Jonghyun's death opens the Pandora's box of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in K-Pop industry
Many K-Pop idols have been affected by the industry's systemic problems.
Korean Pop music is all the rage right now. We have welcomed the thoroughly choreographed, highly-produced videos of the ten to 15-member groups as a replacement for the OG boy bands that seem to have gone out of fashion.
This year, in fact, we saw K-Pop group BTS rising to the top 10 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart with their new EP Love Yourself: Her. While we do appreciate the high-quality end product that is the music videos, what it costs to produce that end result is not to be ignored.
The recent death of SHINee front-man Jonghyun and his suicide note especially had diverted the attention back what it takes to be a K-Pop star. The note and retrospective comments regarding the star’s finals days suggest that he was struggling with depression for a long time and that it may have had to do with the pressures of his work.
In the letter, he had written, “I am broken from inside. The depression that had been slowly eating me up finally devoured me and I couldn’t defeat it.” He further added, “Maybe I wasn’t supposed to come up against the world; maybe I wasn’t supposed to be known to the world; I’ve learned that’s what [makes my life] difficult. How come I chose that.”
In what he called his “last goodbye,” Jonghyun also wrote, “It’s been too hard. Please send me off. Tell everyone I’ve had a hard time.” It is clear that the singer had struggled for a long time before taking the fatal decision.
The letter also offers a glimpse into the unforgiving world of K-Pop. However, this is not the first time an idol from the industry has tried to warn the world about its shortcomings. Over the years, many who train to be K-Pop idols have spoken about being forced to offer sexual favors in order to get ahead in the industry.
It is well known that before making their debuts, potential K-pop idols are forced to go through a notoriously rigorous training, which includes basic voice and dance lessons, foreign language studies, etiquettes and everything else that would make them an all-round entertainer. These lessons allegedly start from early in the morning and last late into the nights.
Throughout this training period, which could last for years, they have to maintain an ideal weight as well. This requires them to stick to often-times unrealistic dietary routines and exercise regimes. Not to mention, plastic surgeries are commonplace and encouraged in the world of K-Pop.
To “inspire” them to follow these rules to the T, oftentimes physical violence is implemented, according to Drama Fever.
Other than evident immorality in training teenagers this way, the K-Pop method also takes away an artist’s individuality. Jay Park, who was named Artist of the Year in 2017 used to train with JYP Entertainment for three-and-a-half years, and he had made some terrifying stories to say about his time as a trainee there.
The singer said that he was a victim of physical violence while training there, adding that he was asked to sing and dance a particular way only. They did not allow him to express his individuality. He said, “The culture in itself was kinda like when you get certain lyrics or you get certain dance moves wrong, they would like literally hit you.”
Back in 2012, it had come to light that Jang Seok-woo, the CEO of Open World Entertainment, one of the biggest South Korea’s biggest independent record labels and talent management companies, had sexually harassed multiple female trainees and even coerced male idols signed to his agency to do so as well. An ex-trainee who wished to remain anonymous had given her statement at the time, “At the audition, the CEO told me to do a seductive dance to him. I thought he wanted to see what kind of talent I had, but it was really weird.”
The trainee reveals that they were in a closed room and that after she was done dancing, he forced her to put her legs on top of his and express what she was feeling in that moment. She recalls another incident when he asked her to get naked and when she refused he told someone over the phone, “This girl has no talent. There are so many girls who are willing to throw themselves at me naked.”
After many such harrowing incidents, including one where he grabbed her butt and asked her “You think you can be a singer like this?”, she gave up on her dream to become a K-Pop idol. Several victims corroborated her allegations, and it had come to light that Seok-woo had abused at least 10 trainees, several of whom were minors.
Unfortunately, this is not an out-of-the-ordinary case either. It is allegedly, commonplace for trainees to be mistreated – emotionally, physically and sexually. Another ex-trainee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying “When I belonged to an agency, even though I was a minor I was often asked to be present at a bar. In truth, there are agencies that function more like brokers that trade female trainee to different sponsors.”
These abuses were not limited to female trainees either. An ex-male trainee who let go of his dreams to become an idol revealed that once his teammates had been invited to drink for one staff member’s birthday. During the “party”, which was held in a rented room, they made “a male trainee perform strip shows while girls poured drinks on him and touched him inappropriately.”
He endured two years of sexual abuse, before leaving the company for good. He related, "I have to do what I’m told by my company, and if I don’t they will release me. So all of us had no choice but to do it."
These incidences were first brought to broad daylight after the suicide of Boys Over Flowers actress Jang Ja-Yeon in 2009 after years of battle with depression. The then 26-year-old's suicide note had revealed that she had been sexually abused by her agent several times.
Her management had allegedly forced her to have sex with several higher-ups in the entertainment industry. Her suicide note, had possibly for the first time ever, shed a light on the pitiful underbelly of Korea’s entertainment world.
Now, almost a decade later, the practices continue and if anything, have worsened. One can only hope the death of Jonghyun would herald a change in K-Pop.
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