beds.

Eventually, he met three other young teens who huddled up, sleeping together on the hard floor. And that was how they lived for a year, a bunch of kids from out of town, trying to make it together in the big city.

Eighteen-year-old Kim did not know it then, but four years from that summer night, the members of BTS, newly-anointed K-pop princes, would release a song called Moving On, about this same flat with blue walls in Nonhyeon-dong.

In a twist of fate beyond his imagination – the other six boys who slept in that room would go on to break multiple album sales records, sell out stadiums from Seoul to Los Angeles, and earn several Grammy awards.

Perhaps most incredibly, they have become a driving force of Korea’s economy, adding an estimated $5 billion to the South Korean economy every year.

Close to 11 years after that summer, Kim, now 28, looks back with fondness and a slight twinge of regret, on the days when he came so close to fame and was just one step away from mega-stardom.

After being cut from the group that would become BTS, Kim Ji-hun has worked part-time jobs, served in the military, and graduated from college with a psychology degree Photo: Instagram / @bito_on94

From the suburbs to the big city

Kim came from Wonju, a city in Gangwon province, South Korea. Having started dancing at the age of three, he became a prime candidate for K-pop recruiters who ventured out of the capital’s confines and scoured provincial areas looking for diamonds in the rough.

He passed his trainee audition on his first try and signed on to what was then called BigHit Entertainment in July 2011.

So began an intensive process where he spent most of his waking hours in the practice room, learning how to rap, sing, and dance with a dozen other trainees.

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Kim was sent to dance and vocal sessions that could sometimes last as long as 12 hours a day and run into the wee hours of the morning.

“I’d wake up, go to class, and then we’d be in practice. But I never once wanted to quit, give up, or go home. I was genuinely happy, no matter how hard it got, because I loved to dance, and I enjoyed the training,” he added. “Of course, it was tough and painful. But we loved it.”

He still recalls those days with great fondness, describing how there was, despite their long hours practising, time to do things that teenagers did, like going out to grab some fried chicken together or chatting about their hopes for the future.

Kim slept one bunk up from BTS’ rapper J-Hope (right) for over a year. They were both hip-hop dancers from provinces outside Seoul. Photo: YouTube / Vice Asia

“RM and J-Hope were the same age that I was, so we were really close. As for Suga, he’s a quintessential Gyeongsangdo-man,” Kim said, referring to the Korean stereotype of a tough man of few words from the southern Gyeongsang region of South Korea. “He never spoke much, but he showed his care through actions.”

And then there were the pranksters – V, Jungkook, and Jimin.

“Jungkook and V were always so mischievous,” Kim said. “And Jimin was very kind and particularly hardworking.”

Jin, Kim said, had a home in Seoul and only moved into the dormitory closer to BTS’ debut in June 2013, after Kim moved out.

Sudden end to a dream

“Initially, BTS was meant to be a big group with quite a few members,” Kim said. “There was meant to be a ballad group of five, which V [Kim Taehyung] and I were in. The others [RM, Suga, J-Hope, and Jungkook] were in the hip-hop group.”

But slowly, BigHit began whittling down the number of trainees from 30 to 20, and eventually seven people – who debuted as the final line-up of BTS in June 2013. After more than a year of eating, sleeping and training with the other BTS members, Kim was cut.

“[Getting fired] happened pretty suddenly for me. One day, I got a call to come to the company. There, a company representative just told me – all right, Ji-hun, we won’t be walking on the same path with you any more,” he said.

He was given one week to move out of the dormitory and back to Wonju.

“I was just not at that level yet, skill-wise,” Kim said. “I wasn’t good enough.”

He still remembers the day he was informed of his firing.

“RM and J-Hope were shocked. They didn’t know it was going to happen and kept asking why I had to leave. V and Jungkook cried, and Jimin sat there silently,” he said. “And Suga, in particular, he was very angry. I remember him being in a rage, saying: ‘There are many people who are a lot worse than you. Why you?’”

“I still remember them as the teenagers I met back then”

Kim has spent the last 10 years living life as a “regular” person. He has worked part-time jobs, served in the military, and graduated from college with a psychology degree, while watching his friends ascend to the top echelons of fame.

He currently lives in his family home in Wonju, working as a public servant in a local government office while dabbling in YouTube content creation.

He hasn’t spoken to the members of BTS since the last time he saw them three months before their 2013 debut – at one last dinner over fried chicken, back at their old dormitory in Nonhyeon-dong.

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“I asked them if they were really going to debut under the name ‘Bangtan Sonyeondan’ [BTS’s Korean name], since they’d considered other English names in the style of BLOCKB or other bands,” Kim said. “But now, there isn’t a person in South Korea who doesn’t know who Bangtan Sonyeondan is.”

It still throws Kim for a loop to see BTS billboards all over the city.

“It’s a little weird to see their faces wherever I go and hear their songs everywhere,” Kim said. “But though they’re famous celebrities, I still remember them as the teenagers I met back then.”

“Do I regret becoming a BigHit trainee? Not at all,” he said. “If I could, I would do it all again.”

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