The South Korean entertainment industry in the last decade has redefined soft power. The global reach of K-pop and K-drama has not just meant megabucks but a cult following for bands like BTS — before pressure or individual ambitions led them to take a break — has spanned beyond Southeast Asia to be feted even by mainstream American networks. The official song for the football World Cup 2022 was sung by a member of the boyband.
K-dramas have seen an equally dramatic curve of international recognition with OTT platforms like Netflix targeting South Korean shows for a much wider audience. Its legion of fans is now an international army that alternatively swoons and obsessively tracks every gesture a star makes. This must be the golden age for Korean singers and actors, except is it really?
Alarming number of suicides among Korean celebrities
Suicides in the industry are now occurring at an alarming regularity; young artists, some who were within the grasp of fame and others who have more than flirted with success, have killed themselves in the past few years. This year alone two singers have died by suicide within less than a month, exposing once again the underbelly of the famed Korean dream.
One of those who passed away recently was K-pop star Moon Bin, a member of the popular band Astro; he was just 25 years of age. This was the same age when K-pop idol and former member of the band f (x) Sulli died by suicide four years ago, and it is a pattern that repeats. Most Korean celebrities who have taken their lives are in their 20s when careers are only beginning.
There are no badly behaved K-pop stars on stage breaking a guitar or headbanging...Korean society too encourages pretension, and the clean-cut hero they see on screen is interchangeable.
Behind the glitz of fancy skyscrapers and a booming skincare industry, South Korean society is by and large a patriarchal one with exacting standards. Sulli, who many credit for taking K-pop globally, was a rebel often speaking about the male-dominated showbiz business, which she alleged led to relentless online intimidation and severe depression. But management companies monitor their stars like hawks, and with their real-life more scripted than the stage, her outspoken mental health struggles were trolled.
Two months later, Sulli’s best friend and singer Goo Hara was found dead at her home after being viciously cyberbullied for appearing in a sex tape which she was said was filmed without her consent. At the time of Sulli’s death, Kim Dong Wan of the boyband Shinhwa could have been speaking for many of his peers when he posted on how celebs are “fighting a battle within themselves debating how much sickness they can bear in their hearts and continue to work, all for the sweetness that fame, and money provides.” The ecosystem which allows public success but demons in private is watertight.
In the sweatshop that is the South Korean entertainment industry and reminiscent of China’s emphasis on sports from a young age, many of these stars are signed when they are barely in their teens. The contracts are for a long duration, tight, and controlling. By the time the artists hit their 20s, faces that are revered are burnt out or gone under the knife.
The twin industry of K-pop and K-drama is flourishing, but is it doing enough or more importantly, does it have the intent to protect the people who have made it the global phenomenon that it is today? There are several reports of exploitation of actors and singers, including allegations of sexual abuse. This though falls on the other side of the boundary where public figures are expected to keep their real lives, the messy ones, at least away from the spotlight. There are no badly behaved K-pop stars on stage breaking a guitar or headbanging. It is not just their management agencies; Korean society too encourages pretension, and the clean-cut hero they see on screen is interchangeable.
The divorce of Korea’s most celebrated Song-Song couple from the hugely successful drama Descendants of the Sun forced Song Joong Ki to apologise to his fans for something that should be personal. A Korean drama on Netflix, Love to Hate You captures this toxic love of the fans beautifully. It shows how a lawyer and an actor get into a relationship only to be hounded by the actor’s demanding followers who don’t approve. The couple is forced to pretend publicly that it’s all over while secretly dating each other.
The pain behind the smile in K-pop and K-drama
Much is stage-managed, and the star, no matter how famous he or she is, is stuck between exploitative management agencies and stressful fan clubs. The art curator in Her Private Life, who is also an anonymous member of a fan club, gives us an insight into the one-dimensional lives of these followers; she is shown to have obsessive cutouts of an actor even in her living room.
The glamour and success hide a trail of unhappiness and mentally vulnerable people. Korea has the fourth highest rate of suicide globally and the highest in the ages 15 to 24, coupled with high expectations, early success, and stringent control, its showbiz is becoming an infamous contributor.
The industry seems to be in a hurry, churning out hits after hits and cashing in on a winning formula. But next time you watch a K-drama or listen to K-pop, pause for a moment and reflect, does the smile hide more than it shows?