This year has not been the best for the K-pop industry. It has seen the deaths of two Korean idols. Both Choi Jin Ri (Sulli of f(x)) and Goo Hara (KARA) took their own lives. In December 2017, Kim Jonghyun (SHINee) committed suicide in his apartment. All three of these young idols were suffering from mental health issues. They had made it public and had discussed it to varying degrees. Choi Jin Ri was an advocate for spreading awareness of mental health issues but continuously received hate in the form on online commenters telling her she was a slut for not wearing a bra and for dating an older man.
Goo Hara suffered a manipulative ex-boyfriend who filmed her without her permission and then threatened to blackmail her with it. Her ex-boyfriend was found not guilty, which is perhaps not shocking in the current judicial system. In the note that she left, she mentioned that she “despaired over personal affairs.”
Kim Jonghyun left a note describing in detail how “I am broken from inside. The depression that gnawed on me slowly has finally engulfed me entirely.” He went on to say that he “couldn’t defeat it any more,” and he “was so alone.”
Such depression and sadness seemingly has no place amongst the bright-eyed smiles and catchy tunes that define K-pop. The Korean entertainment industry makes billions off these young people’s hopes and dreams and passion. Similarly, it makes billions off the illusion of happiness and perfection that it sells to its fans, packaged beautifully and with no room for negativity – or perhaps reality?
K-pop as a consumer
As someone who has enjoyed K-pop since a young age, it is with great sadness that I have begun to view the industry with more skepticism. I can understand now why my parents had their reserves about the artificial happiness and plastic smiles I was enamoured with during my middle school and high school days. At that time all I could see was the surface.
Now I am aware that below the surface exists a much darker side to the Korean entertainment industry. One in which suffering, both mentally and physically, are part of the exchange you make in order for fame. And that’s only if you manage to debut.
The younger brother of a friend of mine recently gave up on being a K-pop idol. He was a trainee for a few years but decided he just couldn’t deal with the stress anymore. His parents and brother were overjoyed – they had seen the mental and physical toll being a trainee had taken on him. Similarly, another acquaintance of mine used to work for an entertainment company and he told me about how the trainees and idols hardly ate, hardly slept, hardly spoke to anyone who wasn’t either in their own group or an immediate part of the company. He left the company after a few years and decided he never wanted to participate in that environment again.
Women in the K-pop industry
As a woman, there are even more aspects of the Korean entertainment industry I find difficult to deal with. As I mentioned before, Korean netizens constantly slut-shamed and degraded Choi Jin Ri because she didn’t conform to the social rules Korean society imposes on women. Similarly, female K-pop idols must be both sexy and demure. Their male fans want to believe that they are innocent – “pure” – and yet at the same time sexualise them. Certainly, sex sells. But then when female idols like Na Eun from Apink and Irene from Red Velvet display what seems like feminist behaviour, their male fans react with outrage and claim they can no longer support them. For clarification, Na Eun had a phone case that said “girls can do anything” and Irene read a novel about casual sexism in South Korea.
Earlier this year, scandals rocked the K-pop industry. If you haven’t heard of the Burning Sun scandal, make sure to read up on it quickly. But beware, you’ll never look at the K-pop industry the same way. To briefly summarise, members of various K-pop groups and other men in high power positions exploited their status and money to gang-rape and illegally film and distribute videos of multiple women. Certain members of the police force were complicit and there were incidents of police bribery. Seungri, the adorable youngest member from Big Bang? He was the managing director of the club in which they drugged girls.
At the moment, when you think of K-pop you think of BTS. For now their image is clean, and I genuinely hope it stays that way. They’re fronting the Korean Wave that the Korean government is pouring everything into – and gaining billions of dollars from in return. Considering how much money the Korean government makes off these K-pop groups – off these young people, off their suffering and pain – it’s about time they take responsibility for the fact that one young man and two young women have killed themselves in the last two years.
It’s time for the Korean entertainment industry to change and the Korean government needs to step in. As consumers of the Korean entertainment industry, we fans also have to fight for change because if we don’t then we are complicit in ignoring the suffering of these young people in favour of enjoying a catchy tune and some nice visuals.
I prayed that Kim Jonghyun’s suicide would be the last I’d hear about and that it would not be in vain. Then Choi Jin Ri committed suicide and I desperately hoped people would learn. Instead, the vicious online commenters turned on her ex-boyfriend, claiming he was the reason she had committed suicide instead of realising that very toxic behaviour of anonymous hate was what had destroyed Choi. And now, Goo Hara is dead at the age of 28. After her attempted suicide earlier this year, perhaps we should have seen it coming. And what a horrendous thought that is.