Goo Hara’s tear-stained face was swollen with grief when she took to Instagram Live in October 2019. In the live-stream, an emotional Goo – a former member of girl group Kara – held her hands in a prayer symbol as she spoke for three minutes to her “sister”, fellow K-pop star Sulli, a former member of the popular girl group f(x). The 25-year-old had taken her own life in her apartment the day before.
While not addressing the circumstance’s surrounding Sulli’s death, Goo instead said goodbye to her friend for the last time. “Live well up there and do everything that you wanted to do,” she said, as thousands of fans watched her pain unfold in real time. “I will live hard and work hard for you.”
Yet a little more than a month later, Goo, 28, was found dead in her home. She, too, had died by suicide.
... For many young Koreans, K-pop is a desirable career choice – a lucrative and exciting opportunity to be a part of the pop behemoth that has become South Korea’s best-known cultural export. It’s an industry worth $7.5 billion, and its popularity now extends beyond Asia, with members achieving a level of global success unprecedented in music history. The phenomenally popular boy band BTS had the third best selling album of 2020 (behind Taylor Swift and The Weeknd), and last year Blackpink became the best-selling K-pop girl group in history. But something is very wrong inside K-pop, and it points to a deeper malaise throughout South Korea.
There has been a spate of suicides and high-profile sex scandals involving K-pop stars in recent times. At the height of their fame, these young performers seem to have buckled under the strain, unable to live up to the demands placed on them to be polished, picture-perfect ambassadors of this effervescent pop music. Prior to the suicides of Sulli and Goo, Kim Jong-hyun, 27, a member of SHINee, took his own life in 2017 after speaking about the intense pressures brought on by success.
Then in March 2019, several male K-pop stars, including Seungri, a member of boy band Big Bang, Choi Jong-hoon, a former member of FT Island, and singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young were implicated in a spycam sexual abuse scandal, after Jung shared videos of women in a group chat. The case resulted in five- and six-year prison sentences for them respectively for their roles in gang raping drunk, unconscious women. Allegations also arose over Seungri’s ties to Burning Sun, a nightclub he founded where date-rape and sexual assault allegedly took place.
In the case of Sulli and Goo, it soon emerged both women had been harassed online for months, if not years. Sulli had experienced sexist abuse and cyber-bullying from thousands of faceless male “anti-fans” over her conduct and appearance. Goo had been hounded over a court case with an ex-boyfriend about a sex tape he allegedly filmed without consent.
According to Mano Lee, a Seoul based K-pop columnist, the sexism and misogyny that female stars face is a symptom of the way women are treated in wider society. “A lot of Korean women can relate to the issues that female celebrities deal with. They have experienced it themselves. While many feel unsafe due to the pervasiveness of molka, gender-based violence and victim-shaming,” she says.
Molka – from mollae, Korean for secret, and ka for camera – means the illicit filming of women. There has been widespread outrage over the spycam epidemic. In 2018, almost 6800 cases of hidden-camera crimes were reported to the Supreme Prosecutors’ office. In some cases, cameras were hidden in women’s public toilets and motel rooms, others involved the filming and sharing of videos of women taken by partners and former partners.
The revelations of the Jung Joon-young spycam scandal provoked fury across the nation. “K-pop tries to present a cleansed image of male stars as being kind, generous, that they are unlike patriarchal, sexist and unstylish Korean men,” says John Lie, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “The shock came because of the gulf between the illusion and the reality.”
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