Korean pop culture: all that glitters is not gold

Aug 20, 2019 |2 min read
korean pop culture loyalty K-pop

A look into the darker side of this phenomenal subculture

Last week I introduced you to the background of Korean pop culture and why it has been a huge cultural force over the last few years.  While K-pop is still largely a niche music genre, boybands like BTS have helped raise its public profile and increase its global reach.


Like Hollywood, Korean pop culture is not immune to controversies.  There has been a litany of issues over the years - from dating scandals to lawsuits around contract agreements and suicides - with the biggest (to date) revealing a much seedier and toxic side to this seemingly wholesome subculture.

In March 2019, an assault complaint was made against a club named Burning Sun, located in Seoul's ritzy Gangnam district.  This club was partly owned by Seung-Ri, a member of one of the most popular boy bands of the past decade, Big Bang.  Since the club's opening, there have been brewing allegations ranging from assault, prostitution and drug distribution, to tax evasion and police corruption.

The 'Burning Sun Scandal' well and truly opened a Pandora's box.  More allegations have been made against Seung-Ri and his business partners regarding arranging prostitutes for foreign investors at various occasions (prostitution is illegal in South Korea).  Also revealed were chats between Seung-Ri and other prominent boy band members, indicating they had filmed and shared sexual videos without the women's consent and joked about drugging and raping them.

Since then, YG Entertainment (one of South Korea's premier entertainment companies and who also manages Seung-Ri) has been plagued by instability.  Their company stock has fallen (as have other entertainment companies involved in the industry), investors have pulled out and the company CEO has resigned on the back of further prostitution allegations.

Why is this such a big deal?

The downfall of these big players gives us an opportunity to examine the situation much further as it effectively shatters the clean and wholesome image that Korean pop culture likes to portray.

K-pop is another manifestation of the policies that the South Korean government has employed to generate massive economic development.  Economic advancement has grown rapidly in the post-war era and Kim Eun Shil argues that South Korea has built its economic gains on the values of mass production, rationalisation and control.  Growth through rapid industrialization and efficiency aligns with their traditional societal values of hierarchy and patriarchy; as such, economic advancement has been traditionally controlled by men which has endowed them with authoritarian power.

Similarities also apply to the industrialization of Korean pop culture.  Therefore, it's not surprising that exploitation and abuse to run side by side.  As revealed by the Burning Sun scandal, women often become passive tools for economic gain.  Remember K-pop is a fairly new phenomenon, only emerging in the last 20 years and the accelerated push as a national economic tool has only been apparent in the last 10 years.

The wider cultural sentiment is evident in a country where the odds have always been stacked against women.  Feminism is seen as a dirty word, to such an extent that a female K-pop group member had to defend herself  for holding a phone case with the words 'girls can do anything'.  Even more shocking is the pervasive problem of hidden spy cameras used to surreptitiously film women.

However, the scandal also comes at a critical time as the feverish #MeToo movement has acted as a serious check on South Korea's society.  There has been a serious outcry against this traditionally conservative and patriarchal society, despite all its modern advancements.  It has highlighted serious breeches of conduct where high profile cases of men in positions of authority have been brought to justice for issues ranging from sexual assault to abuse.

Large-scale rallies in Seoul have occurred, with thousands protesting for justice regarding violence and sexual assault.  It has empowered women to come forward to talk about their experiences of injustice and discrimination - even tricking down to empower school girls to march against prevalent sexual harassment in the school system.

Assistant Professor at Seoul Women's University, David Tizzard explains that K-pop is rife with exploitative tactics and mistreatment  of people working in the industry.  The pursuit of quick gains has meant that the industry has remained relatively unchecked and unscrutinized for years as entertainment companies, businesses and the government (run mostly by men) have been able to reap its monetary benefits.

One attempt at highlighting the abuse of power occurred in 2009, when a famous actress, Jang Ja-Yeon, who died by suicide, named in her suicide note industry figures who had allegedly forced her to perform sexual favors.  Nothing substantial resulted from her death and evidently, little has changed.

The problem lies in the fact that these industries are tightly woven together and unwilling to change.   Government and business interests are heavily invested in the outcomes and success of the industry. For example, government funds and Naver, a corporation who controls the largest internet search engine in South Korea, have invested heavily into YG Entertainment (and most likely other entertainment companies too).  This makes it harder for any accountability to occur, let alone for the industry to change as people from all levels are looking to serve their own interests.

The fall from grace of the many boybands that I have listened to in my teenage years have severally bruised the image of K-pop and these 'idols', no long carrying the same gravitas and grandiose perceptions they once did - at least for me.  It reveals that most are just players in a society and industry which has been fuelled by and followed a cycle of exploitation and abuse of power.

For an industry as big as K-pop, it saddens me to suggest that not much will likely change. Those involved in the scandal may just be painted as the 'bad ones' and things will continue to run as normal.  Increased investment into Korean content by streaming services suggests this will be the case.  Unless fans demand for change through their wallets, it seems that it's going to be business as usual.

Just like growing up, I'm putting my teenage years behind me and understanding that all that glitters is not gold.