The Other Side of the K-Pop Industry

By Ana Perez, 9th Grade

K-Pop, also known as Korean Popular Music, is mainstream music from South Korea. It became popular during the Korean Wave in the 1990s. When you think of Korean music, your mind might go to Gangnam Style, BTS, BLACKPINK, obsessive fans, over-the-top (in a good way) music videos, overflowing talent and charisma, and stunning visuals. But like the entertainment industry anywhere, K-Pop is not all sunshine and rainbows. Many people forget the difficult life many Korean pop idols face. 

Firstly, K-Pop idols must go through a training process before debuting in a group. This process takes place for an indefinite period of time where trainees take part in language, singing, dancing while living together with other trainees. Their chances of debuting are 700:1 and a heavy emphasis on perfection is placed. It is believed among the K-Pop world that idols must be at the level of professionals to put on a great performance and satisfy their fans. On the other hand, other East Asian countries believe the opposite. Japanese idols and their fans believe that they do not need to be perfect and instead grow as performers after they debut – instead, they believe in entertaining fans and showing the fun side of performing. This toxic trainee system in South Korea is making trainees between the ages of 13 – 20 put their mental health at risk. Several idols, such as Jeongyeon from TWICE, RM from BTS, Wendy from Red Velvet, and Sulli from f(x) have spoken about their mental health; however, Knetizens (internet users) were not kind to these idols and decided to cyberbully them, leading Sulli to suicide on October 2019. One trainee even claimed she ate nothing but an ice cube for an entire week to lose weight, due to the fat-shaming she faced in her company.

After debuting, idols must sign a contract with their company. They can range from 2 years (Iz*One) to a decade (BTS), depending on the size of the company and the group. But, some companies use slave contracts for their idols. A slave contract is a long-term and unfair agreement between a trainee and a management agency; these contracts are exploitative and used to put idols into debt with their agencies. They are known for treating idols as robots, slaves, or products to sell to the general public and fans. There is a phenomenon known as “trainee debt” in K-Pop where they must pay the debt from the classes they took through their trainee years, even if they don’t debut at all. Some contracts even put limitations on an idol’s weight and look. Idols, even at the ages of 12 or 13, get trapped in these contracts. However, there is a wave of positive change with idols being more outspoken about these contracts and management agencies taking a more humane approach to training and debuting their idols.

Working conditions once they debut are not any better. Ho Ryeong from GreatGuys claimed that he spent most of his time at the gym and studio, preparing to release new songs and perfect the choreography to perform on music shows. He stated that he did not have much time for eating or recreational activities. Since idols must look beautiful, many end up in severe diets and training regimes. A famous diet among idols, known as the “Paper Cup Diet” involved eating nine paper cups worth of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables every day, making this popular on pro-anorexia forums on k-netizen websites. Gym routines are also grueling, as dance teachers would force idols to dance with 8.8lbs sandbags on their feet for several days. Several idols, such as IU (Lee Ji-eun), JinE from Oh My Girl, Jang Na-ra, Sojung from Ladies’ Code, and Seo In Guk have suffered from eating disorders in the past to maintain a skinny figure for the public.

There is also something in K-Pop known as a dating ban. Trainees and idols are not allowed to date, as the image of an idol requires them to be “pure” and “accessible” to fans. Dating would ruin that illusion, which is why companies have a dating ban for idols. JYP Entertainment, one of the Big Three K-Pop Companies, has a strict dating ban until three years after an idol has debuted. Groups like TWICE, Itzy, and GOT7 have been through this ban. However, many have called this inhumane and have noticed that it’s impossible to stop someone from falling in love – but idols still have to go through this ban anyway. And what happens if they’re caught? They can be kicked out of the group or company if they are found dating. Although, there are some exceptions such as Jennie from BLACKPINK and Kai from TxT. But, as soon as an idol is found to be dating someone, they will lose a portion of their dedicated fanbase because they’d feel betrayed.

Prostitution is not uncommon among K-Pop either, as many idols turn into sex work to be able to pay their trainee debt or even debut, even though prostitution is illegal in South Korea. In 2014, Tenpro (a management agency) sent a girl group to work as sex workers so they could earn enough to debut, although they were still not able to make enough money and turned to sex work again after debuting without the agency’s knowledge. Many K-Pop stars also abuse their power to have sexual relations with young fans and many male idols are known as “playboys” among industry insiders, with several veteran female idols telling rookies who to avoid. This was seen during the Kris Wu scandal and NCT Lucas scandal. In 2019, five men were arrested for tricking Brazilian K-Pop fans into becoming prostitutes and selling them to brothels for $1,650 dollars or $2,000,000 won. They told the fans they would need to pay for their flight after arriving in South Korea and were sent to brothels. They were rescued months later and the men were arrested on suspicions of human trafficking, pimping, and confinement. There are many other horror stories including K-Pop and human trafficking, using the naivete of others to fund an illegal industry, and abusing the trainee debt system to force trainees into prostitution if they want to achieve their dream; although some use the threat of force.

And what does this lead to? South Korea has a high suicide rate with 25.7 suicides per 100K people. This is sad, not uncommon in the K-Pop industry either. Sulli from f(x) died by suicide at 25 on October 14, 2019. Goo Hara, a former member of Kara, was found dead by suicide on November 24, 2019; she had a prior suicide attempt on May 26. Kim Jonghyun from Shinee died by suicide on December 18, 2017. A suicide note was found highlighting his struggles with depression for several years and references to a therapist who blamed his mental health struggles on his personality. South Korea still considers mental health a taboo, which is why many ignore their struggles and do not seek help. The number of South Koreans with depression has increased by 800K and will continue rising. Although the South Korean government is looking to invest $30 billion won on mental health. 

K-Pop has also branched out to reality TV. Reality TV is already known as the lowest form of entertainment or a guilty pleasure for glorifying abuse and promoting watching people be humiliated for their pleasure. This led to the creation of survival shows in South Korea. However, instead of being an international version of Survivor, these are shows with a pool of contestants competing against each other with K-Pop performances to debut in a group – either picked by the judges or the audience. Some of these shows include Produce 48, SIXTEEN, Girls Planet 999, and I-LAND. However, these shows are not fair. Produce 48, whose winners formed the group Iz*One, was found to be rigged, and producers Ahn Joon-young and Kim Yong-bom were arrested and were indicted for fraud and bribery in 2019. Han Chowon and Lee Ga Eun were supposed to make it to the final lineup but were swapped with 13th and 14th place. Thankfully, they managed to debut later – Ga Eun debuted as a soloist in 2019 and Chowon debuted with LIGHTSUM in 2021. 

Not only were these shows rigged, but they also harmed the contestants’ mental health. Girls Planet 999, which finished airing several weeks ago, had contestants from South Korea, Japan, and China. After China placed heavy restrictions on K-Pop in September 2021, Mnet (the network for the show) made it its mission to reduce the number of Chinese trainees in the group, since the Chinese market was not profitable. Liang Qiao claimed that producers would not help Chinese contestants with the language barrier, claimed that they filmed the demo stages (first two episodes) for 40 hours straight, that filming for the theme song lasted three days, and that she only slept for an hour – even though some contestants were as young as 15. Other Chinese contestants faced “evil editing” and hate comments from toxic fans – such as Cai Bing and Su Rui Qi. And, one of the contestants, Huening Bahiyyih, TxT’s Kai’s younger sister, faced an immense amount of hate comments. During the stream for the final episode, several comments called Bahiyyih, a 17-year-old minor, a snake, a rat, wished for her to fall from the stairs and injure herself, and sent her death threats. Why? Because several people thought she was “undeserving” and “only made it far because of her older brother.” Even if you are not a fan of her, that is no reason to send death threats over a reality TV show. 

And there have also been many scandals over the years. The most well-known is the Burning Sun scandal, involving celebrities and idols, where several women were sexually assaulted in the Burning Sun nightclub and unconsented sex tapes were distributed online. Even political parties in the country argued over how to handle the scandal. Another scandal included the Kris Wu scandal, where Kris Wu, a former member of EXO and one of the biggest Chinese celebrities, allegedly raped several women – the youngest victim being thirteen. The Beijing police arrested him on August 16, 2021, and he is facing the threat of death row. He was also blacklisted in all of China and most of his social media accounts on Chinese social media were deleted by the CCP. There are also several scandals including the Lucas (NCT member) scandal, where he was accused of gaslighting and cheating on his girlfriends. There have also been several bullying scandals through the course of the years. One of them was the Soojin scandal, where the former member of (G)I-DLE was accused of bullying and stealing money by alumni of her middle school and actress Seo Shin Ae. While the allegations were never confirmed, Soojin did claim she would leave the group if they were – and on August 14, 2021, Cube Entertainment announced Soojin would leave (G)I-DLE. Another scandal was the APRIL scandal. Hyunjoo, a former member of APRIL, accused Chaewon, Naeun, Yena, and Jinsol of bullying her during her time in the group, leading her to attempt suicide while DSP Media, her agency, did nothing to help her. The victim-blaming and conflicting responses from the members effectively ended the career of APRIL and DSP Media.

However, idols and companies are not the only ones responsible for the toxicity in the K-Pop industry as fans contribute too. Fans and idols engage in parasocial relationships, where a person extends their energy, interest, and time to the other party who is unaware of the person’s existence. Basically, fans spend their time and energy promoting idols, engaging with their content, and admiring them even though idols have no idea they exist. According to Kutalu B. (n.d), this promotes an unhealthy obsession with a person that does not know who you are. Some K-Pop fans take this to an extreme and attempt to impress idols by donating expensive gifts and large sums of money in order to be recognized, although, sadly, most idols feel uncomfortable by these actions and instead give away these gifts. Participants can also see parasocial relationships as a substitute for genuine connection, where they spend less time with friends and family, leading to the same mental health problem that they are trying to relive according to Svoboda A. (2020).

There are also toxic fans, which are the ones that you most commonly hear about. Due to the competitive nature of the industry itself, K-Pop fans tend to argue about which group is superior, leading to very toxic arguments on various social media sites (mostly Twitter). Some “fans” also send death threats to idols due to their actions or other reasons – and those threats are never warranted. This toxicity is mainly caused by the competitive culture surrounding K-Pop, the idea that a certain group is superior – causing several arguments and death threats on Twitter over which group is the best, and the amplification of power on social media that allows people to comment on anything thanks to the power of anonymity. While most toxic fans are usually a loud minority, these attitudes should not be ignored and companies should protect idols from having to read hate comments and death threats. 

Fandom culture in South Korea also leads to consumers spending large amounts of money on K-Pop merchandise. A study by iPrice compared how much fans of BLACKPINK, TWICE, and BTS spent on merchandise, albums, and concert tickets. The study found that BTS fans (ARMY) would spend $1,422 dollars or $1,677,163 won per person if they bought merchandise, 15 studio albums, and attended five concerts. TWICE fans (Once) would spend $824 dollars or $993,088 won on merchandise, 14 albums, and four concerts. And BLACKPINK fans (Blinks) would spend $665 dollars or $784,327 won for merchandise, albums, and concerts. This is a large amount of money that could be invested in other things such as food, clothing, housing, and education instead of merchandise for an idol group. But the industry has built itself around the parasocial relationship between fans and idols, which is why companies want idols to be perfect, as this would make fans more likely to spend money for their “queen,” “king,” “goddess,” etc. Consumerism in the K-Pop industry is what causes idols to be treated as products and the standards of perfection created by idols being treated as products is what causes consumerism. It’s a vicious cycle.

But why, despite all the toxicity, do idols decide to join the industry? Trainees dream of being famous and rich, so they decide to take the small chance they have to become a big idol – it’s human nature. Many also decided to become an idol since, in their minds, all the toxicity is a small price to pay for fame, such as several NCT members who made it onto the group because of their good looks. Others simply love singing and dancing enough to the point that they decide to become an idol, no matter what; however, some have stated they underestimated how toxic and lonely the industry can be.

At the end of the day, the K-Pop industry has a dark side, like the entertainment industry in any other country. How can the industry change? To change the industry, idols need to be stopped being treated as products and fans need to stop expecting idols to be perfect and bullying them if they are not. Fans also need to stop defending their idols no matter what and expect accountability from them. Treating idols as humans, normalizing mental health support in the industry and South Korea, and decreasing parasocial relationships among the industry is the only way to change the K-Pop industry for the better.

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