For Monbebe, the past few weeks have been an emotional roller-coaster. Fresh off their successful 2019 World Tour, Monsta X seemed poised to break into the top tier of boy groups. There was a scandal concerning events at a fansign earlier this year, but it seemed nothing more than a blip in the larger scheme of things. Excitement for the group’s upcoming October-end comeback was running high. The MV teaser promised an exciting blend of traditional Korean elements with Monsta X’s signature explosive energy – and “Follow” delivered spectacularly.

However, controversy erupted immediately upon the release of the album, Follow: Find You on October 28, when Jung Da-eun and Han Seo-hee released information that maligned leader Shownu and led to the departure of Wonho from the group. If the timing of events seems suspicious, that’s because it is. Multiple members of a rising group were targeted simultaneously at the height of a successful comeback.

The fandom has reacted strongly. At the time of writing this article, hashtags in support of Wonho and Monsta X OT7 have been trending worldwide almost continuously for a week. Fans have held a 17-hour vigil outside Starship Entertainment’s office in Seoul, started a petition to “Keep a Member of Monsta X” and purchased a billboard in Times Square, New York in support of Wonho. Clearly, fans want him back.

Setting aside the question of whether the allegations were a targeted attack — which is speculation at this point — the strong reaction of a united, global fandom deserves some consideration.

Wonho allegedly owes Jung Da-eun over $30,000 for things he stole and sold, as well as money he borrowed from her when they were roommates many years prior to his debut. Jung also alluded to a criminal past. When this was revealed, Starship Entertainment first threatened to sue for defamation, but announced Wonho’s departure from the group shortly thereafter, on October 31.

Dispatch then broke the news of Wonho’s alleged use of marijuana in October 2013, together with Jung. This incident was reported to have been overheard by Cho, former M.D. of Burning Sun, who is presently in prison, and who spilled the beans in 2019. Dispatch claims a drug test was carried out by police on Wonho sometime in September this year, the results of which are awaited. On November 1, Starship released a statement to the effect that it was unaware of any of this, and had terminated Wonho’s contract.

In the meantime, Shownu was alleged to be in an affair with a married woman. Starship clarified the rumors saying he was unaware that she was married, and ended the relationship upon that realization. On November 3, nude pictures of a man resembling Shownu began to circulate online. In response, Starship stated the pictures were “illegally manipulated” — a distinct possibility, since they are said to be undated (meaning, they could be years old) and taken without his knowledge or consent, with the sleeping man deliberately positioned in a certain way — and filed an appropriate complaint for sexual harassment.    

Starship’s differing response in Wonho and Shownu’s cases reflects the notoriously strict South Korean expectation of idols. Idols are expected to be perfect and serve as role models for the young. As Shinhwa’s Dongwan recently stated,        

Even in harsh conditions where young people cannot eat properly or sleep properly, more and more adults are demanding that they wear a bright and healthy smile. You must be sexy, but you cannot have sex; you must be tough, but you cannot fight with anyone. This is what is required of them.

Slip-ups have cost idols dearly in the past. Day6’s Im Jun-hyeok also left the band for “personal reasons” in 2016, soon after rumors of him dating a fan surfaced. Super Junior’s Sungmin was forced to go on indefinite hiatus after Korean fans demanded his departure following his marriage. Idols caught dating each other often tend to break up soon after, be it Baekhyun and Taeyeon in 2014, or Jennie and Kai this year. HyunA and E’Dawn (now Dawn) were kicked out of Cube last year after they revealed their relationship, contradicting the company’s denial. Female idols are held to an entirely different standard of expectations. Red Velvet’s Irene weathered much criticism simply for reading Cho Nam-joo’s bestselling feminist novel Kim Ji Young Born 1982.

Viewed in this context, Starship’s response to Wonho’s situation — though widely condemned by the fanbase — is only to be expected. As one who has allegedly stolen, done drugs and spent time in juvenile detention, what sort of example is he to set for youth? Regardless of whether the departure from Monsta X was Wonho’s decision, it appears from the company’s statement the decision to terminate his contract was Starship’s.

Unsurprisingly, there may also be external pressures behind this decision. First, Starship is embroiled in the police investigations around Mnet’s Produce series. Police requested a pre-trial detention warrant for its Vice President “Kim” on November 1. Later in the week, the Seoul Central District Court rejected the request, but that does not mean “Kim” is innocent — it simply means the Court does not consider him a flight risk. Thus, at the moment, the company needs to act swiftly to protect its reputation.

Secondly, after the Seungri and the Burning Sun controversy, South Korean entertainment agencies seem to have become much more strict with their idols than in the past. While the use of drugs has always stirred major controversy (Park Bom with prescription drugs, T.O.P with marijuana), it did not lead to departures from a group. Yet now in 2019, YG terminated B.I’s contract faster than you could blink, when he was revealed to have contacted an LSD dealer. Any association with drugs or Burning Sun is now taboo, and Wonho’s case sadly meets both criteria. It is no coincidence that the agency first threatened legal action with regard to the monetary dispute, but terminated his contract once drugs — and Cho of Burning Sun — were mentioned. 

Furthermore, South Korean culture places much emphasis on the collective. Any blemish on a member’s image is likely to leave a mark on the group as a whole. When thinking of the collective, Monsta X, Starship’s response seems logical, if cruel. However, as K-pop spreads internationally, are expectations of the consumer base changing? The global fandom is more liberal, and doesn’t care about things like weed (never mind that smoking it is an illegal activity in South Korea).

This raises many interesting questions: in its demand that Wonho be brought back to the group, is the global K-pop fandom (together with Korean Monbebe) imposing its more liberal values on the South Korean entertainment agency and/or the South Korean idol? Or should South Korean entertainment agencies, particularly those that represent internationally popular groups, think more globally when making decisions about their artists? Does the global success of Hallyu call for greater weight to be given to the values of a global fandom? There are no easy answers, but we may gradually see a small shift.

It is worth noting that the expectations of international fans do not always make things easier for idols. Stray KidsBang Chan and (G)I-DLE’s Soyeon have both come under fire recently for failing to recognize and address instances of cultural appropriation. BTS was criticized for holding a government-sponsored concert in Saudi Arabia, given the regime’s intolerance for dissent and poor human rights record.

Developments have thus been counter-intuitive. Despite an increasingly global audience — and perhaps even because of it — K-pop idols and entertainment agencies are under greater scrutiny than ever before.

Given all this, is there a chance that Wonho will return to Monsta X? This seems to be an impossible wish. Possibly the only instance of an idol returning is that of Sunmi, who promoted with Wonder Girls in 2015, after withdrawing from the group in 2010. Wonho’s return is made much more unlikely owing to the fact that his contract with Starship has been terminated. His return to Monsta X, if it happens, will be a first in K-pop history.

The question then, is: what happens next with Monsta X? Clearly the group’s brand is strong, as Monbebe’s presence on the internet and Monsta X’s return to the Billboard charts have shown. Like most other groups to lose a member, Monsta X will likely be fine. Even now, unlike with Iz One caught in the Mnet vote-rigging controversy, Monsta X’s variety appearances have not been affected.

Watching Monsta X promote “Follow” amidst the controversy has been inspiring. Wonho withdrew from the group on October 31, the day of their first music show appearance. Instead of taking a break, the remaining six members were on Music Bank the very next day — visibly tired, but with choreography readjusted and Kihyun taking over Wonho’s parts. What is more, even as nude pictures meant to humiliate him leaked online over the weekend, Shownu held his head up high and continued to perform on music shows.

As for Wonho, I asked earlier in this article, “As one who has allegedly stolen, done drugs and spent time in juvenile detention, what sort of example is he to set for youth?” The answer is simple: an even better example than idols who have always been perfect.

Wonho spoke of his parents’ difficult financial circumstances during his younger days in No Mercy. In his farewell letter to fans, he is honest — if not open — about the fact that he made mistakes in the past. However, he clarifies that since his debut, he has worked hard to be someone who deserves fans’ love.

If Wonho had cleaned up his act, then he is indeed a true idol. Only those who have never attempted to do anything can live a life free of mistakes. Wonho’s story is proof that mistakes do not mean the end of your life, that even though one has gone astray and done wrong, one can turn their life around and live a better future. Let us also not forget that in 2013, Wonho was only twenty years old.

It is heartbreaking to see his past catch up to him in this manner — not only for Wonho but also for the hope his story gave. Admittedly, fans do not have the full picture. Nonetheless, the consequences seem to be disproportionately severe in comparison to the charges, and one understands Monbebe’s position on the issue. While it is unlikely that Wonho will return, or that the Korean idol industry will suddenly become more forgiving of idols’ mistakes, Monbebe’s efforts give hope that the industry is watching — and adapting to — the expectations of an increasingly global consumer base.

(Dispatch, Forbes, Hofstede Insights, Nate, The Korea Herald, Naver [1] [2] [3] [4] [5], YouTube [1] [2]; Images via Instagram, Mnet, P. Nation, Starship Entertainment, Translation via Metro)