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How the K-Pop Industry Creates a Modern-Day Witch Hunt

By: Christina Lee

I hadn’t planned on writing about any specific controversy with wholehearted deliberation, but as I write, it is November 2019, and the Korean pop industry has seen two suicides within six weeks of each other.

In fact, I wasn’t planning on writing another piece about the shortcomings of South Korean culture in comparison to those of other developed countries. Instead, I had simply hoped to demystify through a feminist lens the faux glamor of the Korean pop industry from the perspective of someone who has found interest in this music scene before its rapid ascent to mainstream attention. 

Now, it is almost obligatory for me to discuss the recent deaths of K-Pop idols Goo Hara and Sulli, each former members of some of the most popular girl groups in South Korea. The two had been close friends, a relationship evident as especially poignant when Hara, crying, communicated with fans over Instagram Live on Oct. 15, 2019, the day after Sulli’s death. “I’ll live diligently in your stead,” Hara said in her tearful message to her late friend.

Perhaps Hara understood the pain that Sulli had felt—both had risen to popularity in the late 2000s and early 2010s for their eye-catchingly good looks (as profound an accomplishment any idol can achieve in the superficial industry), faced criticism for their personal and artistic choices (as grown adults), and suffered from the malicious effects of online hate comments often targeted at these choices (e.g. Hara’s plastic surgery, Sulli’s “no-bra” look). In short: both were victims of a modern-day witch hunt based in South Korea.

Perhaps the warning signs of Hara’s threatened well-being should have been sufficiently clear that day of September 2018 when Hara walked into the public eye covered in bruises after claims of assault, her then-boyfriend Choi Jongbum having threatened to ruin her career as a celebrity and inflicting damage to her uterus, vagina, and cervix, according to Hara’s gynecologist.

Then, a month later in October, Hara made headlines after news broke out that Choi had blackmailed Hara with their sex tape.

Hara—famous K-Pop idol, friend of Sulli, victim of revenge porn. Choi—attacker of Hara’s celebrity status with the idea of ruining her fragile “perfect idol” image in mind, a classic example of someone who exploits a woman’s sexuality, especially when the glorification of sexuality has built that woman’s career.

It would be a lie to say that I was surprised when Hara, after suffering years of reading hate comments, burning under the unforgivingly scrutinizing pop-industry spotlight, was reported to have been admitted to the hospital for an attempted suicide on May 26, 2019.

After the initial expressions of “shock” had made their rounds on social media and in the headlines, it seemed as if Hara’s Instagram post from three weeks after the incident that read, “Thank you, and I’m sorry. I’ll overcome this and show everyone a better version of myself,” was enough to reassure everyone that she was fine. Media outlets and fans conditioned by the fast-paced, fleeting nature of the pop music industry soon forgot about Hara’s incident and moved on to the next “scandal,” the next source of gossip. Hara spent that summer promoting in Japan.

Nov. 24, 2019—Hara was found dead in her home. If we connect the dots, none of this—Hara’s struggles, her depression, her death—should have come as a surprise. But perhaps it did because Hara did look happy in her Instagram photos, right? She was smiling and making new music and keeping herself busy. How did this happen?

I can’t help but think about the suicide before Hara’s, how South Korea experienced the almost identical death of Sulli. One would think that Sulli, as one of South Korea’s most well-known, recognizable, relevant, and controversial celebrities, upon her death would have incited a wake-up call for the country, a call for better awareness of mental health, for effective action against cyber-bullying and hate comments, for justice for exploited women in the industry.

I imagine that Sulli at one point had asked herself, “Why me?” I imagine that a reasonable answer to that question would have been, “Because South Korea’s inability to reconcile their traditionalist values with the fast-paced, progressive side of pop culture results in their failure to appropriately address social issues that target the young females of their entertainment industry.”

Instead, South Korea’s answer came in the form of a talk-show-meets-variety-program on one of the country’s biggest cable TV networks.

Called “The Night of Hate Comments”—which unsubtly drew conceptual inspiration from Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets”—the show, which featured Sulli as a host and feature guest for the first episode, was not unlike any other gossipy talk show in South Korea, each episode designed to make domestic headlines about what this celebrity said and what this celebrity did that one day.

Viewers watch Sulli as she stands in front of the camera, holding a pink cue card in front of her and reading aloud the hate comments directed toward her. She stares at the words in front of her for a little too long—the edited-in piano music fills the awkward gaps—and gives a hesitant response, laughing it off at the end in her high-pitched titter. The same light-haired Sulli who committed suicide just a month before her best friend. Sulli trapped on that studio set, the hosts and various guests continuously asking her why she doesn’t wear a bra, why she posts the things she does on Instagram, why she dresses like that, why her eyes look like that, why she is the way she is.

I want to emphasize that the K-Pop industry is just as visual as it is music-oriented. The perfectly sculpted idols, their mysterious media presences, their fans capturing their every move on video—it is impossible to become successful, especially as a female celebrity, without making a loud visual statement. So they take it to social media.

Here, the problem arises. The female idols establish their presence on a platform like Instagram, post their “Like”-garnering selfies, and watch as the number of comments increase in relation to their rising popularity. Thus, the risk of “misspeaking” (which often, in essence, amounts to “having an opinion”) increases, and her next social media post initiates the witch hunt.

While “The Night of Hate Comments” claims to be a show that encourages “consideration of proper commenting and cyberculture,” never does it seem to address the elephant in the room, that the real dangers of toxic online culture adds (and will see that it does indeed from the death of their own host) to South Korea’s already high suicide rates, that the country is known for similarly exploitative and abusive tendencies like the illegal-filming or “molka” epidemic—which is in the same vein as the revenge porn that damaged Hara’s life, that people on the internet commonly target women in the K-Pop industry because the nature of their work suggests that their sexuality and public image are profitable, the very things that are vulnerable to harassment.

In other words, scripted late-night variety shows are not a substitution for mental health support and justice for the exploited.

My writing is not a cry to boycott the industry of K-Pop. It is rather a tired plea for South Korea to recognize that their activism and attitude toward mental health and toxic cyberculture are not enough. It will be a difficult transition to reconcile the country’s Confucian roots of forgoing the individual and their mental health in favor of maintaining a collectivist mindset with the more progressive and heavily Westernized K-Pop industry as an important export. In short, South Korea stands in limbo between the demands of a Westernized world and their own traditional roots. Now, it is time that the country supports their progressive industry with an attitude toward mental health and justice that is just as progressive.