Moonbin, Sulli and Kim Jong-hyun
Astro's Moonbin (left) died in April 2023, and Sulli (center) in 2019, while Shinee’s Kim Jong-hyun (right) passed away in 2017. Image Credit: Instagram and AP

On April 19, 2023, 25-year-old K-pop star Moonbin, member of the boyband Astro, was found dead in his home.

Just 13 days later, on May 12, South Korean trot singer, Haesoo, 29, was found dead in her hotel room. A few weeks later, police found the lifeless body of the once-promising South Korean pop star, Choi Sung-bong, on June 20. He was 33.

Suicide was the cause of death in all three cases.

A few weeks before Moonbin’s death, news websites had also reported the death of 26-year-old upcoming Korean actress Jung Chae-yull, in a suspected suicide.

Four high-profile suicides in just three months – it begs one question. Why do so many South Korean stars feel pushed to the brink?

The situation is far from limited to the South Korea’s entertainment industry. In a country that has built a reputation as a cultural powerhouse and global trendsetter, suicide is a full blown social crisis. We spoke to experts in South Korea to find out.

‘Pushing myself to the limit’

Moonbin’s unexpected death, in April, sent shockwaves across the K-Pop industry and among fans.

After a statement from his agency mentioned that he had taken his own life, speculation raged for days; the refrain ‘dark side of K-Pop’ reverberated on social media.

Moonbin’s old interview clips went viral, where he had mentioned that he had become lethargic owing to be in the entertainment industry. “When I feel like I have nowhere to go, being prepared to break or pushing myself to the limit is what works for me,” he had said in 2019.

Moonbin from Astro band
Moonbin’s unexpected death, in April, sent shockwaves across the K-Pop industry and among fans. Image Credit: Instagram/MoonbinAstro

The videos brought back jarring memories of Shinee’s Kim Jong-hyun, who had also died by suicide in 2017.

He had left a note behind explaining that his depression had finally consumed him.

In 2019, the death of South Korean singer Sulli led to a furore, and many believed that she had taken this step after extreme and cruel cyber-bullying.

As 2023 saw more deaths of Korean stars, once again, there was intense scrutiny on the ‘K-Pop idol system’ and the entertainment industry itself.

The life of a K-Pop idol

The K-Pop idol system has repeatedly been condemned for overworking their artistes and putting enormous pressure on them, pushing them to the limit.

BTS’ leader RM had shed some light on the idol system during the band’s emotional ninth anniversary dinner in 2022.

“The problem with K-Pop and the whole idol system is that they don’t give you time to mature. You have to keep producing music and keep doing something. After I get up in the morning and get makeup done, there’s no time left for growth. And it’s not just about music and work; I’ve changed as a human over the past 10 years,” he had said.

Struggling to keep up with showbiz is generally a grueling task in South Korea. And K-Pop gets the harsher treatment, owing to the rigorous practice schedule of 14 to 16 hours, the pre-debut anxiety, and the stress around renewing contracts with their respective agencies.

Explaining the life of a K-Pop idol, CedarBough Saeji, an Assistant Professor of Korean and East Asian Studies at the Pusan National University Department of Global and International Studies told Gulf News in an email interview: “Idols train for years. These days that often begins before they become a trainee, as they attend lessons at a preparatory institution that helps potential idols prepare for auditions. After a successful audition the trainee process continues, as debut gets closer this may be 15 or more hours a day of scheduled intense activities, such as dance and vocal training.”

After a successful audition the trainee process continues, as debut gets closer this may be 15 or more hours a day of scheduled intense activities, such as dance and vocal training.

- CedarBough Saeji, Assistant Professor of Korean and East Asian Studies in South Korea

Many begin this idol journey before quite comprehending the sacrifices it entails.

The trainees have to learn foreign languages, and get trained in how to appear in interviews. It’s a thorough process, explained Saeji.

“Part of the arrangement is that potential idols are agreeing to constantly behave well in front of a vigilant public.

“In a small country like Korea a celebrity cannot just walk down the street like a normal person, for example. They will be always watched, and there will always be people online who decide for perhaps entirely unjustified reasons, to stir up problems and rumours and lob criticism that can make the life of an idol even more stressful,” she said.

The idols are under a huge amount of pressure as many groups are not successful, she explained.

“Debuting with a major company is almost a guarantee of success, whether this is because of the company backing them, or because of a more stringent process of training and choosing members to debut is open to debate of course.

“If you debut with a smaller company, there is an element of luck, because honestly most of newly debuted groups are full of attractive and driven young people who, if given the right materials, should be able to provide a good viewing, listening and fan experience,” she added.

This is perhaps why the band BTS’s story is the most inspiring for their fans. They tell the rags-to-riches story, as the septet, debuted with the company Big Hit, a small enterprise in 2013, and almost on the verge of bankruptcy. Today, the band bears the title of revolutionising K-Pop and spearheading the Hallyu Wave.

BTS debuted with the company Big Hit, a small enterprise in 2013.
BTS debuted with the company Big Hit, a small enterprise in 2013. Image Credit: Weverse/Big Hit official page

No ‘dark side’ to K-Pop

K-pop stars are notably exasperated with the international focus on their work schedules and the constant pity and tongue-clicking about their long hours and difficult days.

BTS’ leader RM, who has dealt with the question of overstraining in K-Pop multiple times told the French magazine El Pais this year, “People in the West just don't get it. Korea is a country that has been invaded, devastated, torn in two. Just 70 years ago there was nothing. We were getting help from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the UN (United Nations). But now, the whole world is looking at Korea. How is that possible? How did that happen? Because people are working hard to improve themselves.

“You are in France or the UK… and you come to me with, ‘Oh ..., you put so much pressure on yourselves, life in Korea is so stressful!'. Well, yes. That's how you get things done. And it is part of what makes K-pop so appealing. Although of course there are shadows, everything that happens too fast and too intensely has side effects.”

What most fail to understand is that K-Pop is just one example of Korean culture and history. There’s no ‘dark side’ to K-Pop says Saeiji. “K-pop artists live in Korean society, and Korean society has many problems,” she says. Among the problems is the prevalence of suicide – Korea consistently has one of the highest, or even the highest suicide rate in the world.

In 2021, South Korea recorded a suicide rate of 26 per 100,000 people according to the data from Statistics Korea. The average number of people taking their own lives was 36.6 per day.

Suicide was the main cause of death for those aged 10 to 39 – of this 44 per cent were teenagers and 56.8 per cent were young adults in their 20s.

Mental illness was identified as the leading cause of suicide.

Understanding suicides in Korea

Wonyoung Song, a professor with the Department of Counseling and Psychotherapy at Konyang University said that to understand suicide in South Korea, it is important to understand the historical context.

“Korea has a history of 5,000 years. In the 19th century, the British Empire's expansion went east and stopped in the Philippines, and while Korea maintained its traditional culture, it was invaded by Japan and ruled for 35 years in the early 20th century. Then, after World War II, Korea was divided into South Korea and North Korea. In 1950, the Korean War brought South and North Korea back together, and the country experienced extreme poverty,” said Song.

However, Koreans are hardworking and intelligent, and they overcame this hardship to achieve economic growth through the 1970s and 1980s, and political democratisation in the 1990s, he added.

In the meantime, Koreans realised the importance of education to national and personal development. Teenagers felt strong pressure to study and go to top universities. For about 40 years, starting in the 1980s, young people were taught that they should study well as teenagers and go to a good university, and those who studied well in the 1980s are now parents and social leaders. “They still want their children to do well in school.... In order to make the entrance examination fair, the country introduced relative evaluation in education, so there is a strong competitive culture, which adds to the stress,” said Song.

For about 40 years, starting in the 1980s, young people were taught that they should study well as teenagers and go to a good university, and those who studied well in the 1980s are now parents and social leaders.

- Professor Wonyoung Song, Department of Counseling and Psychotherapy, Konyang University

Explaining the mental health issues affecting young adults he added: “In the 2010s, Korea experienced a high level of economic growth and is now reaching its limits. Young adults (in their 20s) have studied more than previous generations, but Korea's economic growth is not as great as before, so it isn't easy to expect their social and economic success. Currently, Korea has fewer full-time or lifetime jobs. Therefore, people who were stressed about studying in their teens are still stressed about finding a job in their 20s.”

According to Song, rapid growth has brought economic wealth, but it has also resulted in a gap between the rich and the poor, and young people in their 20s have to constantly work to avoid living in relative poverty. The competition and hard work that started in their teens don't end in their 20s, which is constant stress.

Stress to perform well from childhood

Song also highlighted why the stress to perform well is too high in society in South Korea.

“… good performance in the late 20th century made South Korea successful. Similarly, individuals believe that good performance from the age of 10 to 30 is the key to getting into a good university and landing a good job, so there is a culture of wanting to do your best and perform well in most things,” he elaborated.

Jihyang Kim, a Clinical Psychologist based in South Korea explained that in Korean society, children receive praise for excelling and need to meet expectations from a very young age. “In terms of achievements, rather than comparing the progress made within an individual's capabilities, the wealth and fame of those around them, especially successful individuals, become the common benchmark for comparison among ordinary people, leading to endless feelings of inadequacy and self-imposed pressure to perform better,” she said.

In terms of achievements, rather than comparing the progress made within an individual's capabilities, the wealth and fame of those around them, especially successful individuals, become the common benchmark...

- Jihyang Kim, Clinical Psychologist based in South Korea

Wonyoung Song added that Korean teens are expected to decide on a career path quickly, especially when it comes to the arts and sports because it pays to practice from an early age. “Even kids who are good at math or science in Korea tend to go to an institute to continue studying or compete in competitions,” he said.

Song added that the idol system is just one example of Korean culture. However, trainees in the idol system have difficulty forming peer relationships with a wide range of people. As bullying and scandals affect their future popularity, the Korean idol system is highly regulated in terms of privacy, so it can be somewhat problematic for teenagers to develop social skills and open up to various people, he said.

‘Training to be an idol is like giving the SATs’

Woojin Cha, author and music critic compares the idol training to giving the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in the US. Idol trainees take countless tests before making their debut. According to him, being an idol in South Korea means taking a different kind of test: one that is much more competitive, businesslike, and with few alternatives if you fail.

After the debut, the trainees are compelled to be competitive and under financial pressure.

Idol trainees take countless tests before making their debut... being an idol in South Korea means taking a different kind of test: one that is much more competitive.

- Woojin Cha, author and music critic

“Nevertheless, idols are an object of envy for teenagers, a chance to become a global star, and a springboard for talent. The only difference is that unlike in other countries, they have to complete a specific training program or follow a set path to get there. I don't think they're really that different from examinees,” he said.

Mental health issues among artists, entertainers, and performers are often an issue, added Song. “They have to be popular and, more recently, they have to deal with abuse on social media… when we hear about celebrity suicides, it's mainly because their news is reported in the media.

“Until about 20 years ago, having a mental health problem was seen as a flaw in an entertainer. However, many entertainers have opened up on air about experiencing panic disorder or depression, and now they feel it's a wiser choice to seek professional help,” Song said.

Fighting depression as a Korean star

“These days, many idols are trying to talk about mental health, normalising these conversations to provide a leading example for the young generation, I am very thankful for them doing so,” said Saeji.

In 2021, former Got7 member Jay B revealed that he had been diagnosed with clinical depression. Talking about his anxiety and depression in an interview with Allure, he said: “I thought I was just mentally weaker than other people. For more than 3 to 4 years, I have felt extreme pressure and burden as an artist, but instead of taking medication, I often hid those feelings away.”

Jay B, who kept his fans up-to-date with his progress, revealing that he was taking medication and therapy, started encouraging his followers to talk about their mental health struggles.

BTS’ rapper Suga created his own alter-ego Agust D, a rawer version of himself, who could express his battles with mental health freely. Many of Agust D’s lyrics show Suga’s battle with depression, including his latest track Amygdala.

BTS’ rapper Suga created his own alter-ego Agust D, who could express his battles with mental health freely.
BTS’ rapper Suga created his own alter-ego Agust D, who could express his battles with mental health freely. Image Credit: Instagram/@agustD

In an earlier interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2021, Suga said that he hopes more people come forward with their stories, rather than silently suffering.

South Korean star Kang Daniel based an entire album around the subject of mental health as well. The songs referred to the hiatus that he took in November 2019, citing anxiety, depression and panic disorders. Later, he told the British website, NME (New Musical Express), “I still read bad comments, but because I was able to overcome them once, I can just deal with them now…. There are good days and bad days, but there is always a reason to live. There are good things about life, and that is what I look for now.”

Psychologist Jihyang Kim added: “While it is still not comfortable for everyone to openly disclose their psychological and mental challenges, there has been a significant increase in people acknowledging their difficulties and seeking treatment. The fact that television shows featuring celebrities talking about their psychological struggles, and receiving counseling gain great popularity is also encouraging.”

The discussion about the K-pop system continues to evolve.

“Things like legal measures for minors' working hours, limits on the length of contracts, regardless of debut, have improved over the past decade and continue to improve,” said music critic Woojin Cha. However, the pressure that K-pop artists experience is a different issue than the system. It's a matter of business, and it's a matter of the social climate. Being a K-pop artist, regardless of age, means that you become aware of the business structure of the music industry, and the role you play in that business structure, and that can put a lot of pressure on an artist, feels Cha.

‘Idols treated as commercial tools’

While the K-pop industry cannot be solely blamed for artists’ mental health struggles, the system does play a significant role, as it constantly subjects idols to relentless competition and pressure explained Kim.

“In most entertainment agencies, idols are treated more as commercial tools rather than humans. This is even more pronounced for trainees.”

She said that following the recent idol suicides, companies are expanding mental healthcare for idols within their agencies and exploring ways to provide support for psychological difficulties. However, for these efforts to be effective, fundamental improvements in the system itself, which continues to perpetuate the underlying issues, are necessary.

“Famous people are constantly exposed to public scrutiny, and the image they have to present to others may differ significantly from their true selves. The significant difference from reality can lead to a profound sense of emptiness and depression which can eventually lead to suicide,” she added.

Cha observes that many Korean artists are now choosing to discuss mental health on different platforms. However this is not reflective of the industry as a whole.

Breaking down the system, he explained: “K-pop works in groups. In Korea, even if it's not a K-pop group, we are extremely reluctant to let an individual's problems affect the group's activities in a bad way. It's often assumed that because I have a problem, I'm hurting the organisation I'm a part of.”

In this atmosphere, people tend to take their mental health relatively lightly, or believe they can overcome it on their own, which ends up aggravating the problem, he feels. “Of course, compared to a few years ago, people are speaking more freely now and seem to be paying attention, but I personally don't think it's enough. We should be able to talk about our mental health more freely.”

Rehabilitation: What happens when an idol seeks help?

Kim explained that in severe cases, individuals take a break from their entertainment activities to receive necessary treatment. Treatment often involves a combination of medication and counseling, similar to ordinary people. Once the problems are somewhat alleviated, they resume their activities while maintaining ongoing treatment.

They are usually treated in psychiatric hospitals, but the celebrity foundations also contract with qualified clinical psychologists to provide free counseling, added Song. “Mental health issues are more prevalent in fading celebrities than in the more popular ones, and treatment for them varies. However, they tend to seek counseling in private to avoid being gossiped about.”

Seeking help for mental health

In South Korea, there is a rapidly growing interest in mental health, said Song. He explained that there are professional counselors in elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as youth counseling centers and young adult counseling centers in each region. There are also many government-funded free counseling centers and community mental health centers. However, the status of psychologists is not legally guaranteed, so the quality of counseling varies somewhat.

According to Kim, in Korea, access to professional psychological services is relatively easy, making it not overly difficult to seek medical help. “However, individuals who do not seek treatment may have concerns about their difficulties becoming public, may be unsure if they need help, or may also have busy schedules,” she said.

The government has also implemented various policies for suicide prevention. However, she feels that compared to 2020, the progress is still not significantly different.

The South Korean government has also established a National Center for Mental Health, and citizens can log on to the website to seek information and help.