The stars of South Korea's globally popular K-pop music scene are, more often than not, fresh-faced young 20-somethings who cultivate coyly sexual yet wholesome and lighthearted appearances. Yet the reality behind the appearances is often much darker, as many stars struggle from anxiety and depression that can have fatal consequences.
A recent series of suspected suicide deaths of stars, along with various criminal scandals, have exposed an industry underbelly of exploitative demands, relentless media scrutiny and vicious online abuse that takes a psychological toll on performers.
Third death in two months
The latest performer death was Cha In-ha, a K-pop star turned actor whom police found dead at home on Tuesday. The cause of death was not immediately known.
At age 27, Cha is the third young South Korean celebrity to die in the past two months. Cha, whose real name is Lee Jae-ho, had previously been a member of the boy band Surprise U. He made his screen debut in 2017 in the short film You, Deep Inside of Me. His agency Fantagio expressed "the deepest mourning for his passing" and asked the public and the media to refrain from spreading rumors about his death.
There are currently no reports that Cha faced cyber bullying and social media attacks that other recently deceased South Korean celebrities had been subjected to. Last month, popular K-pop singer Goo Hara, who had faced vicious online attacks, was found dead in her home alongside a note expressing despair. In October, K-pop star Sulli, who had faced similar attacks and spoken out about them, was also found dead in her home. Both deaths are seen as possible suicides.
Giving up their lives for a chance at fame
Dal Yong Jin, professor of communication at Simon Fraser University and the co-author of K-Pop Idols: Popular Culture and the Emergence of the Korean Music Industry, said the death of Cha In-ha is part of a broader negative pattern in Korea's entertainment industry, in which the K-pop scene is the most demanding. While he stressed that every individual faces different concerns, performers are confronted with common socio-cultural challenges that can lead to depression, a cause of suicide. "This implies that the Korean entertainment industry has not developed socially acceptable and enjoyable working environments," he told DW via email.
The K-pop branch is known for its hyper-competitiveness and all-consuming training systems over several years. Potential idols — a term used to refer to popular K-pop artists — are scouted by talent agencies when they are teens and subjected to rigorous singing and dancing training. "Since they have to stay at the dorm-like houses all day, and they have to practice more than 10-13 hours per day, they have no opportunities to develop their own ideas and thoughts." Jin explained, saying that would-be stars give up their schooling and essentially their lives as young adults.
Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Seoul-based Asia Institute, told DW in October that the environment in Seoul K-pop studios where would-be stars train is "utterly ruthless and very, very tough." The trainee stars "lead incredibly unnatural and inhumane lives," he said, adding that the agencies basically own them.
Individuals who make it big in the K-pop scene then face grueling schedules and constant pressure to maintain their star status as younger, newer talent emerges. Many K-pop stars often attempt the difficult move into acting or hope to launch solo singing careers, if they had previously been in a band.
Does social media help or hurt?
K-pop stars also face relentless media coverage. While the rise of social media has given stars direct access to fans, allowing them to cultivate their approachable images, it has also exposed them to abusive comments and hate attacks, which affect physiological well-being.
"Social media platforms are one of the most significant elements for the growth of K-pop, both nationally and globally. Compared to J-pop [from Japan], for example, the Korean entertainment industry has fully utilized social media to disseminate their new music and idols' activities in order to communicate with fans," Jin said.
He described a self-regulating K-pop industry that restricts its idols in order to avoid becoming targets from any part of society. Stars who do speak out on topics such as feminism and LGBT issues face potential backlash and online bullying. "Many entertainers express their depression coming from this kind of toxic environments," Jin said.
In a case unrelated to Cha's death, the management behind K-pop star Kang Daniel announced Wednesday that he was putting his entertainment career on hold due to "depression and panic attacks." According to The Korea Times, his announcement came one day after complaining of mental suffering from online hate comments.
Kwon Young-chan, a comedian turned counselor who has himself experienced online attacks, told Reuters that, "When the perpetrators write vicious comments, they first begin with a 'light tap' and the scale of cyber bullying then intensifies to a 'punch.'" He also added that individual artists are more vulnerable than those in bands: "After the artists began performing solo, they had to deal with depression and attacks against them all on their own."
'Practical mechanisms needed'
While the recent spate of K-pop deaths has sharpened critical focus on the music scene, Pastreich pointed out in October that occurrences of high-profile suicides among South Korean entertainers extends to the past few years.
Despite the recent negative headlines, Jin believes that things have actually overall improved through measures undertaken by the Korean government. Still he stresses that more must still be done: "The entertainment industry and society together have to advance practical mechanisms to support entertainers, which means that they must understand the difficulties that idol trainees and members face before they take any extreme outcome."
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