Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and grooming, Please read with caution.
On Dec. 18, 2017, Kim Jong-Hyun, the lead singer of K-Pop group SHINee, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 27 years old, joining Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix in the infamous ‘27 Club.’ His last solo album was released posthumously on Jan. 23, 2018. Jong-Hyun had sent a note to his friend Jang Hee-Yeon (better known as Nine9 of the group Dear Cloud) earlier that month, which she posted on Instagram after consulting with Jong-Hyun’s family. An English version can be found here, translated by Catherine Chung. A particularly haunting line read as follows: “The life of fame was not for me. They say it’s hard to bump up against the world and become famous,” it reads. “Why did I choose this life? It’s a funny thing. It’s a miracle that I lasted this long.”
For those unfamiliar, K-Pop is a music genre native to South Korea (hence ‘k-pop’) in which pop stars referred to as ‘idols’ sing, dance, and perform at concerts attended by thousands. These idols are frequently grouped into musical acts, not unlike the West’s concept of ‘boy bands’ a la One Direction, The Backstreet Boys, and so forth. Where these idols differ, though, is in the ways that their record companies exude control over them. Diet, physical training, romantic relationships, social lives, and social media presence are all aspects of the idol’s life that are controlled by the record company as a way to present a very specific, calculated persona to the idol’s fans and the entertainment world at large. To understand the lengths that these companies go to, it’s important to have an understanding of how one actually becomes an idol in the first place.
The process goes something like this: young performers (frequently pre-teens when they start) attend auditions held by record companies like SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment. These auditions are often attended by hundreds of kids at a time, where they’re asked to sing and dance in front of a group of judges, who determine whether or not they have enough potential (in terms of their ability to perform, their physical appearance, etc.) to become an idol. If they’re deemed acceptable, they begin their training, which can take up to a decade depending on the individual. Many trainees sign contracts with their management agencies when they’re around 13 years old.
Training includes dancing and singing lessons and language classes to speak languages deemed important to their career, such as Japanese and English (K-Pop is very popular in Japan, and is growing in popularity in the U.S.). Some trainees choose to continue their regular education (remember: they’re often not even teenagers when they start) during this period, while others choose to drop out completely in order to focus on their careers.
Idol training can be expensive, too. The Wall Street Journal reported that the cost of training a single member of the group Girls’ Generation was around three million U.S. dollars in 2012. This might seem extremely expensive, and it is, but the fact that idol training can take up to 10 years to complete helps to explain why training can cost so much.
This training often isn’t simply a cost paid for by the record companies, either. Many performers end up paying back the cost of their training over the course of their careers, if they even get careers at all. If they fail to succeed once they’ve debuted (begun their careers within a performing group), they still have to pay back the record company for their training, meaning that several idols or former trainees end up in excessive debt. Such is the case with an individual known by the pseudonym ‘Minjoon’ (many people who speak out against the k-pop industry do so under fake names to protect themselves), who was left with a debt of 600 million KRW (around $518,037) after an eight-year training period that ended without him debuting.
Once a trainee is deemed ready, they’re assigned to a new K-Pop group and given a particular personality to inhabit, a character to play as a way to cater to fans and build an image for themselves and for the band. To this end, the idol’s social media is almost always taken care of by the record company that they’re signed to so that the constructed image and personality are maintained. In public, idols are pressured to put forth a “wholesome image” and to stay “private about their lives and thoughts” in order to keep their careers safe and eliminate any potential controversy that might arise from expressing their personal opinions.
Record companies also discourage dating, so that idols seem more ‘available’ to their fans. Idols who have broken this part of their contract have been fired over it.
Physical exercise and diet are highly regulated in pursuit of that artificial image too; many k-pop idols are forced to adhere to a very specific diet (that doesn’t allow for any exceptions outside of what the diet entails) and workout routines so that they can appear as conventionally attractive and youthful as possible for as long as possible. “Gym, studio, bedroom — that’s my life circle,” said Ho-Ryeong, a member of K-Pop group, Great Guys, who did an interview with Insider in 2019. “Honestly, we don’t have much time for eating,” he said. “Nor are we free to eat what we want.”
The grueling training process and extreme measures that record companies take to control their idol’s lives may seem excessive and harsh in and of itself, but there’s more demons in the industry’s closet than just that.
In 2019, MBC Newsdesk reported the alleged assault of a male clubgoer at the Burning Sun, a nightclub in Gangnam, perpetrated by a staff member of the club. This started an investigation by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, an investigation that quickly turned from only investigating the assault to also looking into concerns over prostitution, drug trafficking, and police corruption all related to the club and its management. How does this involve the K-Pop industry? One of the club’s directors was Seung-Ri, a member of the group Big Bang, who quit the entertainment industry after being charged with sex bribery as a result of the investigation.
The scandal, known as the Burning Sun scandal, came to include allegations of rape and spy cams when Jung Joon-Young, another famous idol, confessed to secretly filming himself having sex with women and sharing the videos without their knowledge. Other idols, including Yong Jun-Hyung of Highlight and Choi Jong-Hoon of F.T. Island were revealed to have participated in chat rooms where the videos where shared, and subsequently resigned from their groups after word came out. Some of the videos were dated to as far back as 2015. At least one senior police official, Yoon Gyu-Guen, was arrested and tried for covering up the evidence of the crimes.
The scandal brought women’s rights issues to the political spotlight in South Korea, with Sim Sang-Jeung, a South Korean politician, having commented that, during the scandal, “police and the authorities tried to protect those who have power and conceal crimes.”
In October of 2019, actress, songwriter, and former member of group f(x), Choi Jin-Ri, better known by her stage name Sulli, was found to have committed suicide in her home. She was remembered for being outspoken in the world of K-Pop; as someone who was genuine, showed real emotion, and defied the expectations put upon her by her record label and her industry. She spoke out about mental health issues, cyberbullying, and women’s rights. She announced her romantic relationship at the height of her career, and was noted for defying her record label’s mandates on appearance by openly not wearing a bra when out in public. “When I first posted a ‘no bra’ photo, there was a lot of talk about it. I was scared and could have hidden, but the reason I didn’t is that I want to change peoples’ prejudices about that.”
Sulli was a rebel and an important figure in the discussion about the ethics of K-Pop as a genre, but she was also the target of harassment. Trolls and critics were unhappy with her blatant disregard for the expectations set upon her, and berated her on social media for it. It affected Sulli, like it would anyone. A fan reposted a video of her last Instagram Live after her death, in which she declared, “I am not a bad person. I’m sorry. Why are you saying bad things about me? What did I do to deserve this?”
K-Pop as a genre has continued to grow in popularity over the last few years, especially in several Western countries, but that popularity is built on extremely unethical practices that have demolished the lives of people both involved in the industry and involved outside of it. Remember, the Burning Sun scandal involved women being filmed without their knowledge, and police officers in Seoul worked to cover up the crimes because of the worry that such a scandal might damage the industry. It’s one of the worst sides of the music industry brought to life, and people continue to support unethical bands and companies because they enjoy their music, despite what the companies are doing to their idols and what the idols have done to their fans.
That isn’t to say that all K-Pop bands and companies are inherently bad or that the music itself is bad, but fans need to be informed on the ethics of their favorite K-Pop artists going forward if things are going to change for the better. Otherwise, the cycle of pressure, grooming, and control that the industry currently conducts will only continue to damage the lives of its stars and its fans.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus