Sound & Vision: K-pop’s Scandal Plagued Year

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo by By Riality

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

Listen to the full segment below at the 21:15 mark.


K-pop is one of South Korea’s most successful cultural export – it’s a multibillion-dollar industry with groups like BTS topping the U.S. Billboard charts and selling out stadiums around the world within minutes. However, 2019 has proven to be a year of scandal for the normally squeaky-clean genre. Sound & Vision host Emily Fox spoke with Matthew Campbell, who co-authored the article “The Dark Side of K-pop: Assault, Prostitution, Suicide, and Spycams” for Bloomberg Businessweek, about the various controversies embroiling K-pop and what it means for the genre.

Emily Fox: So, before we dig into the big controversies surrounding K-pop right now, I want to get a better understanding of how it functions. Can you first talk about how K-pop stars have to go through years of training before they even become a K pop star and what that training entails? 

Campbell: Well, K-pop is a pretty unique industry in terms of how it functions. It owes something to the old studio system in Hollywood or to the factory in Motown. Basically, the idea is that you have these organizations called management companies, which are kind of record labels, tour promoters, talent agencies all in one, and their principal function is to find what they call trainees who are apprentices— generally unpaid or might be paid a small stipend. They start very young, sometimes 10 or 11 years old and they train just incredibly hard through their whole adolescence, singing, dancing, foreign languages, how to behave in public, how to be a celebrity. And then, once they hit 18, 19, the best of these trainees are assembled into groups and the groups make a debut. And if all goes well, you have then produced some new K-pop stars. But, of course, it's a pretty narrow funnel. So, a lot more trainees start that process than finish it.

And once these K-pop performers get out in front of the public, if they make it through this rigorous training process and they decide, okay, these K-pop performers can become stars, the label controls their personal lives in a way we don't necessarily see in the U.S. You write in this article in Bloomberg that labels discourage dating and that, quote, “the ideal idol has a moral record as unblemished as their pores.” So, why is it important in Korea's music industry for a K-pop star to have such a clean personal life?

Well, the simple answer is that it's bad for business for stars to get into trouble. There has been a very rational calculation made on the part of these management companies that if a star gets into trouble with drugs, with a bad relationship or anything that could affect their public perception that this is something they would rather avoid. And this goes back to the fact that these stars are all, all of them, employees. Justin Bieber is an independent contractor. Miley Cyrus the same. They have agents, they have managers, they have record labels. Whereas in K-pop, everybody has a boss. They all work for these management companies and the companies believe that keeping their stars out of trouble is just good for business. It is also important to note that Korea certainly, as well as Japan and to a certain extent China, are in some respects conservative societies and stars who get into serious trouble, whether it's with the law or with drugs, could have their reputations really suffer as a result. 

Speaking of scandals, it seems like despite labels persistence to try to keep these clean records for their K-pop stars, there have been a lot of scandals, especially this past year. There are issues surrounding the Seoul nightclub called Burning Sun, it was partly owned by a K pop star who goes by the name Seungri. Burning Sun is now closed, but it was tied up in allegations of sex trafficking, date rape, spy camera recordings and bribery. Can you fill us in with the details on what was happening at Burning Sun and what K Pop's Seungri got involved with? 

So, Burning Sun was – as you say, it's now closed – a nightclub in Gangnam, which is the rather fancy Beverly Hills-ish part of Seoul, made famous by that song "Gangnam Style," which was K-pops first real crossover hit. And what happened at Burning Sun was there were a series of revelations that came out at the beginning of this year that essentially claim that there had been widespread sexual assault, drug use, beatings of patrons, just all kinds of pretty gross behavior going on at Burning Sun, which was, of course, co-owned by this quite bankable star, Seungri. And this then spiraled into a series of other allegations, text messages were leaked. there were revelations that there may have been collusion between Burning Sun and police in the Gangnam neighborhood to hush up allegations, that sort of thing. And it just snowballed into this really broad scandal that actually led to criminal charges against several K-pop stars, two of whom have just been sentenced to prison, in fact. 

We saw news the Friday after Thanksgiving that two K-pop stars have been sentenced to prison for gang raping unconscious and drunk women. One of those stars was also found guilty of filming women against their will and sharing this sexually explicit material on an online group chat. And that case is tied to Burning Sun. But how are those two cases that came up at the news recently tied back to Burning Sun?

The reason that these cases are being talked about in context of Burning Sun is that the basis for these charges was principally text messages that were leaked as part of this really amazing series of revelations around Burning Sun, all in February, March this year. And they appeared in the Korean press and it was pretty rough stuff. There were accounts of what sounded like date rape, what sounded like really awful sexual assaults recounted in these text messages. In one case, one of the participants responded to such an account with a sort of lashing emoji. So, it was really horrific stuff. And enough of it was legally actionable that there were charges against these two individuals. And Seungri may be prosecuted on quite a few charges in a similar vein. 

This latest news of K-pop stars raping women and one of them sharing videos of sex partners online, those two K-pop stars are now being charged. This seems to be a part of a larger problem of spy cams in Korea. You write in your article in Bloomberg that spy cams are routinely discovered in hotel rooms and public bathrooms. There was news in March that 1,600 hotel guests in South Korea had been filmed with spy cams and the footage was sold online. Why do you think spy cams are such an issue in Korea? 

Well, one of the reasons that these K-pop scandals have resonated so acutely in Korea is this is the country that is really struggling with issues of gender equality. There is an enormous gender pay gap, I believe in fact, it's dead last among the OECD countries in terms of women's equality, in terms of earnings. There are very high levels of sexual assault. There are really pervasive reports of harassment in the workplace. And then there is this peculiar phenomenon, not unique to Korea, certainly, but perhaps uniquely pervasive in Korea, of spy cams. And these are little cameras discovered all over the place all the time. Bathrooms, hotel rooms, gym changing rooms, saunas, that sort of thing that are broadcasting or certainly recording, videos of women without their consent. And this is actually a big, big, big issue that is a major subject to public debate. And so, to the extent that these K pop allegations involved surreptitious recording of women without their consent, there was a real resonance with this broader social issue. And, as I said, that is one of the reasons that, in addition to the fact that K-pop is a huge industry and very prominent in Korea and everyone knows who these people are, this scandal has become such a huge story in Korea. 

Speaking of gender issues, we've seen two female K-pop stars commit suicide in recent weeks. What has been contributing to the suicides? We’ve seen word of cyberbullying. There’s also gender issues. What have you read in terms of what is contributing to the recent suicides among female K-pop stars? 

These were two stars, Sulli and Goo Hara, who were in various ways bullied online, who were under a great deal of pressure from the Internet world over their straying from the norms expected of them as K-pop stars. They were talking frankly about challenges with mental health. In the case of Sulli, she had expressed fairly open feminist ideas, which in Korea can be somewhat controversial. So, they had been targeted by cyber bullying. There's no other word for it. And it does appear very sadly that, in both cases, they decided to take their own lives as a result and that this has just snowballed again into a broader debate about how the K-pop industry works and whether the pressure is being put on these stars, which do go right back to this system of traineeship that we discussed at the beginning, are excessive or appropriate, are, in fact, putting these performers into terrible personal situations that are hidden until they reach a breaking point. 

And how has the K-pop industry itself reacted to these recent suicides? There was also a suicide of a male K-pop star in 2017. How has the K-pop music industry responded to this? 

There has been some discussion of reform and some discussion of cracking down on cyber bullying and urging fans to be more measured in their online commentaries. But I think it really remains to be seen whether the industry durably changes. The thing about K-pop is it's incredibly successful. This is a remarkable export industry from a country that does not have a lot of cultural exports to sell around the world. It really has exploded. I mean, it is the most popular music in Asia by a significant margin. It has led a broader wave of Korean culture, particularly TV and film, that has really taken the rest of the region by storm. So, there's a lot of money at stake here. And to the extent that the formula still works, I think it will be very hard to see there being a great deal of reform, though, of course, we could all be pleasantly surprised. 

But it doesn't look like K-pop industry in general, despite all of these scandals, suicides, sex scandals, you know, everything with the Burning Sun nightclub. Has K-Pop faced any financial backlash despite all these scandals recently? 

No, not yet, though that, of course, could change. For the moment, everything in K-pop is up and to the right. The industry is booming. BTS, who are the biggest act by a mile in K-pop are genuine global superstars and believe they've topped the billboard chart in the US three times in 2019. So, for now, the formula financially is working. And I don't think that until the formula stops working, we're going to see meaningful change. Though, of course there could be change as a result of these suicides. We'll just have to see. 

Going back to the title of your article in Bloomberg, it's called “The Dark Side of K-pop: Assault, Prostitution, Suicide and Spy Cams.” Considering all of these issues at play, what do all these controversies say about the K-pop industry itself? 

Well look, no music industry is free of scandal. That's for sure. And free of in some cases, pretty awful behavior by stars. But I think there is a conversation that needs to be had about whether the K Pop system is first of all, training and instilling the right kind of values and the right kind of respect for others, particularly respect for women that it needs to in this training system. And I think another point, perhaps more pertinent to these apparent suicides, is whether the expectations layered onto these stars to really fit into a quite narrow mold, particularly for the female stars who are just subject to an incredibly strict set of behavioral and physical constraints, whether these are really healthy restrictions for young people who need to express themselves, who need to be able to speak about how they're feeling. And I think there is a genuine question as to whether this created a bit of some monstrous side effects in this otherwise very successful industry. 

Matthew Campbell is a senior reporter at Bloomberg. He co-wrote the article “The Dark Side of K Pop: Assault, Prostitution, Suicide and Spycams.” 

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