Note: The following discussion is related to sexual violence. Please proceed with caution.
Who knew something as disappointing but seemingly straightforward as a report on sexual harassment in a nightclub could turn into….all of this. What was once a seemingly confined incident has turned into something else. The past few weeks have been a continuous onslaught of news. What started with Seungri and reports of an assault occurring in his nightclub, Burning Sun, escalated to heights few would have expected.
The scandal unfolded with reports of a chatroom that revealed that Seungri and his business partners had hired sexual escorts for potential investors. A further report uncovered the sharing of sexual videos, illegally filmed via hidden cameras, in a chatroom that involved Seungri, two male singers (later revealed to be Jung Joon-young and FT Island‘s Choi Jonghoon), and several other acquaintances. The illegal content shared also included images of unconscious and drugged female victims, and the members of the chatrooms discussed rape flippantly. There is also the issue of a “golden phone” that not only contained these videos, but also the contacts of numerous women, which were given out to others without their consent.
Investigations uncovered further controversies involving other celebrities. Highlight‘s Junhyung delivered a witness interview for allegations that Jung Joon-young had filmed and shared illegal footage without consent. Despite his awareness of Jung Joon-young’s actions from their interactions through an individual chat room in late 2015, he did not report the latter to authorities. The contents of the group chatroom mentioned above revealed discussions of Choi Jonghoon’s use of his connections with the police to cover up a drunk driving incident from 2016.
In addition,CNBlue‘s Jonghyun, who is currently serving in the military, was reported to have also filmed women without their consent, and he had shared such videos with Jung Joon-young in an individual chatroom. Other reports revealed that Jung Joon-young’s 2 Days 1 Night cast members, Cha Tae-hyun and Kim Joon-ho, had engaged in personal bets over golf games–any form of gambling is illegal in Korea–and the former had shared photos of the cash he won in the 2D1N group chat.
Since the beginnings of the scandal in late February, Seungri has announced his retirement from the entertainment industry, with YG Entertainment then terminating his contract. Junhyung and Around Us Entertainment, and Choi Jonghoon and FNC Entertainment, have followed suit. Seungri is currently undergoing police questioning, and has been booked for another charge of illegally operating a different club, Monkey Museum. Jung Joon-young has been removed from all of his shows, and has been placed under arrest. Choi Jonghoon has been booked for his drunk driving incident, and CNBlue’s Jonghyun has started on his reflection period.
The matter has gone beyond the usual boundaries of a normal K-pop scandal. It is now being handled by the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office instead of the police, due to the suspected connection between the people involved and the police itself. It has also reached international news outlets, such as CNN, NPR, Guardian, and more.
We ask the participants: What are your thoughts on the turn of events, and how the media and fan community have been responding to it? How is this case similar to, or different from, previous cases of sexual violence within the industry? Given that the Hallyu Wave is a form of soft power, a cultural export, how does this affect the image of K-pop that is presented to the world?
Note: This roundtable began on March 15 and reflects events that happened prior.
Yucheng: I’ve previously mentioned in a review of Seungri’s The Great Seungri that I was ready to accept Seungri as my lord as savior for the great album he put out.
Screw that. Screw him. He’s like Rapunzel, except instead of letting down his hair he lets down everyone in his life. Each day of breaking news seems like a giant slap to the face.
And there are fans still defending him. Jesus Christ eating a biscuit, learn when to stop. I consider myself a cynical person, and like everyone I thought BigBang was invincible given their history, but surely it must have clicked that this was not a normal scandal based on the sheer scale of the case, when forces higher than the police are involved in the investigation, and when your oppa resigned as a result. This isn’t normal. Have some self-respect. Then again, Yoochun and Kim Hyun-joong somehow still has fans, so I guess nothing but prison would change their minds. But even the latter had the dubious defense of having his ex charged with attempted fraud; this case in comparison just seems indefensible.
I honestly don’t think this would affect the image of k-pop to the world that much. Yes, the loss of BigBang is a blow, but I think people already have preconceived notions of the entertainment industry for this SNAFU to truly shock anyone who’s not already into k-pop. Apart from the occasional name drop of BTS in the media these days, K-pop is still, after all, a niche.
It seems Seungri comparing himself to Gatsby turned out to be prophetic, from their hidden crimes to their fall from grace. And as other members of the group chat start dropping out like flies, it seems everyone’s wondering, “who is next?”
Tassia: I’m disappointed, thoroughly disgusted, and yet — not surprised. Although it gives me the creeps how The Great Seungri was prophetic to all this, like Qian mentioned, it’s not something that was unimaginable. The dark side of K-pop is well known to many, but conveniently shoved under the rug. Male idols are forgiven from their wrongdoings quite easily, and both Seungri and Jung Joonyoung had been in scandals before. Of course, I didn’t expect them (and the rest of the group) to be involved in such dirty schemes and doing the absurd things they did, but it showed how deep this societal issue goes, and how much admiration we put on people we don’t actually know.
It’s interesting how it all unraveled beyond K-pop with the police corruption, but I fear media will keep an eye only on the celebrities while conveniently letting the bigger fishes slip. As for K-pop’s image to the world, I don’t think it will be affected that much. It’s a scandal, but not that different from the things we see in Western media. And honestly, whoever believes that “K-pop is pure” is just fooling themselves. I hope the victims can heal in safety, that justice sets a good example for the culprits, and that this whole mess propels some kind of change in Korea.
Pat: It’s been sickening, reading all the latest developments. And yet, like Tàssia, I’m still not surprised. I’ve never listened to The Great Seungri and now am glad that I never did. The dark side of K-pop has been covered many times before. I’ve always seen it as just a small portion of a larger issue in South Korea, which in turn is just a small percentage of lager sexual and gender-based violence in East Asia. This is just the latest after the sponsorship debacle, spycam porn, the celebrity sexual abuse cases, and the whole way Jang Ja Yeon case was handled and buried by powerful individuals.
It pains me when I read responses from other fans. It seems ridiculous to yell about witch hunts or protecting the image of men who don’t deserve it. So far, most of the attention has been on Seungri and JJY, with the other men on differing tiers of trash status. With the latest news of JJY using his celebrity status for trainees to sleep with him, with the promise of helping them debut, I would posit that he’s currently at the very top of the trash pyramid.
All I hope for is that the victims aren’t dragged into this mess. They deserve to keep their privacy, they deserve to see justice served without needing their names becoming public. Societal change is often a result of a series of monumental events that begins a path-dependent process that results in a much-needed change. Hopefully, this will be one such monumental event, or maybe even the even itself since it touches upon most of the previous sexual abuse-related cases, with a heavy dosage of suspected police corruption on top.
Nisha: My disgust goes without saying and frankly these actions are indefensible, any thoughts to the contrary probably calls for some soul-searching…
As others have pointed out, the dark underbelly of K-pop has been ruminated on many a time and with each new scandal. But the barrage of breaking news and the bigger picture it all adds up to, plus the fact that a few individuals were involved in such a far-reaching web of abuse and exploitation makes this series of events difficult to ignore compared to some of the more “isolated” incidents previously.
There also seems to be a confluence of events making for a perfect storm: the burgeoning #MeToo movement, molka outrage, and the abuse of privilege by celebrities and political leaders worldwide. It’s promising that Moon Jae-in has ordered thorough investigations – hopefully this keeps the momentum at the highest levels on getting justice for the victims.
That one of the individuals involved appeared unrepentant and attempted to normalise Seungri’s actions tells me that there is still a long way to go. So whilst this scandal is unlikely to significantly damage the image of K-pop, I hope it does lead to greater acceptance that sexual and gender-based abuse is pervasive in the industry. And that not only do culprits need to be held accountable but that victims need to be respected, heard and not fear stigmatisation when they speak out.
Karen: I think most of us here have the same sentiment of being dsappointed but not exactly surprised at the multiple revelations day after day regarding both Seungri and Jong Joon-young’s case. As much as I had loved JJY for his music, I can only shake my head and sigh at this turn of events. The sheer lack of shock at what continues to unfold as the week goes by simply reflects how attuned we are to the toxic nature not only of Kpop but of Korean society when it comes to gender, exploitation, and corruption. It is not always glitz and glamour as we hope it might be, and honestly, it is not as though these criticisms have not been brought up in mainstream media — the numerous dramas and movies with political corruption at their core demonstrates how it is a problem that is screaming to be addressed, but continually fails to be resolved.
I want to scream out in despair at all these terrible criminals, but I keep wondering if there is any good to having all these revelations take the media spotlight. K-pop will go on as it always has, with multiple anticipated comebacks on the way. But this slew of events does bring buried or drowned out topics to the forefront. More attention is being given to the problem of spycams especially in South Korea and its discomforting online demand for spycam porn. I feel upset for the victims involved, but this incident could very well be needed to begin weeding out the rotten apples and clamping down on outlets for exploitation of women.
Lonnie: I’m echoing all the sentiments.
The context of this scandal is not surprising and it’s painful to know that something like this is so common we almost expected it. The entertainment industry anywhere in the world is known to have a dark side that involves the abuse of position/power. Before #MeToo blew up the abuse was known and joked about openly (in a sarcastic manner). Similarly, there have been past scandals in the Korean entertainment industry that were brought to the public eye but quickly fizzled out; however, the sheer level and the participants of this current scandal is shocking and will not be something easily swept away. There is absolutely no gray area to defend these actions.
The way this has been
I don’t think this has affected K-pop’s image either. This doesn’t define K-pop, it’s a part of K-pop but does not reflect the entire industry. You’re always going to have some bad apples. Although, the way South Korea handles it, I can see that becoming a reflection on K-pop’s image. With the President stepping in and ordering a thorough inspection as one step, South Korea can potentially take another step and set an example to the rest for the world on creating change.
Gaya: We all already know this, but I feel it’s only fair to state that this-this is not a K-pop problem. This is an abuse of power problem, and we are seeing that abuse play out through the confluence of money, celebrity and — of course — male privilege. We’ve already seen how powerful institutions abuse the vulnerable, from Hollywood to the Catholic Church, and K-pop is yet another entry on that list. So any and all fans that are still (STILL!) talking about protecting their faves and their groups need to just cut it out. Stop. The usual dynamics of stan culture are normally crap anyway, but in this instance, they have absolutely no place at all.
I am not looking forward to when the idols involved begin to make their comeback. This is such an inevitability that CN Blue’s Lee Jong-hyun is not even bothering to “retire” like everyone else; given his crimes I sincerely hope that he gets to continue his “reflection” in a jail cell. At least YG is getting investigated — hopefully this leads to a more widespread look into the systems of power in South Korea that make such heinous acts possible.
Ultimately, that any of this is coming to light can be attributed to the #MeToo movement at large, and South Korean women in particular. #MeToo has helped so many women across Asia stand up against men who abuse their power, and we should do everything we can to support them.
Cjontai: What’s surprising to me is it took all this time for this to come into light. Of course, there were always speculations that Korean celebrities weren’t saints, but truly, this is the devil’s playground. And the absolute arrogance of these celebs to outright lie and expect people to believe them when there is so much evidence proving otherwise. I don’t understand why Seungri would wait nearly an entire month to finally say his Kakao-room chatter was him simply “bluffing” to look big.
To me, it’s clear there are definitely more powerful and clever people at play. Unfortunately, so much attention is focused on the celebrities that we may never know who’s pulling all these strings. Seungri and his nasty crew are the bottom of this gross barrel, but that in no way makes them innocent on any count. They’re grown men who knew exactly what they were doing. They chose to exploit their status as public figures to coerce women into sleeping with them. Then, they secretly recorded them having sex, sharing the videos while making rape jokes. If that doesn’t make your stomach turn, then I can’t relate to your mentality.
Most are correct about this not changing how the world views K-pop. To many non-Koreans, K-pop is some niche teen obsession, despite polls showing diversity in fan demographics. I’m a little relieved this happened if only to remind fans that these celebrities aren’t incapable of fallacy. Your faves can and will screw up. Hopefully not to epic proportions like this because yikes on a hot buttered biscuit, this is beyond messy. You can’t control their actions, nor the warranted backlash they receive. You can accept that it’s okay not to be okay with this behavior. Very few people will judge you for your outrage, but MANY are side-eyeing those putting this on the same level as lovestagrams. For once, it really IS that serious.
Aastha: I felt that Yoochun’s scandal left me wary of K-Pop idols in general, and therefore while the Burning Sun scandal has left me disgusted, I’m not shocked by the turn of events. More than that, though, I agree with Gaya: that while this exposes the dark side of K-Pop, it is not limited to just K-Pop. It’s extremely frustrating to see fans defend the action of idols, when this issue expands further than a genre music or category of entertainment.
Rape, prostitution, and even “locker-room talk” is inherently pervasive in male cultures across the world, and I hope that fans look beyond their rose-tinted-“oppa-is-perfect” glasses to see how these issues are stifling and oppressing women. Spy cameras, which are a rampant problem in South Korea, are such a huge invasion of privacy and continue to establish women as objects for the male gaze and it needs to stop. Period. The whole culture has led to an extremely misogynistic culture: Burning Sun CEO stating “if Seungri is guilty, then all Korean men are too” as an excuse and explanation for the scandal explains enough.
In general, I do think that K-Pop will keep its power across the world because fans will continue to exist (and grow in number). However, I also think that K-Pop industry is going to suffer the repercussions from this scandal for a long time coming – stocks of not only YG, but SM, JYP, Cube, and FNC all fell greatly as international investors lost confidence. If you see K-Pop as a business, and not as a genre, it has suffered great losses that might take some time to recover.
Zea: I absolutely agree with Gaya that this is not a K-Pop problem; power can be corrupting and I don’t know why people have a hard time believing that powerful people can do horrible things. I have an even hard time believing why people insist that we shouldn’t condemn something because “that’s just the way the world is” à la Burning Sun CEO Lee Moon Ho.
As a woman, violence against women is an issue I navigate daily when making small decisions like decision to stay late at an event, or choosing a place to sit on the bus, or having both my headphones in when I’m walking home. I know that this is something many of my fellow women-identifying folk experience. For people, especially fan girls, to ignore this and side with abusers is incredibly disappointing. I, too, am not looking forward to when involved idols come back because many of the people defending them now will probably still defend them and say “well, they apologized, so it’s all good.” I don’t think any apology will ever be good enough from any of these people when you consider the lifelong trauma their victims will experience.
For me, these events raise a question about where do we draw a line about supporting problematic artists, considering that many of them are in groups as well as solo artists. Do I delete all the Big Bang songs off of my library? If I don’t, does that mean I’m ignoring what he did? Do I condemn people who still listen to Big Bang? I’ve been grappling with these questions and I’m still unsure.
Gaya: I’m struggling with the same thing about music, too, Zeahaa; my temporary fix has just been to stick to female artists (and I think I’m going to make it more permanent as well), but we are going to have to confront this issue at some point. There may be no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still try.
As for the effect on K-pop, I agree that as a business it may struggle overall, but the biggest effect will be seen within. How these events affect the landscape of K-pop is yet to be fully seen, but hopefully, it will all be for the better. Right now, though, I see K-pop more as a conduit for change than a subject of it. Since becoming a K-pop fan I have learned so much about the world I live in, and not just South Korea — I now have way more insight into the struggle of black people, especially Black Americans, I learned more about international relations in Asia, and I discovered that feminism can be intersectional. As horrible as all this news is, I’ve been using it as another opportunity to learn more so that some good can come out of this, and it really is disappointing that some fans are choosing not to learn better.
I can’t do much about what is happening in South Korea except support the brave women and others working to create positive change; at least I can learn from this and apply its lessons to my own life and society. After all, that is exactly what Korean women did after the #MeToo movement surged in Hollywood.
[Images via YG Entertainment, CJ E&M Music, Yonhap, Jung Yeon-