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A look inside the disturbing history of K-pop

Espresso logo Espresso 22/10/2020 Caroline Décoste

They make young girls and boys swoon the world over, but behind K-pop bands lies a dark and secretive industry.

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The world of Korean pop (K-pop) is notorious for the immense pressure its artists are put under. Singer SHINee, real name Kim Jong-hyun, committed suicide in 2017, saying that he felt “broken from inside.” Fellow K-pop star Sulli, real name Choi Jin-ri from the band f(x), also committed suicide in October 2019 after having spoken openly about suffering from cyberbullying.

Weighing in both morning and night, having no romantic attachments (let alone sexual relations), not taking drugs, spending hours in the gym and dancing with weights attached to their feet, undergoing plastic surgery, not eating candy or chips and having no time off: this is the kind of routine Korean pop idols are subjected to. It’s also the reality of apprentice idols, who attend “colleges” that train future pop stars.

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As K-pop is an extremely lucrative industry, the contracts that artists enter into are not to be taken lightly. They’ve been called “slave contracts” because of their shocking clauses: if an artist wants to leave their record label, they have to repay the investment two or three times over. The same goes for the training schools: they have to be paid back once an act becomes famous. If an artist struggles to fill a venue, they have to pay the difference! All of this in addition to the threat of being replaced at any moment, and a career that expires the moment you turn 30.

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In 2019, the Korean pop industry was shaken by a scandal involving Seungri, a member of Big Bang. The singer was reported to have provided prostitution services for foreign investors and embezzled funds, as well as having posted videos of a sexual nature filmed by singer Jung Joon-young without the women’s knowledge on discussion forums. The scandal was nicknamed Burning Sun, after the club owned by Seungri.

Not only did Jung Joon-young film young women without their knowledge, but he was also found guilty of gang raping several drunk young women, along with singer Choi Jong-hoon (formerly a member of FT Island). He then posted the videos of these rapes on private forums.

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Rigged charts and rigged votes

In South Korea, the manipulation of pop music charts has a name: sajaegi. By tweaking the algorithm, songs are played on a loop by streaming services to inflate statistics and keep songs at the number one spot. Even members of BTS, the world’s most popular Korean band, have called out this practice.

Winners of the TV show Produce X 101, the South Korean band X1 has disbanded amid allegations of rigged votes. The show’s director and producer have been charged with taking bribes worth tens of millions of Korean won to fix the public vote in favour of certain members.


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