The Dark Side of K-Pop: Assault, Prostitution, Suicide, and Spycams

By Matthew Campbell and Sohee Kim

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- If K-pop has a spiritual home, it’s probably SMTown. Operated by SM Entertainment Co., the six-story complex in Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district is a high-tech shrine to South Korea’s most successful cultural export. The lobby walls are covered with framed black-and-white headshots of SM’s “idols,” as K-pop stars are known. By the elevators are hundreds of Polaroid-style portraits of the same artists in a more candid light, albeit with skin so touched up it appears carved from marzipan.

The centerpiece of SMTown is a museum honoring the label’s most prominent groups. There’s an extensive section for Super Junior, a 13-member boy band that was one of K-pop’s first big-ticket acts, and another for Girls’ Generation, a syrup-sweet ensemble that flirted with global stardom thanks to mixed-language tracks such as I Got a Boy. (“I got a boy/ Cool!/ I got a boy/ Nice!/ I got a boy handsome boy!”) There are also several displays for SHINee, a five-member male group. Or rather, a formerly five-member male group. In December 2017, lead singer Kim Jong-hyun died by suicide in a Seoul apartment. “The depression slowly chipped away at me, finally devouring me,” he wrote in a final note. “It wasn’t my path to become world famous. … It’s a miracle that I endured all this time.” Kim was 27; had he been revered in the West, he might have been remembered in the same breath as other megastars, such as Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse, who died at that age. But at SMTown, Kim’s death never happened. An otherwise detailed chronology of the band makes no mention of it; on one side of the relevant date he’s in the photos, and on the other he isn’t.

 

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to call this a metaphor for K-pop’s core bargain with its audience, but it wouldn’t be completely wrong, either. K-pop depends on a highly controlled relationship with fans. The idol, the genre’s base unit of stardom, is gestated from adolescence through years of grueling training. When he’s ready to meet his public, his labels place him in a group, flowing his image and voice into the music, video, and social media streams of fans across East Asia. The ideal idol has a moral record as unblemished as his pores, eschewing drugs, gambling, and public misbehavior of any kind. While female groups employ the usual male-gaze clichés—the flirty schoolgirl, the doe-eyed ingénue—the frank sexuality of a Rihanna or a Lady Gaga would be unthinkable. And even though many, many K-pop songs are about relationships and breakups, labels often discourage dating. What the music loses in edge, it more than gains in marketability. Korea and Japan are conservative societies in many ways, and China, a nascent market, often bans foreign acts it deems negative influences.

But the wall of virtue collapsed this year, thanks to a scandal that continues to grip the industry. It began in January, after a man said he’d been beaten by guards for trying to stop a sexual assault at Burning Sun, a Seoul nightclub partly owned by Seungri, one of K-pop’s most bankable stars. The claims spiraled into a series of overlapping allegations related to sex trafficking, date rape, spy-camera recordings, and bribery. Seungri and several other idols are under criminal investigation, while the founder of YG Entertainment Inc., the label responsible for K-pop’s first global crossover hit, Gangnam Style, resigned as a result of the turmoil. Prosecutors, meanwhile, opened an inquiry into whether police had been running interference for stars, ignoring reports of sexual assault and allowing venues such as Burning Sun to function as hubs of predatory behavior.

The scandal shone an unflattering light on the idol system, which elevates artists from tightly regimented training schools to stardom in their early 20s with money and fame to burn. It’s also triggered a larger debate about the treatment of women in South Korea, huge numbers of whom face harassment, assault, or surveillance by molka, or spycams, which are routinely discovered in hotel rooms and public bathrooms.

Given K-pop’s titanic cultural and economic significance—the revenue of the four largest K-pop companies in 2018 was about $1.1 billion, according to music export agency DFSB Kollective—a real change in how it operates could shift attitudes in South Korea as a whole. But in a country where social progress often lags behind technological and material advancement, no one is getting their hopes up. For women in South Korea, “it’s a desperate situation,” says Sim Sang-jeung, a lawmaker and former presidential candidate who’s pushed for stronger protections against assault. At Burning Sun, “police and the authorities tried to protect those who have power and conceal crimes,” she says. “In women’s daily lives, nowhere feels safe.”

For most of his career, Seungri, whose real name is Lee Seung-hyun, stayed within K-pop’s guardrails. Born in the southern city of Gwangju, he made his debut at 15 as part of Big Bang, YG’s first attempt at an international idol act. Reception was initially mixed, but the group eventually became one of K-pop’s biggest names. Seungri, who has a square jaw, thick hair, and prominent dimples, began releasing solo work and became one of the most recognizable Korean celebrities—staying popular even after a 2012 “sex scandal” sparked by a Japanese magazine’s report that while spending time in the country he’d … had sex. He appeared in Korean and Japanese movies and variety shows, and in 2018 embarked on his first solo tour, to support his album The Great Seungri, whose cover depicted him in a Gatsby-esque tuxedo.

Even as he reached the heights of Korean entertainment, Seungri faced a looming challenge. All South Korean men must serve in the military for up to two years—understandable, in a country still formally at war with its northern neighbor. K-pop stars tend to defer service for as long as they can, but they must, almost without exception, enter the military by 28. Tastes shift quickly, and once an idol has disappeared from the public eye he may never regain prominence. This deadline pushes many male stars to diversify their income by investing in restaurants, bars, fashion labels, and real estate. Seungri, who was due to enlist this year, took a more energetic approach than most, starting a ramen chain and taking a stake in a cosmetics company. He also invested in Burning Sun, a nightclub in the basement of Gangnam’s Le Méridien hotel, serving as the face of its marketing efforts and making periodic appearances as a DJ.

 

In December a music-video art director named Kim Sang-kyo posted to an online forum an account of a night he’d recently spent at Burning Sun. Kim said that as he was leaving a friend’s birthday party in the early hours of the morning, a woman he didn’t know ran up behind him, apparently seeking protection from a man who was chasing her. When Kim tried to stand between them, the man threw a punch, followed by several others who did the same. Outside, Burning Sun security guards continued the beating. According to Kim, the police dismissed his account and accepted the guards’ explanation of what had occurred, taking him into custody and delivering yet another beating. Officers later accused Kim of engaging in sexual harassment himself, which he denies.

His post went viral in January, prompting Seoul police to investigate. After local media published transcripts of texts that they claimed showed Seungri arranging prostitutes for visiting investors, officers questioned him about suspicions that women were being trafficked and assaulted at Burning Sun. They declared him an official suspect in a prostitution investigation in March. His lawyer declined to comment on the allegations, though Seungri has previously denied wrongdoing. (Burning Sun is no longer in business.)

“The best teacher for young idols is to see fellow idols get into a scandal and disappear”

In keeping with K-pop’s intolerance for scandal, Seungri immediately announced that he’d retire from the entertainment industry. The same day, the Korean press published chat transcripts showing another star, Jung Joon-young, sharing videos of sex partners apparently taken without their knowledge. Another person in the chat discussed drugging a woman. In response to one story, Jung said, “You raped her,” followed by a symbol for laughter. He was indicted for sexual assault and for filming women without their consent; he has denied the first charge but admitted to the second.

Later that month, President Moon Jae-in called for a wide-ranging investigation of sex offenses linked to the entertainment industry and ordered the reopening of inquiries into past allegations. These included the case of 29-year-old actress Jang Ja-yeon, who died by suicide in 2009 after leaving a note that said she’d been forced to sleep with more than 30 prominent men.

The revelations continued, and for the first time it seemed as if a business obsessed with managing its image might burst open. More musicians were investigated for sharing spycam videos, and several police officers were accused of cooperating with Burning Sun’s owners to overlook drug use and abusive behavior at the club. Korean media at one point reported that Yang Hyun-suk, YG’s founder and head producer, had used prostitutes to court the Zelig of Asian sleaze—financier Jho Low, who’s facing criminal charges (which he denies) in the U.S. and Malaysia, for the alleged looting of a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. The men had been introduced by Psy, the Gangnam Style star. (Low denied engaging in improper behavior in South Korea. After an investigation, police declined to pursue pimping charges against Yang, who stepped down from his executive positions in hopes of “stabilizing YG,” according to a statement he issued in June. “Shameless and humiliating words are being thoughtlessly spread as if they are the truth,” he wrote.)

The story took an even darker turn when a man named Joo Won-kyu came forward. A Methodist pastor, Joo had worked for a decade with runaway teenagers in Gangnam. Around 2016 he noticed that many of them, particularly girls, were dropping out of contact. He eventually traced several to nightspots where they were working as “hostesses,” often with fake IDs because they were underage. To learn more he got work delivering liquor and fixing equipment at clubs, including the venue that later became Burning Sun. He alleged that the clubs employed “scouts” to seek out attractive female runaways. After a few months of above-board tasks, he claimed, the women would be offered up, sometimes dosed with the date-rape drug GHB, to wealthy guests.

“It’s a culture of sex trafficking by elites,” Joo, who’s since become a prominent advocate for stricter enforcement of sexual assault laws, said in an interview. He described Gangnam, where K-pop idols and executives rub shoulders with South Korea’s wealthiest and most connected citizens, as “a male-dominated society” that treats women as disposable. The idol system, he said, has contributed to this culture. “A lot of K-pop idols train from age 9. When they gain some success and popularity, they become like kings.”

The Burning Sun scandal wasn’t embarrassing for K-pop only because it touched the third rail of sex. It also showed the industry losing some of its ultimate currency: control. K-pop’s most important actors are management companies, which serve as talent agencies, record labels, and concert promoters. Even the biggest stars are effectively employees, paid a share of revenue and expected to hit targets for output, touring, and publicity.

The system has been likened to a series of factories, but it also shares characteristics with medieval guilds. Idols typically sign contracts for seven years, an eternity in a profession where 30 is the age limit for marketability. (Decade-plus contracts used to be common.) Almost all performers begin as trainees—apprentices who spend several hours a day drilling in singing, dancing, and what might be loosely called comportment. Once they reach adolescence, management companies assemble the most promising ones into groups, which rehearse for another year or two before their public debut.

Executives mold each group’s musical style to the fashions of the moment. Many of the most successful songs are composites, combining rap, electronica, and even reggae with catchy hooks and choruses sung partly in English. Since K-pop went international in the early years of the millennium, rapidly displacing Cantopop, a fading Hong Kong export, management companies have shifted more lyrics into English and integrated foreign trainees into the idol system—mainly from the Korean diaspora, but also Thailand and China.

It’s not hard to see why management companies like the factory model. Having a reserve of highly trained performers makes one of the critical anxieties of Western labels—scouting acts and signing them before rivals do—a nonissue. If executives believe the next big trend will be hip-hop or mixed boy-girl groups, they simply assign their trainees accordingly. In theory, idols’ replaceability and rigid contracts make them easier to control than Western stars. No one can fire Justin Bieber, but every K-pop idol has a boss.

The system has plenty of critics. Feminist groups have condemned the industry’s treatment of women, who are often paid less than male peers and confined to an even narrower physical and behavioral tightrope. Female stars who defy these expectations are subject to vicious digital harassment, sometimes with tragic results: In October the well-known singer Sulli, who’d spoken frankly about mental health challenges and tested some of the industry’s other taboos, died in an apparent suicide after years of online criticism. Some idols have sued their managers, claiming to have been deprived of almost all the financial gains they generated. While some performers write their own songs, it’s rarely a priority to foster creativity or unique voices. The aim is to mimic, tweak, or combine formulas.

 

The ingredients are prepared in places such as DSP Media’s trainee school. A midsize management company on a narrow street in northern Gangnam, DSP hasn’t been involved in any of the recent scandals. Its school has nine male and three female trainees, who practice from midafternoon until the late evening five days a week, then put in more hours on weekends. It’s less grueling than it sounds, at least by local standards. Korean students spend more time studying than their counterparts virtually anywhere in the world; if the trainees weren’t doing this they’d likely be putting in similar time at so-called cram schools.

On a recent Friday afternoon, four of DSP’s male trainees filed into a mirrored rehearsal room in T-shirts, loose black track pants, and sneakers, bending over to stretch their calves and hamstrings. An instructor cued up Wave, a dancehall-style track by the boy group ATEEZ. The students began a polished routine, lip-syncing lyrics as they went through tightly synchronized moves that offered only a brief opportunity for each boy to strut his stuff. It was hard, athletic work, but they seemed to be having fun, smiling and joking when the music stopped.

Afterward the boys and one of their female peers gathered to discuss how they’d come to the business. “When I was watching TV as a young girl, I thought those idol groups looked so good, and I wanted to become like them,” said a 15-year-old trainee. Her motivations, though, were more material than artistic. “My goal is to buy my parents a house,” she said with a giggle.

Next to her, another trainee, Song Jae-won, cast his ambitions in terms perhaps never heard in the history of American record labels. “My biggest hope is to please my parents,” he said. One of the oldest of the group at 18, with braces on his teeth and silver hoops in both ears, Song is the closest to grappling with the dilemmas of stardom, if all goes well. As an idol, he said, “it will be a little bit stressful to keep trying to have a clean image. I’ll think about how to deal with that stress once I reach that level.”

Asked about the recent scandals, he laughed nervously. Two instructors were sitting in, and the students appeared to know they were on touchy terrain. “This systematic process is good,” Song said. “I’m establishing my ethics, getting guidelines.”

On a postcard-perfect evening in late August, a few dozen women gathered with placards and a microphone in a concrete plaza near Seoul City Hall. Not long before, members of South Korea’s feminist movement had begun holding weekly protests, each time highlighting a different issue. This installment was focused on violence. At intervals, attendees repeated a simple, angry chant: “Stop the deaths of women!” Some held signs bearing the names of murder victims. “We can’t help but get furious,” organizer Son Moon-sook bellowed from a small stage. “The government has neglected assaults against women. We came out here today to urge the police, prosecutors, the courts, and the government, who are ignoring the deaths of women, to come up with effective responses.”

More than half of Korean homicide victims are female, one of the highest rates in the world. Government statistics show that sexual assault and harassment are widespread, though fear of stigmatization means few go public with their experiences. (So far, the only women to speak out about alleged abuse at Burning Sun have done so anonymously.) Women who do make public accusations are frequently sued for defamation, and tropes about victims’ complicity in their own attacks remain commonplace. Alcohol is sometimes cited as a mitigating factor in court, with defendants arguing successfully for reduced sentences because they were intoxicated at the time of an assault. “Blaming victims by saying, ‘Why did you dress like that?’ or ‘Why didn’t you run away?’ are still big barriers to women taking action,” says Park Hye-young, an associate director at the Seoul Sunflower Center, which assists victims.

On most metrics of economic equality, the country performs appallingly. South Korea’s gender pay gap is the largest by far among the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It’s dead last on the Economist’s glass-ceiling index, an annual ranking of 29 developed countries’ friendliness to female workers. There’s also a well-organized “men’s rights” movement, and polls suggest males are broadly skeptical of feminist policies.

The Moon government has tried to improve the situation for women, passing legislation to toughen penalties for workplace harassment and increase protections for victims. It’s also encouraged police to crack down on spycams, initiating several high-profile prosecutions. (In March two men were arrested on suspicion of operating a website that live-streamed from inside hotel rooms, using cameras hidden in wall sockets and appliances.) Women’s groups have tried to keep attention on the entertainment industry. Protesters frequently cite Jang, the actress who committed suicide, as a sort of martyr. At the height of the Burning Sun revelations, they staged a march to the club. What happens after dark in a rarefied part of Seoul might seem like a relatively contained issue, but activists argue that celebrities’ behavior—and the images of women the entertainment industry promotes—have an outsize impact on the larger culture.

 

Politicians seem to share the desire to clean up K-pop, though it’s possible they’d settle for keeping misbehavior out of the headlines. Successive governments have put music at the heart of a soft-power strategy that seeks to position South Korea as Asia’s cultural leader, and they’ve had considerable success. The boy band BTS, K-pop’s most successful act, is a true global phenomenon, repeatedly topping U.S. charts and releasing collaborations with Steve Aoki, Nicki Minaj, and other Western performers. In his 2019 New Year’s address, Moon praised BTS and the music industry for getting foreigners “wildly excited” about Korean culture.

One of the striking things about the Burning Sun scandal, however, is how little the flood of revelations has affected K-pop’s operations. The industry’s response has been not so much introspection as cauterization. Although Seungri could be prosecuted on as many as seven charges, and other performers have retired after scandals of their own, few K-pop executives or idols have so much as acknowledged the turmoil. There have been no organized demands for better behavior from male stars or serious discussions about revamping how idols are trained.

The main impact of Burning Sun, says Jeong Changhwan, a former SM executive who’s now at entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM Co., will be as a cautionary tale. “It’s a huge lesson in what not to do,” he says. “The best teacher for young idols is to see fellow idols get into a scandal and disappear from the industry.” And they do disappear—YG Entertainment has already updated Big Bang’s website, removing Seungri from the group’s official portrait.

For everyone else, the show goes on. Before a recent taping of M Countdown, a popular weekly broadcast in which rising idol acts compete for viewers’ votes, heavily made-up performers milled around adjusting their costumes and playing with their phones. As the start time approached, the members of a girl group watched playback of their rehearsal on a large monitor, checking their moves for synchronization. A female singer with purple hair, a powder-blue long-sleeve T-shirt, and cut-off black jean shorts looped with silver chains paced the hallway, her wardrobe calculated to signal rebellion without transgression.

The procession of performances began: 10 boys with perfectly calibrated rips on their otherwise pristine jeans, 6 girls in high school chic, 5 boys and an ovoid mascot that could have been the love child of Jessica Rabbit and Casper the Friendly Ghost. In the next weeks, dozens more would hit the stage, the latest products from an assembly line of artifice. No one in K-pop is indispensable; no idol, no matter how popular, is bigger than the machine.

 

 

To contact the authors of this story: Matthew Campbell in Singapore at mcampbell39@bloomberg.netSohee Kim in Seoul at skim847@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeremy Keehn at jkeehn3@bloomberg.net, Silvia Killingsworth

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.