NCT Dream is the youngest unit of SM Entertainment’s boy group NCT (which stands for Neo Culture Technology). Marketed for the teen audience, NCT came to fruition after years of planning by SM’s founder Lee Soo Man. There is no limit to its amount of members, and the original plan was to create multiple units performing all over the world.

As of September 2019, the group is divided into four units. NCT 127 — the main Korean unit (named after the longitude of Seoul) — is meant to have a fixed line-up, even though circumstances showed that members can expect to be removed at any time. There is no such concern for the members of the second unit, NCT U, as it is officially labelled a “rotational unit” which means that its line-up changes for every comeback and includes only the members who suit the new song’s concept the most. WayV, the third unit, debuted in early 2019 (years after the others) and targets the Chinese market. NCT Dream, which is made of the group’s youngest members, is the only unit based upon a “graduation” system: once a boy turns 20 year-old in Korea, he is removed from the line-up at the end of the year and is added to another unit.

The idea behind NCT‘s concept was actually planned long before its members joined SM Entertainment. The first attempt at a rotational-based group was actually Super Junior.

Super Junior originally debuted as Super Junior 05. Twelve members were chosen to join the group in 2005 (hence the “05”) but they were all meant to graduate after a while and be replaced by new members. The idea proved to be so unpopular with their fandom that, even though SM Entertainment had already started recruiting for Super Junior 06 and added a 13th member, Kyuhyun, they were forced to backpedal; thus giving up on any further line-up changes and removing the numbers from the group’s name in the process.

11 years after their original graduating debacle fell through, SM chose to try again with an “upgraded” system. The idea behind Super Junior 05‘s creation was to make members graduate and leave the group permanently; the former members would never perform as “Super Junior” again and give their spot to new aspiring idols from the company. The plan proved to be a fatal blow as fans got too attached to the members, and the prospect of their removal caused a riot that ended up affecting SM’s profits.

When NCT Dream was introduced, SM was quick to tell fans not to worry. After their graduation, members would not disappear, but they would simply join another NCT unit. For that matter, two of Dream‘s members, Mark and Haechan, had already debuted in NCT 127. SM was keen to show that being in two groups was not only a viable option, but also a great opportunity for their fans as they got to see more of the members. The boys belonging to several units was the occasion for them to try different concepts and show all of their abilities to the audience.

Whilst NCT 127 went the experimental route, NCT Dream was the younger cuter brother that was utterly dripping in ear worm pop. From Chewing Gum to My First and Last and We Young, the seven teenagers spent their rookie year cementing their sound and building up a strong and dedicated fandom.

NCT Dream quickly became the public’s favourite and that momentum has yet to slow down. Among the four units, they became the first ones to get a music show’s win back in 2017, and with their latest song “We Boom”, they were also the first to surpass 250,000 album sales on Hanteo. Last but not least, their “We K-pop” episode broke the highest live viewership record on Kakao TV, as nearly 200,000 fans watched the live broadcast.

NCT Dream‘s success is a blessing for SM Entertainment… but it is also the company’s biggest problem.

Its graduation system means that all the members who turned 20 years-old in Korea this year will leave at the end of 2019. Whilst 2018 saw the graduation of Mark, the former leader, NCT Dream is about to lose four out of its six remaining members, three of whom have no unit lined up to join.

Haechan, Dream’s main vocalist, is the only member who currently belongs to another unit. Out of the four soon-to-be-graduated boys, he is the one with a clear path and secured career waiting for him. His fanbase is also one of the strongest and is already used to seeing him perform with NCT 127.

Jeno and Jaemin also proved to be popular, as the boys have some of the largest individual fandoms in NCT. Even though they are given a lot of solo gigs, their future still remains uncertain, as SM has yet to announce their addition to another line-up.

His individual fandom might be one of the smallest, but when it comes to selling power, Renjun‘s Chinese fans routinely outsell the rest of the members’ – the latest example being We Boom bringing in 30K+ sales from Renjunbar alone.

In any year, losing just one of these four members would be difficult to overcome. Letting go of all of them at once could prove to be a blow that NCT Dream might not come back from. The lack of transparency from SM has caused division within the fandom, as we know for sure that four members are leaving, but we have no idea where three of them will end up, and who will replace them.

Although SM believed that they had dealt with their Super Junior 05 problems, their management of NCT Dream has brought back the very same issues that they failed to solve more than a decade ago. Fans are once again annoyed that there is no clear path for their bias, no set unit ready for them to join and no guarantee for their future. Whilst these problems remain, it is unlikely that whoever is getting ready to replace the leaving members will be welcomed with open arms; an unfortunate situation for all the young boys who are currently training to debut, and most probably don’t want to be considered “spot stealers”.

The members of NCT Dream have spent three years working hard to build up a strong fandom, and it is unclear now if the system SM has set in place means that the fans will stick with the unit, or if they will simply follow their bias right out the door.

HaechanJaeminJeno and Renjun will graduate in less than four months, so I guess we will find out soon enough.