The relationships that SM has with its artist rota is one that is filled with tension. Mentions of lawsuits and “slave contracts” are not entirely antithetical, often strung together in conversations. Though the conflicts get complicated, and resolutions are pretty hard to come by (a la DBSK), we can pretty much attribute the conflict to tangible happenings: unfair contracts, overworking, bad pay etc. It would be wrong for us to not consider the emotions that run deep amongst these conflicts.
To understand the true impact of emotionally charged responses in such situations, it’s crucial to understand the importance of emotional ties within Korean culture. It may not be definitive, but is sure to provide us with some insight in to the way the conflicts play out.
When Kris first filed his (unexpected) lawsuit, the response was split three ways: confusion, sadness and resentment. Further complications included the lack of information surrounding the conflict and in time of distress it is not unusual for accusations to fly back and forth. However, the reactions of fellow members were particularly interesting.
EXO-M member Tao posted to his Weibo — shortly after the release of the news — sentiments of final farewells.
“Many people do not want to believe the truth. A lot of people want to see them together and stay forever. But that someone has to leave us. I wish you all the best!”
This disheartening response was also coupled with riddles galore exclaiming “Many things people see are not as it is” and blatant discontent towards the fans reactions in siding with Kris; “people like to take sides with those who have a smaller number of people.”
A later interview with the remaining EXO-M members revealed similar sentiments — albeit slightly more controlled and less pubescent sounding. “All of the members are heartbroken and upset.” Xiumin portrayed his silent-but-deadly demeanor through hinting at tensions between the two parties by saying that they were all a bit “embarrassed by the controversy at such a time.” Considering that this whole thing blew up just before the EXO First Concert: The Lost Planet, it is not hard to see where the members may feel wronged. Finding out that EXO unfollowed Kris on Instagram, and Kris’s Weibo update (“I wish you all the best and that everything will go better for you guys”) pretty much sealed the deal. Things don’t seem to be that well between the boys, and EXO Planet seems to have encountered an apocalypse way before its time.
The K-pop side of the internet is blowing up with shouts of “BETRAYAL” at Kris from fans, SM and members alike. SM have reportedly withdrawn any Kris merchandise from being sold at the first concert and are offering refunds to all fans. EXO members are opting for a “IDGAF” attitude and carrying on with their concert sans Kris whilst taking rehearsal photos and birthday snaps.
To understand why the responses of the receiving end of the lawsuit (SM, the EXO members and arguably even fans) we have to understand why the sense of betrayal runs so deep within K-pop and the wider Korean culture. I mentioned in a previous post on the Sewol ferry tragedy, that the concept of “jeong” is embedded deep within the fabric of Korean society, creating strong bonds between people. Once this bond is broken or “betrayed” the ramifications of such actions are often stained with anger and resentment.
Apply this to the Kris v SM situation, and it’s quite clear to see where this concept plays out. Kris (essentially upset with his contractual agreements) is feeling hurt and angry towards the way he is treated. Citing not being seen as an equal as his main source of contempt, he is overworked and under-appreciated. Regardless of his complaint being perfectly sound in a legal framework, the emotional framework is a lot more delicate. Upon voicing his concerns, the other members reacted with statements of equal if not more resentment at his departure on the basis that they were a team who vowed to stick out the highs and lows of their careers together.
“Jeong” is considered an essential component of the relational mode in Korea, and a violation of this relationship results in “haan.” Chung and Cho from the School of Medicine at UCLA explored this response to the violation of “jeong” and pointed that the “warmer and more tender the jeong-based relationship, the more bitter and profound the agony of “haan” which arises when “jeong” is broken and jeong-based loyalty is betrayed.”
Though dramatic, I cannot find a better way to explain the sentiments shown by receivers of the lawsuit. The trust, loyalty and commitment that the company, fellow members and fans alike invested in Kris and EXO as a whole is enough to incite feelings of betrayal; betrayal that becomes intense psychological trauma of “haan.” Pair this with the collectivist nature of Korean society in general, makes for pain that is felt across huge groups of people.
When Junsu, Yoochun and Jaejoong (now known as JYJ) left behind Changmin, Yunho and the DB5K dream, the response from SM and fellow SM artists was similar. Shindong and Sungmin were amongst many who decided to call out Junsu for betraying the group when he left a cryptic message about Yunho’s “Thanks To” message on Twitter. Hangeng’s departure from Super Junior was met with an eloquent albeit more endearing response on Radio Star that mirrored the former thoughts. Even existing Super Junior member Kangin was called out for “betraying” the members after his repeat offense at drunk driving.
The results were as follows: Hangeng stopped working in Korea, JYJ were shunned from TV and broadcast, and Kris has gone in to hiding. It seems that the price to pay for betrayal is a harsh one, made only more abrasive when the “victim” of that “betrayal” is a multi-million dollar entertainment company. A more alarming idea, is that SM is perfectly capable of riding this out on their own. Hence, using interviews with EXO members, releasing statements, and even counter lawsuits against people spreading rumours primarily serves to sway public opinion through manipulating “jeong.” However likely or unlikely this may seem, it is a valid possibility — the effects of which hit deeper than initially presumed.
It is also interesting to explore the relationship of “jeong” in comparison to race. Does the concept of “jeong” apply to non-Koreans? This is particularly relevant, as Kris (being Chinese) may be exempt from certain Korean group dynamics. Funnily enough, “jeong” (정) is derived from the Chinese character “qing” (情), and though they share the same root, “qing” is not referenced in the same way as “jeong” in social/anthropological contexts.
Bobby McGill from The Marmot’s Hole explores his relationship (as a foreigner) with the concept of “jeong,” and pretty much hit a brick wall. He quoted Dr John Linton (of the Korea Times) who wrote an article called “I Am Korean,” and caused McGill to feel jealous due to his own incomprehension of this special bond made through love, kinship and affection. It could be that Kris didn’t fully understand the ramifications of his actions, and how gaping the hole he left behind would be.
Super Junior’s Heechul’s recent statement regarding the lawsuit shows that the issue is different to that of ex-SUJU member Hangeng (who was also Chinese). He states that when Hangeng left “The situation (was) different… (he) was only able to go on two broadcasts.” — dismissing Kris’s complaints as petty, and outright calling Kris’s treatments of fans (who were expecting an OT12 concert,) as “discourteous.” However, Queen Heenim does raise a solid point: times have changed, it is no longer as difficult to promote as a Chinese person within K-pop. Kris wasn’t exactly as short of opportunities as Hangeng was. But, does this make Kris’s complaint less potent?
Amidst the claims that the members are not in control of their online presence, rumors flying left right and centre and fans generally losing it — statements of how this is a legal battle that should be looked at without emotional attachment may be right, but fail to take into account the heavy emotional connotations that such conflicts carry with them. It seems that the phrase “We are One” rings more truer than ever in light of the lawsuit. The oversimplification, and gross polarization of the conflict serves no purpose but to mislead watchers. This is not just about Kris versus SM — there is no “good guy” or “bad guy.” Kris, SM, EXO, their family, their fans, broadcasting stations, choreographers, and producers alike are all stakeholders in this conundrum.