The Dangerous Underbelly of South Korean Pop Culture

South Korea has a corruption and sexual assault problem that is shown in the entertainment industry; it affects the daily lives of millions of women.

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When you think of South Korea, you might think of the influence and popularity of Korean pop music, widely known as K-pop. Fans all around the world have fallen in love with the drama, food, pop stars (or “idols,” as they’re called), and music of South Korean culture. Like many wealthy and highly-developed countries, Korea has a reputation for its strong justice system and lack of widespread corruption.

Yet in 2019, South Korea had its most high-profile and widespread celebrity scandal in years. It began when Kim Sang-kyo visited Burning Sun, a prominent nightclub in Gangnam, and reported to the police that a woman was being sexually harassed in the club. Burning Sun staff forced Kim out and then assaulted him when he tried to help the woman. Police arrested him, claiming he was the attacker, and charged him with six different crimes, including criminal battery and defamation.

The man later set up an online petition demanding an investigation of Burning Sun, stating that customers were regularly drugged by staff and that the club operated on an illegal and corrupt relationship with the local police. This forced Seungri of the pop group Big Bang, a famous group that helped shape Korean pop culture in the early 2000s, to resign as one of the club’s executive directors. Subsequent investigations uncovered that Seungri had arranged numerous sexual favors for Big Bang’s investors, and that various nightclubs like Burning Sun had been used regularly for these meetings.

To make matters worse, there was another scandal involving other famous idols, including Jung Joon-young from the show “2 Days & 1 Night,” Choi Jong-hoon of the group F.T. Island, and Lee Jong-hyun from of the group CNBLUE. These idols either took videos of themselves having non-consensual sex with women and shared it in a KakaoTalk group chat, a messaging platform, or were bystanders.

The Burning Sun and KakaoTalk incidents have helped expose a long-running and previously unheard-of problem in South Korea’s entertainment industry. “The recent Burning Sun nightclub scandal exposed a culture that exploits women, which has brought about public rage,” Lee Taek-kwang, a professor of Kyung Hee University, said. In South Korea, more and more women are protesting to protect their safety and rights. The scandal is just a small part of the prostitution, drug trafficking, and police corruption problem plaguing the country.

Ten years ago, in 2009, Jang Ja-yeon, an actress from the popular drama series “Boys Over Flowers,” committed suicide in her home. Investigations into her suicide were revealed in 2019 to be plagued with corruption and cover-ups, while a separate inquiry found that she had been sexually and physically abused by many entertainment executives throughout her career. This was mainly due to the manager of her management company, Kim Sung-hoon, who beat her up and forced her to sleep with these VIPS. A seven-page list of the names of at least 31 Korean media executives whom she was forced to have sex with was found at her house after her death. Though the police hid the full list and people questioned whether the list was actually written by Jang Ja-yeon, many CEOs of prominent companies were exposed, including the vice president of Sports Chosun, Bang Myung-hoon, director of advertising of the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, chairman of Kolon, Lee Woong-ryeol, chairman of Lotte, Shin Kyuk-ho, and many more. Due to the controversy and lack of evidence, this case was dismissed and only brought up when the Burning Sun scandal blew up. Women, whether they are famous or not, are treated like they are disposable. Since rich businessmen were involved, the investigation in 2009 was not done properly. Women like Jang Ja-yeon have to take the fall while the criminals who forced her to do these horrible deeds are still out there, not convicted of their wrongdoings.

Resolving this issue is not easy, but the government needs to take action. Educating its citizens of this issue is crucial for women to be more aware during their daily lives. Women could be educated on how to protect themselves from getting involved in these drug and prostitution crimes. Men have to be aware that objectifying women is not appropriate and that recording themselves drugging women is not right. Overall, the country is still conservative. It is necessary to teach students in school that this is a major problem, though this could be an issue, as students in South Korea are pushed by their parents to mostly focus on their academics.

Recently, there has also been a problem with hidden camera crimes throughout the country. Though South Korea has repeatedly tried to stop this from occurring, these crimes have increased over time. Police has stated that illegal filming crimes increased sharply from 1,353 in 2011 to 6,470 in 2017. These hidden camera crimes have put the security of many women in danger. Many women around the country are protesting to fight for protection, finally getting some attention by news stations and newspapers.

The police need to be trained so that they are not susceptible to bribes or intimidation from companies and prominent executives. This could mean accepting less policemen into the workforce or putting more money into the quality of police schools. These “solutions” would cause some problems like a lack of policemen or money, but the benefit is a more exclusive police workforce that is highly trained and paid well. Some plausible solutions could be more supervision, like using more cameras inside stations to record everything that the police are doing. It is also possible to have district police work more closely with each other and the National Police Headquarters. In some cases, like the Burning Sun scandal, the Seoul police had to investigate instead of the district police because the case became a national scandal, and also because the district police were involved in bribery. Though it is not an easy task, South Korea needs to improve the lives of women by seriously changing rules and laws pertaining to not only the entertainment industry and the police, but also to society as a whole. However, there is still no true answer to these problems, as even the most developed countries are not able to resolve the issues on corruption, trafficking, sexual assault, and harassment.

There have been great efforts to help protect women, but there is still much to be done. The entertainment industry in South Korea is corrupt and taken advantage of by the government and large companies. Women are seen as sex tools, and prostitution, drug trafficking, and police corruption are still problems in the country. Right now, more women are taking a stand and are aware of the lack of their safety, a step in the right direction. However, fans of Korean pop culture should also acknowledge that this is a problem, as women are taken advantage of inside and outside the entertainment industry. Corruption, trafficking, sexual assault, and harassment are global problems with millions of victims. These problems need to be taken seriously for the good of men and women alike.