A memorial for Goo Hara, who was part of the K-pop girl group Kara, at the Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital in November 2019. Her death was described by police as a suicide. (Getty Images)
Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: The frighteningly dark side of the K-pop industry

K-pop, the common moniker for pop music based in South Korea, is a global phenomenon famous for its addictive melodies performed by synchronized dance groups in a variety of genres spanning pop, R&B, hip-hop, rock, and more.

However, K-pop is more than simply a type of music: it is a complex combination of expert choreography, aesthetic music videos, and attractive Asian pop stars smothered in makeup and decked out in the latest cutting-edge fashion.

The industry of K-pop was christened by TIME Magazine as “South Korea’s Greatest Export.” However, although K-pop is a package of glitter and profit, underneath its shiny facade lurks a frightening, oppressive industry plagued with mental illness.

Perhaps the most famous band in K-pop these days is a boy group titled BTS, the only K-pop act to crack the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 other than famous soloist Psy and his 2012 viral song “Gangnam Style.” What the mass media does not know, however, is that BTS’s rise to fame is an anomaly in the world of K-pop.

Every group is groomed to perfection by a South Korean entertainment agency. The more renowned the agency, the more famous the group — except in the case of BTS. In 2013, BTS launched their career under a small, obscure company where they struggled to gain popularity in the musical field until their careers finally took off with their hit single “I Need U” in 2015. 

BTS’s breakthrough in the international music industry is an abnormality, especially since they debuted as underdogs in the great face of K-pop. To truly understand the career behavior of a typical K-pop group, and, furthermore, to illustrate the hidden nature of the K-pop industry, we must focus not on the phenomenon of BTS but on an archetypal star’s experiences in the field.

For the most part, having a romantic relationship is off-limits. It is not that the stars are forbidden from dating entirely, but that fan backlash and media’s suffocating spotlight could very well prevent an artist from enjoying their love life. 

“Dispatch,” a Korean tabloid, deploys paparazzi to secretly follow celebrities around and hunt down any scandalous relationships the celebrity might have.

If “Dispatch” successfully photographs sufficient evidence to prove a relationship between any two given celebrities, the agencies of the couple have two choices: they can either pay “Dispatch” to withhold the information from the public, or they can pay to allow “Dispatch” to release the news of the relationship. After all, the publicity that comes from “Dispatch” can be a valuable asset for many K-pop stars who hope to build their fame.

However, there is a horrific and destructive downside to this publicity: should K-pop stars violate the unspoken no-dating restriction, they risk being publicly defamed, typically by their own fan base. This is because the celebrities have incredibly dedicated fan bases, who, in return for the fans’ extensive investments of money and time, expect K-pop stars to reciprocate a certain level of devotion, including refraining from romance since it seemingly detracts from the star’s appreciation for their fans.

In January 2020, Chen, a member of SM Entertainment’s popular boy group Exo, announced his engagement, and in return, netizens bashed him online and called for his removal from the group. 

On the same tangent, HyunA, decreed by Billboard as one of the K-pop scene’s most prominent female artists, was ousted from her label Cube Entertainment because she and fellow K-pop star, E’Dawn, publicly revealed they were dating without first confirming permission from their company to make the announcement. This shows how little freedom artists have in regards to their personal lives — any exercise of personal decision regarding their relationships is met with drastic consequences.

The K-pop industry’s brutality extends further than just the parameters on their personal lives. Idols face a lifetime in a cutthroat, strict workplace like none other.

To illustrate this idea, take the example of a South Korean student suffering from social expectations regarding academic excellence.

According to the book “The Psychological Well-Being of East Asian Youth,” South Korea is widely known for its competitive educational environment which negatively affects adolescent well-being.

According to the same source, the suicide rate among Korean youth is the highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, and academic stress, being at fault in over 50% of the cases, is the leading cause for why this trend is so prominent.

Being a K-pop idol involves catering to endless expectations, social norms, and athletic excellence. Idols suffer enormous pressure to maintain the expectations of their fans.

They are constantly aware of the tempestuous nature of their career: any misbehavior, flaw, or scandal on their part could not only tarnish their character but could lead to them being shunned by their fans or booted from their agency. In this way, due to the added factor of upholding the favor of the public, being a K-pop idol is arguably more stressful than being an average South Korean student.

If the average South Korean student experiences academic stress strong enough to lead to depression and suicidal behavior, then to what degree is that stress multiplied for K-pop idol?

Just like their trainee years, idols bear the burden of extremely rigorous schedules, unrelenting stage performances, and frequent media appearances.

This exhausting lifestyle takes its toll.

An incident representing the deadly consequences of an idol’s intensive schedule occurred in 2014 with a fatal car accident of girl group, Ladies Code, whose manager sped on a rainy highway — presumably as means to arrive on time to a scheduled event — and was blamed for the ultimate deaths of two of the members.

Other examples of the effects of rigorous schedules include performance injuries; the Asia-Pacific Journal explains it is not uncommon for idols to injure themselves over-performing on stage.

Another effect of an idol’s intensive schedule is the one on the idol’s mentalities and self-views. With constant media appearances, idols are routinely exposed to the scrutiny of the public upon their physical appearances.

In some instances, the effect of this pressure manifests in eating disorders.

Jimin, a vocalist of BTS, showed signs of anorexia and admitted he had eaten a single meal within the span of ten days because of his intent to lose weight and appear slim like a typical K-pop idol.

Despite their many struggles, idols are discouraged from speaking out about their personal issues. They are expected to meet an extremely high moral standard in order to represent K-pop as “safe and wholesome”: free of violence, drugs, mental health issues, and other unmarketable or unprofitable topics.

This points to the issue of mental health as a deeply held stigma in South Korean culture — a stigma rooted in misconceptions about what mental illness is. A study in 2013 sampled data from sixteen countries across the globe, including South Korea, and over 50% of respondents agreed that individuals with depression are not as intelligent, trustworthy, or productive as those without. 

However, despite these rigid social restrictions, there remain jarring incidents where the mental health issues of idols have been forced into the spotlight.

Jonghyun, 27, from popular boy band SHINee took his own life on December 18, 2017. His suicide note reveals the motive behind his death.

“The depression that has slowly eaten away at me has finally consumed me, and I couldn’t beat it,” his note read, according to the Washington Post.

Two years later, on Oct. 14, 2019, Sulli from girl group f(x) died by suicide, a tragedy presumably linked to the malicious hate speech of netizens who bashed her routinely-expressed viewpoints that defied Korea’s social norms and gender ideals.

Six weeks after Sulli’s death, the death of 28-year-old Goo Hara, a member of girl group Kara, was described by police as a suicide, according to the L.A. Times.

The rapid-fire deaths of Jonghyun, Sulli, and Hara shocked millions of fans around the world and forced attention to the mental illness epidemic festering beneath the glamorous façade of the K-pop industry. 

Imagine, if this stress is drastic enough for fully-grown, experienced idols such as Jonghyun, Sulli, and Hara to suffer such severe mental illness, what is it like for the children of the K-pop industry?

It is not uncommon for idols to debut as teenagers, since K-pop companies understand that flaunting new, young artists is crucial while marketing toward newer, younger audiences as older K-pop groups retire and depart from the scene. Just like their seniors in the industry, these young artists work full-time as idols.

Rookie boy band TxT, commonly referred to as BTS’s juniors since they hail from BTS’s label Big Hit Entertainment, debuted as teenagers as young as 16 years old. At their debut, the average age of the members of K-pop unit NCT Dream was 15.6 years old. 

Keeping in mind that an idol’s career usually spans the course of their lifetime, it is alarming to imagine children so young being thrust into this cold, acidic industry where they have little personal freedom thanks to the suffocating societal pressures exercised upon them.

Some people opposed to this argument might remark that since all idols voluntarily sign contracts binding themselves to their labels and their careers, they voluntarily sign themselves up for this lifetime of suffering. In that case, why should we care about the issues of some uber-rich K-pop star living the celebrity life coveted by millions? How does the mental health of this specific type of celebrity impact us as individuals?

Korean pop stars are called “idols” for a reason: they are the epitome of role models, representing the quintessential sides of humanity. If the best side of humanity is so deeply entrenched in mental illness, what does that make the rest of us?

An article by the Asia-Pacific Journal agrees with this idea: “In Korea, more than 60% of all advertisements feature a famous face, and idol stars are among the most often used celebrities … Simply, if a fan will buy a product that a star endorses, will they not also choose to emulate the star in more destructive ways?”

Likewise, the poor mental states of idols have the potential to impact impressionable fans into romanticizing mental illness as ideal, which holds the major potential to influence K-pop fans everywhere into deadly misconceptions about mental illness and how to handle it.

In the end, K-pop is designed for entertainment and enjoyment. The purpose of this article is not to discredit K-pop or diminish interest in it or its artists. However, K-pop fans have a responsibility to acknowledge that K-pop is not pure glitz and glam.

Behind the infectious songs and aesthetic-jammed music videos are people — and people have problems, especially in an industry like K-pop that is so deeply entrenched in perfection and plasticity that it neglects the real, human, vulnerable sides of its idols.