The day I started writing this article was also the day I happened to visit a book fair in my hometown. I was more than surprised when upon entering, I could hear ‘Fake Love’ by Korean boy band BTS blasting on the speakers. While I had gotten accustomed to K-pop culture living in Delhi, I had assumed that this was because of the cosmopolitan nature of the city; however, this was the first time I was exposed to it in a tier-2 city like Jaipur. This was a stark reminder of how K-pop had truly become a global phenomenon.
In hindsight, this shouldn’t be too surprising. The Hallyu wave has taken the entertainment world by storm in recent years, with bands like BTS and EXO gaining millions of fans around the world. Korean idols are role-models for Korean youth today, not only in terms of music, dance, and acting, but also with regards to moral behaviour. In a largely conservative society like South Korea, the idols are expected to maintain conventionally “perfect” good looks and a squeaky-clean image, both of which take significant physical and mental tolls on them. Idols and idol trainees are forced to lose drastic amounts of weight to be as thin and appealing as possible and encouraged to “fix” the flaws on their faces by plastic surgery. The blatant use and promotion of these corrective measures by idols have influenced their fans to opt for them as well, with studies speculating that anywhere between twenty and fifty per cent of Korean youth undergo some form of plastic surgery.
The ideal idol also has an unblemished moral character, avoiding public misbehaviour of any kind. Their clean image is accompanied by a sense of manufactured accessibility that they provide to their fans, something which is taught to them along with their performative skills in tightly regimented training schools. Idols are more accessible to fans when they are single, which is why training schools and management companies either strictly forbid dating or force them to keep their relationships under wraps. The pressure to keep up their sparkling image is often too much on the idols, who are barely adults, and occasionally minors. Cases of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are not uncommon, and it is only established artists who are able to be open about their struggles without severe backlash, so the actual number of idols and trainees suffering may be much higher. Unfortunately, more than a few stars have chosen the extreme step of suicide because they could not deal with the pressure any longer. Most notably, Kim Jong-hyun, Sulli, and Goo Hara committed suicide in the last two years, all dealing with the burden of fame and the depression that accompanied it, or facing online harassment by fans.
Harassment is not limited to these isolated cases and is considered part of the package deal of becoming an idol. They often face harassment from two extremities of the K-pop fandom, sasaeng fans and anti-fans. The former is a category of obsessive fans who stalk their favourite idols and engage in other behaviours that breach their privacy. It is normal for popular idols to have multiple sasaeng fans lurk outside their houses or hack into their accounts to gain access to their personal information, in an attempt to monopolise their attention. Many sasaengs are motivated by a desire to gain recognition from their idols and stand out from other fans. On the other end of the spectrum, anti-fans contrast with sasaeng fans as their main goal is to see the failure of certain idols or bands, and they have at times resorted to extreme measures to harm them.
Besides the harassment by fans, idols also face routine institutional harassment by their management companies. The years of training in boot camps run by these companies gives them a sense of ownership over their trainees, who are bound up in “slave contracts” after they debut, and are paid a fraction of what they earn, while the rest is taken by the companies as compensation for their prior investment in these idols. This ownership extends to sexual exploitation and harassment, as junior trainees and new idols are sold off by their managers to rich sponsors. Sponsorship or transactional sex between influential entertainment executives and aspiring celebrities is a thinly veiled and often accepted part of the industry. Allegations of sex crimes are only recently coming to light, after the Burning Sun Club Scandal, which mainly implicated idols Seungri and Jung Joon-young, and involved the online distribution of unconsented sex videos taken of women, as well as the club’s alleged involvement in prostitution, drug trafficking and police corruption. However, while they were found to be at the centre of the scandal, it is believed that they were merely scapegoats for other, more powerful, political figures and that their implication in the case was a diversion from attention towards how deeply entrenched K-pop is with Korean politics and political corruption.
When I was reading other articles for research, and while I was writing this, I was struck by how normalized these instances of harassment and sexual exploitation were in the eyes of both the fans and writers who critiqued these practices. More than one writer implied that there was no “dark side” to K-pop; the industry itself was dark. The question arises- if knowledge about the phenomena is so common, why have there been little attempts to tackle these problems? It is simply because the façade of the picture-perfect idols and the high involvement of management companies and fans in maintaining this image has grossly overtaken any attempts for a transformation of the industry. Despite hundreds of articles describing the dark underbelly of K-pop, it continues to be a cultural force that is increasingly making its presence felt across the world.
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