Spycams, sex abuse and scandal: #MeToo reaches Korean pop

For many South Koreans, the admission by a young man that he secretly filmed himself having sex with women and shared the footage with other men was yet more evidence of a culture of misogyny and sexual abuse that has put the country at the epicentre of Asia’s #MeToo movement.

The sordid details of the man’s alleged misconduct sounded familiar in a society struggling to cope with a voyeurism epidemic – especially in a week when two men were arrested for allegedly filming 1,600 guests across 30 South Korean hotels with spycams – but with one crucial difference. The latest allegations of sexual misconduct involve some of the best-known figures in K-pop, South Korea’s most successful cultural export.

In the space of a week, allegations surrounding the singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young and Seungri, a member of the internationally popular boyband Big Bang, have snowballed into overlapping sex and corruption scandals that have exposed K-pop’s dark underbelly and prompted a backlash among all but the most obsessive fans.

Jung said he would retire from showbusiness and admitted that he had shared with members of a chatroom footage of him having sex with several women without their knowledge. Members of the chatroom allegedly included Seungri, who is alleged to have run an illegal prostitution ring out of nightclubs in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam district. The 29-year-old singer has denied the allegations.

Jung Joon-young.

Jung Joon-young. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Allegations of sexual misconduct have shattered the wall of silence that protected K-pop – the vanguard of the Hallyu wave of Korean pop culture whose global brand recognition ranks alongside that of Samsung smartphones and Hyundai cars.

Reports of sexual and other forms of abuse have plagued other areas of the South Korean entertainment industry for years.

It is a decade since the soap star Jang Ja-yeon killed herself at her home near Seoul, leaving a seven-page letter in which she claimed she had been the victim of sexual abuse and exploitation. Jang wrote that she had been forced to have sex with 31 influential men, including politicians, business and newspaper executives and entertainment industry figures. Some of the suspects were investigated and acquitted.

Since then, South Korea’s #MeToo movement, inspired by fury over the widespread use of spycams for molka, the secret filming of women in public places, has been credited with exposing sexual abuse and misconduct in the film industry, politics and the church.

Kim Ki-duk.

Kim Ki-duk. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

In 2017, the acclaimed film director Kim Ki-duk was accused of sexually and physically abusing an actress. Prosecutors dropped the sex abuse charge, citing lack of evidence, but fined Kim for physical assault. Earlier this month, Kim filed a damages suit, demanding 300 million won ($265,000) from a South Korean women’s rights group that had campaigned on the actress’s behalf.

In February, Ahn Hee-jung, a former provincial governor who was considered a presidential hopeful, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for sexually assaulting a female aide. And in January, South Korea’s human rights commission announced the country’s biggest ever investigation into sexual abuse in sport, after a wave of female athletes came forward to allege they had been raped or assaulted by their coaches.

“The new atmosphere created by #MeToo helped expose the K-pop scandals,” said Lee Taek-gwang, a cultural commentator. “The tables have been turned and now the K-pop industry has been forced to confront reality. It has to create a new morality.”

While other sectors of the entertainment industry finally reckoned with the damage caused by tolerance of sexual misconduct, K-pop appeared immune, despite revelations of mistreatment ranging from labour law violations to psychological and physical abuse.

Typically, promising stars are put through a gruelling training schedule as they pass along the conveyor-belt production of new girl and boybands to replace their quickly superannuated colleagues. Like their J-pop counterparts in Japan, young stars are subjected to strict controls over their private lives, including bans on dating, restrictions on mobile phone use and an expectation that they will sacrifice their health to achieve the desired – and in the case of female singers, highly sexualised – image.

K-pop girl group AOA.

K-pop girl group AOA. Photograph: Newscom/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

The sexual abuse allegations involving other prominent figures had primed the South Korean public for the contagion’s inevitable spread to K-pop, according to Michael Hurt, a sociologist at the University of Seoul. “People are ready to accept this has happened and that something needs to be done about it,” he said.

“No one who is familiar with the creative industries, especially K-pop, is surprised these things have happened. The sheer scale and immorality involved is driving most of the negative reaction in South Korea, but deep in the background is the fact that we’re talking about a national shame on the international stage. It’s a black eye to Korea, because K-pop is such a metonym for Korea.”

Over the the past decade, K-pop has helped South Korea project its soft power, even when perceptions of the country were dominated by its proximity to nuclear-armed North Korea. The boyband BTS alone are worth more than $3.5bn annually to the South Korean economy, the Hyundai Research Institute said in a recent report, adding that the band were the reason why one in every 13 foreign tourists visited South Korea in 2017.

This week, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, vowed to clean up the entertainment industry after more than 200,000 people signed a petition on the presidential office’s website demanding a thorough investigation into alleged crimes. Along with sexual misconduct and prostitution, these include corruption involving a senior police official who allegedly turned a blind eye to alleged crimes committed at a club where Seungri was an executive director.

“The current leadership of the prosecution service and police should stake the fate of their organisations on uncovering the truth and becoming a law enforcement agency that can reveal its own shameful acts in order to regain the public’s trust,” said Moon, a liberal who was elected in 2017 after abuse of power allegations toppled his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

“Without investigating the facts of the incident involving the elite class of society, we cannot say we have a fair society,” added Moon, who ordered officials to reopen the investigation into the circumstances surrounding Jang Ja-yeon’s 2009 suicide.

The obsessive adherence to K-pop’s established formula for success is producing generations of young performers poorly equipped to navigate the moral minefield of life outside their shared accommodations and recording studios, said Kim Sung-soo, an entertainment industry commentator. “If the agencies do not give sufficient care to their stars, including education and stress management, they will end up raising walking time bombs.”

Seungri, left, with his band members in Big Bang.

Seungri, left, with his band members in Big Bang. Photograph: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Investors, meanwhile, are losing faith in K-pop’s financial pulling power. Shares in YG Entertainment, which represents Seungri, fell more than 20% after the allegations were first reported at the end of February, while shares in other top management firms have also been hit.

Reports that a senior police official allegedly covered up Seungri’s alleged crimes demonstrate that the male-dominated power structure created during South Korea’s spectacular economic development in the 1970s and 80s has survived the global spread of the country’s pop culture, according to Lee.

“The Korean wave may be new, but it has failed to rid itself of traditional power relations that allowed men to do whatever they wanted because they were confident they would never be punished,” he said. “They had a sense of psychological entitlement that it was acceptable to break the law.”

But he added that the involvement of some of the country’s top celebrities should be the catalyst for reconfiguring how the entertainment industry treats women. “This is the beginning of a change that should lead to a transformation in the way K-pop views power relations [between the sexes].”

Signs that the authorities are taking allegations of sexual misconduct more seriously emerged on Thursday, when a warrant was issued for Jung Joon-young’s arrest. Earlier in the day, the 30-year-old singer cried during a court hearing as he apologised for his “inexcusable mistake”.

“I apologise to the women who have suffered because of me,” he said. “I will spend the rest of my days repenting for my sins.”

As other artists were implicated in the scandal, Hurt said K-pop’s global popularity and value to the South Korean economy meant it would survive the fallout from the scandals.

But the industry’s international profile would also place it under unprecedented scrutiny. “The only lever that you can use to force domestic social change in Korea is to put it under the international gaze,” he said. “That’s why social media has become so important. Activists can now say that it’s not just embarrassing to people who read Korean newspapers, it can impact us in terms of our GDP, so you’d better pay attention.

“In the past, powerful men would have done everything they could to make something like this disappear. They can no longer do that.”


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