A sex scandal corrupts K-pop’s wholesome image

The ramifications of a recent South Korean sex scandal go far beyond exposing the fissures in K-pop’s carefully constructed brand. 

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How should you respond if an artist you once loved isn’t the person you thought they were? An ongoing investigation in South Korea has triggered this dilemma for K-pop fans around the world. Seungri, 28, a member of the influential K-pop group Big Bang, and Jung Joon-young, 30, a popular singer-songwriter and television host, are among those implicated in a series of connected sex scandals that have roiled the K-pop fandom.

The scandal sits in stark contrast to the K-pop industry’s wholesome public image. The branding of boy bands has long been tightly controlled, but K-pop takes image management to new levels; aspiring K-pop stars (“idols”) apply and compete as pre-teens for places in special training schools. Public romantic relationships are unusual if not contractually forbidden. South Korea’s comparably conservative public sphere limits thematic references to sex, drugs, or alcohol in K-pop songs.

Seungri, one of K-pops most prominent stars, was arrested on suspicion of providing “drug-addled” prostitutes to high-powered businessmen in Seoul nightclubs. An investigation into his text messages linked Jung and nearly a dozen participants to a group message sharing secretly-recorded videos depicting the sexual assault of drugged and unconscious women. Both have since announced their retirement from the entertainment industry, and shares in Seungri’s management company, YG Entertainment, have plummeted.

The scandal magnifies the proliferation of hidden camera porn in South Korea — an issue which drove 22,000 women to the streets last June in the largest women’s demonstration in the nation’s history. Known as molka, meaning “spycam”, hidden camera porn has become an increasingly visible issue in South Korea, as the distribution of footage from secret, tiny cameras — often depicting women in sexual or intimate circumstances without their consent — has grown in recent years. From 2013 to 2017, police estimate nearly 6,000 cases of spycam porn each year.

But for now, all eyes are on the well-oiled K-pop machine. Seungri’s involvement in the sex scandal has made headlines internationally. He is the youngest member of Big Bang, having spent 13 years in the spotlight after debuting with the group in 2006, aged 15. He is beloved by fans for his humour, energy, and extroversion. Yet this scandal is not his first. In 2012, Japanese tabloid Friday published shirtless photos of Seungri after a one-night stand, pushing back against the squeaky clean image of K-pop idols.

The ramifications of the recent K-pop scandal go far beyond exposing the fissures in pop’s carefully constructed image. It implicates the star in an intertwining series of serious sex crimes; if charged, Seungri could face up to three years in prison. For many K-pop fans, Seungri’s pedestal has toppled.

The question of how to relate to a beloved artist in the midst of controversy has become a central pop cultural question in 2019. With Seungri and other idols implicated, this challenge is made more complicated by the intensity of the industry’s focus on public image and the moral juxtaposition of the scandal. The investigation and Seungri’s subsequent departure from the group have uprooted fans’ understanding of their idol’s character, and prompted a reorientation of their fandom

As Big Bang fan Karla, 25, notes, the last week was a “stressful” process of negotiating this new reality for Big Bang fans: “Many of us have felt overwhelmed as we grapple with these allegations and attempt to consolidate them with the idol some of us have supported for over ten years.”

Popular music fandom, beyond an enjoyment of music alone, often builds upon a love for and identification with fandom favourites; social media enables a presumed intimacy between fans and idols, allowing fans to feel that they know and understand them.

Whether as a means of escape, comfort, or entertainment, K-pop fandom is a source of joy for millions across the globe. Confronting the crushing reality of these allegations has transformed the nature of how many fans relate to their idol.

“In a cruel twist of circumstances, our source of comfort suddenly became the root of our anguish and stress,” says Karla.

For Pannatic, a 19-year-old translator of K-pop news with over 50,000 followers on Twitter, the scandal hastened a re-evaluation of the entire industry. “Since this case started to see light, I came to realise that the entertainment industry is so much darker than we all think it is,” Pannatic noted. “Everything we see through the TV shows and social media accounts are probably just the tip of the iceberg.”

While the investigation continues, non-Korean speaking fans follow the scandal online, and track translations of the news on Twitter. That other stars may be further implicated in the ongoing investigation is one more twist in a series of turns for heartbroken fans.

“Of course,” as Karla admits, “we don’t really know our idols.”

Allyson Gross is a writer based in Houston, Texas. She tweets @AllysonGross