NI-KI was rushing around but showed no signs of tiring out. He found the basketball hoop and kept taking shots until he made a basket and, whenever he could find the time, practiced his moves for the cover dance video. Until he achieved what he was going for.

Your Korean has gotten a lot better.
 I guess it’s because when I was a trainee I learned a lot from watching reality shows and audition shows like I-LAND, and the other members also taught me a bunch. We discuss a lot before filming anything. If there’s some grammar or words I don’t know, I go right to JAY, since he’s good at Japanese. I don’t have a hard time in everyday life, but sometimes I get help from others while filming when there’s something I’m not sure about.

I guess you must have had many opportunities to take in not only the language but also the culture.
 The food culture is very different; I can’t really eat spicy food. I like boiled mandu with meat inside so I’ve eaten a lot of those. (laughs) I think I learned a lot about Korean history and traditional culture when I went to Gyeongbokgung Palace.

The modern hanbok Jung Kook from BTS gifted you is also symbolic of Korea’s heritage.
 Yes, you’re right. I thought it was cool when I first got it because I was also learning another part of the culture, plus I was happy to receive a gift from him. I still wear it every day. (laughs) My teammates save their gifts for special occasions, but now I wear mine way more than any clothes I’ve ever worn. It feels like I get good energy from it.

Was there a reason you came here after performing as a kid dancer in Japan?
 I saw some idols including SHINEE for the first time at the Tokyo Dome when I was in grade school—not only dancing, but performing while singing, and that really stuck in my mind. After that, I was determined to become an artist like them and be the one on that stage someday. So now, here I am, in Korea. Actually, the dance moves I learned when I first came to Korea were totally different from what I was used to doing. The singing was, too, so I felt I wasn’t good enough so I practiced every single day. Any time I learned a new move while I was a trainee, I made sure to practice it until it was perfect before the next class.

You had a bit of a crisis while practicing for your debut: You were sent to the GROUND on I-LAND. When you became the dance representative and lost, you held back your tears even as the others were crying, until the producers came to cheer you up, and then you finally burst into tears.
 I felt terrible for losing, but I didn’t want my teammates to see me cry, so I held it in. But when the producers suddenly showed up … I was thinking how there were so many things that didn’t turn out well since starting I-LAND and had no idea what to do, but then the producers said we did a good job and suddenly I started crying too.

Finally, you debuted as ENHYPEN. How did you feel right when the decision was made?
Up until that point, even though I wasn’t sure if I could debut, I just wanted to make sure I had no regrets, so I tried my best to show everyone who supported me how much I had grown. In the end, when all seven of us put our arms around each other’s shoulders, I thought, “Wow, we’re really debuting!” Looking back now, I think it was fate for us to be together. I’m happy to have been able to debut with them. 

What’s it like to live with six older team members?
We take care of each other when we’re having a hard time or feeling sad. Our sense of teamwork is getting better every day, too. The others are still really considerate towards me, especially JAY, who I could easily communicate with by speaking Japanese. Now we use Korean except for when we’re joking around.

During the debut show, you said you feel closest to JUNGWON.
I think it’s easiest to talk with him because we’re the closest in age. They all take a joke well—I love to joke around—but JUNGWON is especially good about my pranks.

But you share a room with someone else. (laughs)
SUNOO and I sleep in the same room. There wasn’t much of a chance to be close with JUNGWON during I-LAND, and SUNOO and I shared a room back then, too, so I got used to sleeping with him.

The other members often brag on TV or social media about you, the youngest member. How do you feel when you hear them complimenting you like that?
It’s a little bit embarrassing. (laughs) I still have a long way to go, so I feel kind of self-conscious when they talk me up that much. But still, I like it when they say I dance well. Sometimes I feel like, “I nailed it this time,” and it feels good when I hear them say it, too.

You feel embarrassed when you receive compliments, but you give them out to the other members often. In the “Given-Taken” reaction video, you clap and tell them again and again how great they look.
I love to compliment my teammates. I’ll usually just say whatever’s on my mind. The music video really was that cool, and also touching. It was physically draining, filming for three days, but the video turned out so amazing that I felt like I became a fan, too, after seeing it.

While watching the video together, the other members saw your scenes and said it was all freestyle and that it was mind-blowing to see on the day. What did you aim to express?
I wanted to make a strong impression with my dancing in all the scenes, so I talked it over with the performance director and danced freestyle to make it look natural. I added a dark atmosphere to the “Dusk-Dawn” trailer by intentionally twisting my back like a zombie. I wanted to make a completely new character for the music video for the lead single. I was reminded of a movie I saw before, but I wanted to show people something that was my own.

In “Given-Taken,” you break free from the chain around your feet and float in midair, singing the lyrics, “Between giving and taking / It’s time for my proving.” What did these lyrics mean to you?
I’m still having a hard time with that. (laughs) Hmm … I imagined myself struggling between what I was given and what I had taken. The “given” part makes me think of everyone who supported me and my debut, and also maybe my talent and luck. And I have “taken” the debut by running towards my goal. When I was on I-LAND I worried whether I would be able to debut or not, but these days I worry whether I can do a good job as a member of ENHYPEN.

So you’re still worrying, even after your debut.
I was especially nervous and prepared a lot for the debut show since it was our first ever performance. I couldn’t actually meet the fans because of COVID-19, but I was really happy we could at least see their faces. I wanted to really thank everyone who watched our performance. When we went back home after the show, JUNGWON and I talked about how, “Even though we had some hard times leading up to our debut, it was touching to meet our fans through that surprise video.” And then fell asleep at around four in the morning. That’s the time I usually go to bed, and I always read the letters I got when I was on I-LAND before I fall asleep, even though I’m tired. They always give me strength.

Did looking at the fan reactions to your debut also give you strength?
It felt good when I read one comment saying it exceeded their expectations. There were some negative reactions, too, but I try to see those comments in a positive light. It makes me think how I can practice hard and put on an even better performance next time.

The fans also give you cute nicknames. Which one is your favorite?
Boongeoppang. If they draw a picture of NI-KI, I hope that a picture of a little fish shaped pastry is included too. (laughs) For me, it’s all about the red bean boongeoppang. The other flavors are good, too, but I like the simplicity of the red bean kind. I eat them head first. I like Puma, too. Some fans posted pictures of me, comparing when I started I-LAND and when we finished, and said I look like a puma.

That explains why you use the leopard emoji every time you post on the Internet. It looks like a puma.
I communicate online a lot since it’s impossible to meet people face to face right now. I’ll do my best to repay all the people who have supported me until now. I’ll keep that in mind when we perform. And I hope ENGENE and ENHYPEN can finally meet as one. I think it’ll be more fun to perform for them after not being able to meet them for so long. I imagine our fun future performances whenever we practice. When we get a chance to see them in person, the very first thing I want to do is thank them.

What does this future performance you see when you practice look like?
I remember how incredibly beautiful the lights in the audience looked from the stage, when I found my dream. I want the light from everyone’s light sticks to shine on me like they did then. And I think it’ll give me a boost when I hear all of them cheering. I want to put on a wonderful show for our fans—a performance that we can all enjoy together, where we can communicate with the fans, like if we ride around the whole arena giving out gifts like autographed balls or something.

You’ve said many times, “Dance is everything to me.” What exactly does dancing mean to you?
When I was three years old, my dad showed me a concert video. I remember how after that I would watch that video alone for, like, five hours every day, just practicing. That’s how much I liked dancing, and I want to keep dancing forever. I think that’s the most important feeling in my life.

What do you like most, other than dancing?
Microphones. Headset microphones. Even before I dreamed of becoming an idol, I saw performers wearing those headsets and thought that I wanted to wear one someday. I imagined myself with my own microphone and in-ear monitors, so now they’re very valuable things to me.

And your childhood dreams came true. Now, imagining further into the future, what kind of artist do you want to be remembered as?
An artist who gives a lot of people good energy, happiness, and can move them. I want to leave people with a lingering impression. My hope is that I can keep growing in every way.
Article. Hyunkyung Lim
Interview. Hyunkyung Lim
Visual Director. Yurim Jeon
Visual Creative Team. Gunhee Lee(BELIFT LAB)
Photography. Sunhye Shin / Assist. Seungjo Baek, Minseok Kim, Sangwoo Kim(@co-op.) (Digital camera), Yurim Jeon(Film camera)
Hair. Iljoong Lee, Minjeong Kyung
Makeup. Sunghee Ahn, Sojeong Kwon
Stylist. Kyungwon Choi
Video. Ujeong Bang, Surin Kim, Jibin Yeom, Yujeong Kim, Yeongeun Min(Big Hit Three Sixty), Yeongjae Cho, Jaehyeong Kim, Taehun Kim(Brandhood)