“Always be wary of scandals, don’t do drugs or pot,” Seungri, a member of leading K-pop group Big Bang, advised a younger counterpart on his Netflix show, YG Future Strategy Office. “And stay away from hostess bars.”
The irony of those statements is now colossal. Seungri – together with a host of other Korean male celebrities – is now embroiled in the biggest scandal ever to impact the nice-guy, cutesy, carefully scripted and artfully polished universe that is K-pop.
Rape, drugs, explicit videos filmed and shared without consent, a prostitution ring, bribery of the police – the list is long and sordid, making Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandal look almost tame by comparison. And every day, the net spreads further.
The scandal broke earlier this month. So far, Seungri – real name, Lee Seung-hyun – has been accused of sharing explicit videos on a KakaoTalk chatroom, South Korea’s most used messaging app, supplying prostitutes to foreign investors at a nightclub in Seoul, bribing the police and gambling. He faces up to three years in jail.
He was interrogated along with fellow singer Jung Joon-hyung, from the very popular variety show 2 Days 1 Night. The two were members of a KakaoTalk group chat in which Jung allegedly shared videos of himself having sex with at least 10 different women – some who seem to have been drugged and possibly raped. He faces up to seven and a half years of jail time.
“In regards to what is being said in relation to me, I admit to all my crimes,” wrote Jung in a letter. “I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a social media chatroom, and while I did so, I didn’t feel a great sense of guilt.”
Both men have departed their labels and apologized publicly. Meanwhile, the number of idols netted keeps snowballing. Choi Jong-hoon from boy band FT Island and Jong Junhyung from Highlight have also announced their retirements from show business once police revealed they were part of the chatroom.
With ever more sober-suited, serious-looking young stars filing past TV cameras into hearings, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for an investigation on March 19, adding it would be a “huge shock” if the allegations were true.
Really? On Thursday, more than 800 films of couples having sex in hotel rooms were found to have been live-streamed from 30 hotels in 10 cities.
In a land noted for male-centricism, where the entertainment sector has long been considered sleazy, where “hostess bars” are often seen as fronts for prostitution and where an epidemic of spycam pornography last year sparked a furious backlash from women’s movements, the allegations look all-too credible.
Ground zero of the scandal is “Burning Sun” – a now infamous nightclub partly owned by Seungri in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district. When a visitor to Burning Sun saw a woman being dragged into a back room, he complained to staff – who, instead of addressing the issue, assaulted him. He then complained to police.
“The scandal got out because a male client of Burning Sun got beaten up and reported it to the police,” explained Oh In-gyu, director of World Association of Hallyu Studies, which researches Korean pop culture.
“Clubs have been under investigation for drug use and the biggest drug factory in Asia was discovered by police in Taiwan. Its bigger buyers were the Gangnam club owners – among which were Burning Sun. So the drug abuse is more the focus, now, than the sex videos.”
Sex tapes and spycam controversies have become almost the norm in South Korea.
“Private parties and private sex videos are popular among individuals and group talk chat rooms, as pornography is strictly banned in Korea – and punishable by criminal law if distributed either confidentially or openly,” Oh said. “So whereas sex tapes can be easily forgotten, a drug indictment is a crime that hardly goes away in Korea.”
But while that might be the case judicially, women may be less willing to overlook sexual abuse.
Women’s groups hit the streets in May and June 2018 to protest against the epidemic of pornographic film captured on spycams, that are secreted in places like bathrooms, changing rooms and hotels. They marched under the slogan “My Life isn’t your Porn.”
In what many say is a sexist society, female celebrities can suffer massive backlashes if they suffer sex scandals. As a result, many of them have come forward to assert they weren’t involved in the ongoing scandal.
Clean faces, dirty industry
Early Hollywood was beset by mafia involvement, and sex-and-drug scandals are almost de rigor among US musicians. But the debate about abusive practices in the US industry was reignited when the 2017 Harvey Weinstein debacle kick-started the global #MeToo movement.
Weinstein was far from the only perpetrator – Kevin Tsujihara, the head of Warner Bros in the United States, resigned on Monday after allegations that he had been promised sex in exchange for roles to aspiring actresses.
However, Korean idols have had zero leeway to be bad boys. Their audiences are often very young and, with Korean culture being popular all over Asia, the fandoms encompass both conservative and religious countries. This explains the squeaky-clean images they are required to project.
Given K-pop’s global reach, the issue is not limited to South Korea. In some countries – where there is a fear that K-pop is just getting too popular, pushing aside local talent – the scandal could prove convenient.
“Chinese, Japanese and Muslim countries have been very worried about their girls falling in love with K-pop and its idols,” said Oh. “This scandal is a great opportunity for them to criticize K-pop and try to stop its progression.”
The backlash has begun. In Indonesia, the Jakarta Post decided it was “time for K-pop fans to stop idolizing criminals and perverts.” Prismastuti Handayani, the managing editor of the journal, wrote: “As of today, K-pop fans are divided between those who demand that Seungri, Jung and their friends be sentenced to prison and those who still hope they can walk free and continue to entertain us.”
In Singapore, Channel NewsAsia has been asking the question: “Is this the end of K-pop’s innocence”? Perhaps. Fans abroad may be truly shocked, but while the abusive sides of the industry have long – if quietly – been known in South Korea, this knowledge is sparser overseas.
“I think that with all of this, the second generation of K-pop is over,” Constanza Jorquera, a Chilean researcher who has been studying “the Korean dream,” told Asia Times.
Indeed, the influence of Big Bang’s five members over the sector was so big they are still referred to as the “Kings of K-pop.” But their image has been suffering for years and even though Seungri has quit, the current situation could be the final blow.
“G-Dragon already had a marijuana scandal years ago, Daesung was involved in a car accident that killed someone and member T.O.P. still has a very bad reputation with his last year drug scandal … The only one that’s clean right now is Taeyang,” Jorquera said.
In a sector with a fast turnover, the younger generation of fans is moving on to more recent third-generation groups like BTS or Blackpink. Some fans have never even heard of the older acts and only follow the latest groups.
Oh is skeptical that the scandal will have a broader impact on the K-pop industry.
“Many followers still support Big Bang despite the current fiasco,” he said. “K-pop in general will not be impacted, much.”
Even so, their labels could be. “YG Entertainment might be hurt – considering they’re behind two implicated groups and especially Big Bang – but this will open up more opportunities for other entertainment companies,” Oh said.
Indeed, the top companies are all suffering. The listed value of the top five agencies – YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Cube Entertainment and FNC Entertainment – was down by 17.5%, midweek.
However, over the last year, they have all been overshadowed by upstart Big Hit Entertainment, which runs globe-trotting sensation BTS – unsullied by the scandal back home.