The Cancer in K-pop

Trigger warning: mentions of abuse and suicide

What comes to mind when you think of Korean popular music or as most of us know it, K-pop? Intricate choreographies, Stan Twitter, dedicated fandoms, BTS? Not that long ago, I would have rattled off a similarly vague list. But now, after researching the industry, my list looks more like this: weekly weigh-ins, slave contracts, long-term debt, misogyny, suicide, blatant abuses of power (and the list only goes on). Who’s financing all this? To a large extent, it’s the plethora of Western fans who plug enormous amounts of money into their love of K-pop. The problem is that this money is feeding the billionaire companies behind K-pop, not the artists themselves.

            South Korea’s democratisation movements throughout the 1960s to the 1980s symbolised the West’s increasing influence. By the late 1980s, South Korea had fully adopted the capitalist model, and were innovating new ways to insert themselves into the Western market. Their relaxation of censorship and travel rules gave unprecedented access to the West, culminating in a hybrid culture that incorporated both traditional Korean elements, as well as Western ideas. It is this hybrid culture that gave birth to modern-day K-pop. Whilst K-pop took off domestically throughout the 1990s, it wasn’t until the noughties that it gained international traction. K-pop, an invaluable fruit of South Korea’s capitalist labour, is now a soft powerhouse of multilateral cultural and financial importance.

            Whilst K-pop has infiltrated Gen-Z culture to its core, the assumption that K-pop is a fringe industry is still commonplace. This is despite the fact that BTS, K-pop’s biggest Western export, have been topping Billboard charts since 2018, and have generated a whopping 3.6 billion Dollars. On a smaller scale, K-pop’s popularity exists at our very own university, Royal Holloway, where the K-pop Society now boasts over fifty paid members, a figure which is constantly climbing; the Facebook page alone has over four hundred followers. Penn State Korean Culture lecturer, Inkyu Kang, claims that, ‘K-pop has conquered the whole world.’ He’s not joking: K-pop has conquered, at the very least, the Western sphere. The industry grew from a value of thirty million US Dollars in 2009, to five billion Dollars in 2020. Yet K-pop is still widely considered a niche market. It took living with fans for me to realise how very endemic K-pop has become; we’re seriously underestimating the power it wields.

            I spoke to Mari, a London-based university student who, in her spare time, runs a TikTok account with over 150,000 followers (handle: @mari4president). Her account frequently juxtaposes her love for K-pop artists with her hate for the industry. When asked why she prefers K-pop to American or British music, Mari said, ‘They’re constantly releasing music three, four times a year. In the American industry…people just drop an album every couple of years.’ That’s the thing about K-pop: it indulges our capitalist whims by embracing throwaway culture and churning out music at unmatched speeds. This, along with K-pop’s use of ‘concepts’ (used to thematise bands’ albums and identities) encourages fast-culture the same way as brands like H&M encourage fast-fashion.

            ‘Concepts’ often take the form of hyper-sexualisation in female bands. Some companies have even been known to commit to sexualised concepts without consulting band members. Mari uses the band Stellar as an example of this, who she says became infamous for their sexualised concepts before several members publicly stated that they were uncomfortable with it and that their company had enforced it. Too frequently, K-pop’s themes involve sexualising non-consenting adults, and even more alarmingly, underage performers. But how do these K-pop companies acquire unfettered access to a plethora of underage talents? They recruit potential idols (the term for K-pop stars) from as young as eight, subjecting them to intensive training regimes in the hopes that they will carry on the K-pop baton. Three companies, SM, JYP and YG Entertainment, dominate the industry by teasing celebrity and fame to young recruits. Notably, recruit training schools are not free, but rather the trainees accumulate debt throughout their enrolment. If their company decides to introduce them to national and international audiences, their share of the profits will largely go towards paying off their trainee debt. Idols are locked into ironclad contracts that stipulate not only the terms of their repayment, but the terms of their lives at large. It is common to have clauses pertaining to weight and body shape, with trainee schools normalising weigh-ins. There is even speculation that trainees as young as ten are encouraged not to gain weight. The oppressive nature of K-Pop contracts has led fans to label them ‘slave’ contracts.

            The consequences of this oppression are evident in the high-profile suicides the industry has weathered. Sulli Choi is perhaps the most widely known of these cases. Choi became associated with feminism after highlighting the need for more widely accessible organic sanitary products on her web series. This did not bode well with a faction of Choi’s fanbase, many of whom have sexualised and idealised their female idols so that they no longer consider them women, but receptables for their fantasies. When Choi broke this illusion, such fans retaliated by starting a relentless cyberbullying campaign against her. In October 2019, Choi committed suicide. To say her death wasn’t linked to K-Pop’s blatant tolerance of misogyny, borne out of the industry’s commercial objectification of female idols, is to ignore the truth.

            This alarming trend towards malicious acts of misogyny is further seen in the case of Bae Joo-Hyun. Joo-Hyun shared at a public gathering that she had recently read Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982, a fictional Korean novel that is often associated with feminism. Like with Choi, a percentage of fans became enraged. They took to Twitter to post photographs of themselves burning Joo-Hyun’s merchandise. The same idol had previously received hate for posting a photograph online with her phone case in the background; the case had the message ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ emblazoned across it. For this, she was inundated with cyberhate. A pressing issue here is the potential for impressionable fans to foster misogynistic feelings; internalising hate becomes a lot easier when you’re dangerously near a source.

            We need to start talking about the fact that supporting K-pop by purchasing its products does not equate to supporting one’s idols. Rather, it equates to funding billion Dollar corporations that leech off these young artists’ talents, deny them financial equality and subject them to insurmountable standards. As things stand, buying into K-pop makes one complicit in the underbelly of abuse that the industry perpetuates. I asked Mari why she’s still a fan, despite knowing more about the issues at play than I do. She laughed guiltily and said, ‘Because it’s fun…capitalism got me.’ The reality of K-pop is that it’s a corporate machine. The young, emaciated idols they put on screen are just a frontage; a really entertaining, five billion Dollar frontage. Mari knows this, I know this, most fans know this, and so when are we going to do something about it?