While much of the music industry has been in a decline, K-pop continues to thrive. The phenomenon draws around $7 billion annually, and it’s considered the seventh-most-popular music genre in the world. This year, according to estimates, the audience for “Hallyu,” or Korean pop culture, will reach 100 million – or roughly double the population of South Korea.
In North America, the industry has exploded in popularity and profitability, and American pop darlings and their labels have taken note: In 2019, Lizzo and Lil Nas X teamed up with K-pop superstars for remixes to their songs “Truth Hurts” and “Old Town Road,” respectively. BTS, arguably the most famous of South Korea’s boy bands, has collaborated with Halsey and the Chainsmokers.
Ever in the spotlight, K-pop stars have been subjected to increasing pressure and scrutiny as the industry angles to become dominant on the global stage. The industry and fans alike expect them to have a polished public image.
Though the vast majority of K-pop artists maintain sterling reputations, the pressure of performance and image-maintenance can be too much to bear. The genre has been witness to a number of deaths by suicide in recent years, and scandals regularly emerge.
If K-pop artists are illuminated by the limelight, they are also never far from the industry’s dark underbelly. From corruption and sexual violence to alleged drug trafficking, here are the most shocking K-pop incidents of the last several years.
K-pop singers Rain and Se7en allegedly visited a brothel.
In 2013, six “entertainment soldiers,” or Korean military conscripts who are also artists, were spotted going into a massage parlor that some said was actually a brothel. Among the artists were star K-pop artists Rain and Se7en. One massage parlor employee said the actors paid around $US147 for the service but ended up turning it down and getting their money back.
The men publicly denied taking part in any illicit activities and claimed they went to the massage parlor to treat knee pain, according to Character Media. Both of them served 10-day military jail sentences for visiting the massage parlour and violating military policy, Variety reported.
The singer Dahee got kicked out of her band Glam — and was sentenced to one year in prison — after attempting to blackmail a famous actor.
In 2014, reports emerged that two women, model Lee Ji-yeon and K-pop artist Dahee of the band Glam, tried to blackmail actor Lee Byung-hun for the equivalent of $US4.2 million. Lee reported the incident to law enforcement, claiming the women threatened to release a cell-phone video of him drinking with them and making lewd remarks.
Both women later admitted to the blackmail. Dahee said she had taken part because she was in debt with her agency, Big Hit Entertainment. The model Lee said she had been in an affair with the actor, and that he had rejected her. Dahee was sentenced to a year in prison, and Lee got one year and two months.
Dahee “became an unfortunate accomplice in Lee Ji-yeon’s revenge plot,” SeoulBeats wrote of the scandal. Nonetheless, she was soon kicked out of her band Glam. Shortly afterward, the group’s contract was terminated.
2NE1’s Park Bom was accused of smuggling drugs.
Park Bom, a singer in the popular girl group 2NE1, was accused of receiving more than 80 Adderall pills by international mail in 2014. Park and her management claimed the drug shipment was a doctor-prescribed treatment for depression and anxiety and insisted that the drugs had been mailed because Park was too busy to visit the US to pick up the prescription herself.
Adderall is banned in South Korea, but Park was eventually able to evade charges by proving she had a medical history of using the drug.
“I was labelled a drug smuggler when I brought in Adderall,” she said.
Jung Joon-young of the group Drug Restaurant and FT Island member Choi Jong-hoon were found guilty of gang rape and distribution of a sex tape.
K-pop stars Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon were sentenced to six years and five years in prison, respectively, for gang-raping two women on two separate occasions in 2016. As the scandal emerged, Choi left his band FT Island and retired from the industry.
In addition to gang-rape, Jung was found guilty of filming himself having sex and distributing the footage – all without his partners’ knowledge or consent. He shared the videos in a group chat whose members included the now-disgraced singer Seungri.
Jung’s crimes were part of a devastating trend of “spycam porn” in South Korea that prompted widespread demonstrations from women and allies. As the country’s #MeToo movement surged, protesters took to the streets of Seoul, South Korea, chanting, “My life is not your porn.”
At the sentencing hearing, Choi and Jung wept as the judge read their prison sentences. “But only they know whether their tears were shed over the deaths of their careers and reputations, or out of shame for their actions and remorse for their victims,” wrote journalist Adam Wright.
Singer IU sang about a cherished character from a children’s book — as a ‘sexual object.’
Superstar singer IU faced criticism after allegedly sexualizing the main character in “My Sweet Orange Tree,” a Brazilian children’s book that is particularly cherished in South Korea. The story, set in Rio de Janeiro, tells of the life of Zeze, a young boy.
IU sang about the boy in a song: “Zeze, come on up the tree quick and kiss the leaves, don’t be naughty and don’t hurt the tree, come up the tree and get the youngest leaf … you are innocent but shrewd, transparent but dirty and there is no way of knowing what’s living inside.”
“We regret the way the five-year-old character is portrayed as a sexual object,” the book’s Korean publisher said in a 2015 statement according to the Korea Times.
After first denying that the song “sexualise[s] a five-year-old child,” IU apologised for the lyrics.
A K-pop music video director was involved in a corruption scandal that reached the highest levels of power in South Korea.
Cha Eun-taek, a K-pop music video director, was ensnared in a corruption scandal that included then-president Park Geun-hye in 2016.
Cha, then 46 years old, had worked with Gangnam Style’s star Psy and the band Big Bang. Prosecutors alleged he tapped his connection to one of then-President Park’s confidantes to land big contracts with private companies and government agencies.
Cha was charged with abuse of power, coercion, and embezzlement. And Park, who prosecutors described as a “co-culprit,” became the first sitting president to face criminal charges.
In 2017, Cha was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to three years in prison.
Kwangjin, a beloved member of N.Flying, was accused of acting inappropriately with fans.
Kwangjin, a founding member of the popular group N.Flying, voluntarily left the band in 2018 after being accused of acting lewdly with fans.
The first accusations to emerge online were that he engaged in sexual misconduct. N.Flying’s record label, FNC, said it met with the individuals who levelled the accusations against Kwangjin.
“Elements of the rumours including Kwangjin’s dating scandals with fans, sexual harassment claims, and more are not true,” FNC said in a statement.
But the label added that Kwangjin did have “personal meetings with fans outside of official promotional activities,” which violated the label’s rules for entertainers.
“Seeking personal relationships with fans, no matter what the reason, is improper behaviour for a member of a band,” FNC said, adding that it would take “strict legal action should some online posts prove to be false and of malicious nature.”
Seungri, once a megastar, has been embroiled in controversies around sexual violence and prostitution.
Once one of K-pop’s shining stars, the artist Seungri has been at the centre of a series of ongoing scandals.
Reports emerged in early 2019 that he had been in a messaging groupchat with other K-pop stars, including Jung Joon-young, who shared videos of themselves engaging in sex acts with women. The recordings were made without the women’s knowledge or consent.
Later that year, the Seoul Metropolitan Police launched an investigation against Seungri, and he promptly left his group Big Bang.
“I think I’d better leave the entertainment industry at the moment,” he wrote on Instagram at the time, leading his record label’s stock to plummet as much as 14%.
In January, Seungri was indicted on charges including gambling and organising prostitution.