Successive suicides of Korean pop stars show all is not well in Seoul

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Goo Hara with close friend Sulli. Both women died within six weeks of each other from the same cause. (worldofbuzz.com)



It was reported on 24 November that Korean pop singer Goo Hara was found dead at her home, age 28.

Hara was found unresponsive after her manager came around do do a welfare check. She had earlier been hospitalised following a suicide attempt in May. It appeared that she had recovered when she toured Japan promoting her latest single Midnight Queen. Her tragic death came some six weeks after the passing of fellow singer Sulli under similar circumstances.

Goo Hara with close friend Sulli. Both women died within six weeks of each other from the same cause. (worldofbuzz.com)

Before Hara took her own life, there had been at least 15 celebrities from South Korea, including Sulli, who took their own lives over the past decade. The most high-profile one was probably that of Jonghyun. The actor and singer became the newest inductee into the tragic “27 Club” in 2017 after being found dead at his home from carbon monoxide poisoning. He has just been joined by fellow artiste Cha In-ha on 4 December. Out of respect for Cha’s family, Fantagio has urged fans not to speculate over the cause of his death, though it is very likely due to self-harm. These are but the tip of the iceberg. South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the dedveloped world. Most Koreans consider suicide to be an individual problem rather than a societal one. However, it is usually a combination of environmental, social, and economic reasons that influence a person to take their own life. A large contributor to the high suicide rate is cyberbullying, which is in itself a global problem. Before her death, Sulli had been the victim of online trolls who took aim at her openly feminist views. Sulli had pushed the boundaries in the same way that Madonna and Lady Gaga had done before her. Unfortunately, this did not go down well in conservative South Korea. It may actually have resulted in her becoming depressed, leading to her eventual suicide.

Most other Korean celebrities who committed suicide were also known to have suffered depression. Following Jonghyun’s death, a suicide note left to his close friend Nine9 revealed his battle with depression. He was also known to have copped online abuse for supporting LGBT rights. His passing opened discussions about the harsh and competitive nature of the entertainment business in South Korea, as well as mental health. Hara herself was similarly depressed. Worse, she had a big fight with her ex-boyfriend Choi Jong Bum, who had made a compromising video of her without permission. Following her altercation with Choi, Hara’s label Content Y decided not to renew her contract. This incident later put the spotlight on revenge porn.

In South Korea, revenge porn is one of the crimes facilitated by the rise of hidden cameras in the 2010s. Such cameras are called “Molka” in the Korean language and are most commonly installed in small holes or cracks in walls in locations such as women’s public restrooms and motel rooms. Footage taken by Molka often end up in various chat groups, notably the one made up of celebrities associated with the swanky Burning Sun nightclub in Gangnam. One of the key players in the scandal that broke out at this club was Jung Jun-young. Before her death, Hara had been helping an investigative journalist look into Jung’s role in the Burning Sun scandal. This sordid affair involved the secret recording of various intoxicated women having sex with high-profile celebrities. Many critics say it glorified the objectification of women, whose status in South Korea’s Confucianist society was not considered equal to that of men. The severity of the scandal prompted President Moon Jae-In to order a thorough investigation. Things would later worsen when Moon got inundated with petitions demanding tougher punishment for cyberbullying and strengthening use of the real-name system when posting comments and creating accounts as well as a more severe punishment for filming sexual acts without consent and distributing it following the respective deaths of Sulli and Hara.

In general, the South Korean entertainment industry is a toxic cesspit. Underneath all the glitz and glamour all is not well. It does not help that Korean society is still rather conservative due to its Confucian origins. Competitiveness brought on by neoliberal capitalism introduced by Americans following the 1953 armistice that divided the Korean peninsula does little to help. Rapid digitisation of South Korean society has, in more ways than one, exacerbated an already volatile situation. Harry Gordon Selfrige‘s doctrine that “the customer is always right” is literally taken to the extreme in the entertainment industry in much of the developed world. Indeed, it is a known fact that many fans of celebrities often have unrealistic expectations of their favourite idol, revealing the groupies to be complete morons. A pop star, like a politician, is a public figure. There is a certain way someone of such a high stature is expected to behave. However, entertainers are also human and they should be allowed some space to have some semblance of a love life as well as kids of their own. Flaming a particular singer for getting pregnant at a particular time and putting their band‘s best laid plans in disarray is not cool. One cannot but shake their head in disbelief at the toxic shallowness displayed by rabid K-Pop fans in the online world. It is probably safe to say that their toxic shallowness stems from totalitarian consumerism that evolved from the ideas of Selfrige and other like-minded businesspeople.

Another thing is to place the spotlight on entertainment agencies. Some of these companies are downright dodgy. SM Entertainment has been embroiled in several lawsuits pertaining to artists’ contracts. Several complainants say they were locked into lengthy contracts but did not receive a fair share of profits made. There are also claims Blackpink are being played by their label YG Entertainment, whose former CEO was implicated in the Burning Sun scandal. Most artistes are signed by entertainment agencies at a young age and undergo intense training to become an idol. Out of a large pool, only a few make the cut after completing the gruelling program that most certainly takes quite a toll on a person’s psyche. Company executives often regard artistes under their wing as pieces of meat that they use as cash cows. Once an artiste no longer generates the sort of revenue desired by the company, they are cut loose and swiftly forgotten. Such is the stressful life of an entertainer and it is no surprise that many of them chose suicide over ignominy.

It is also quite possible that female artistes get a leg up by sleeping with male executives, similar to what happened at the Weinstein Company. More worryingly, there may be some executives who pressure vulnerable young artistes into doing so against their will. Sadly, these instances are likely to be swept under the carpet due to their shameful nature in a close-minded society. An artiste who is violated in such a way is likely to keep her feelings bottled up for years.

To prevent further copycat suicides of talented K-Pop artistes, the South Korean entertainment industry needs to embrace change. More importantly, Korean society as a whole needs to change its outdated way of managing gender dynamics. Global fans of Korean music and film should also understand what really goes on behind the scenes as well as take a stand against the sexual objectification of idols. Those caught trolling idols on social media platforms should also be called out by fellow fans and made to feel guilty about having reprehensible opinions.