South Korea’s pop industry has been shaken by a scandal involving sex videos and prostitution, tarnishing the reputations of some of the nation’s top stars and questioning the way South Koreans see women, writes DW’s Fabian Kretschmer.
The Washington Post once touted them as the “biggest band in Asia”. The five members of Big Bang were celebrated internationally, not least because they broke the strict conventions of K-pop. In contrast to the standard saccharine music of their colleagues, Big Bang’s members mostly composed the lyrics and music for their songs themselves.
Since their debut in 2006, they have sold over 140 million records and their videos usually reach up to 400 million viewers on YouTube. But the rapid success story of Big Bang is now followed by a spectacular scandal, tarnishing its reputation.
On Thursday, 28-year-old Lee Seung-hyun, better known by his stage name Seungri, showed up at a police station in Seoul dressed in a suit and tie. He was accused of running a prostitution ring. “I will cooperate with the investigation and answer truthfully,” he said, without answering the questions of the dozens of reporters present there.
South Korean police have reportedly seized records of chat discussions from 2015, which could prove that the celebrated pop star organised prostitutes for business partners from Taiwan. In return, he received promises of investment in his company Yuri Holdings. Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, although it remains omnipresent.
The scandal triggered a massive outcry in South Korea. “One should get a temporary injunction and pass on all the income to the state,” wrote an angry user in an online article. Another said: “That wasn’t an individual mistake. The entire scandal has a negative effect on our whole society.”
Seungri is considered to be the most enterprising of the five Big Bang members – he runs a restaurant chain, among other things, and is regarded as the “Great Gatsby of K-pop” because of his extravagant lifestyle. Until recently, he also acted as PR manager for a club called Burning Sun in Gangnam, a wealthy neighborhood in Seoul.
The K-pop patriarchy
Burning Sun fell into disrepute months ago due to a whole series of scandals. Young women in anonymous online posts repeatedly claimed to be victims of date rape drugs. South Korean media reported about a “rape culture”, which was kept under wraps by the club’s operators, bouncers and police authorities.
“Violence against women is structural – and often the crimes take place in secret,” gender rights activist Seoyun told DW. “Sexual abuse and harassment are often dismissed as minor offences in South Korea. It is not uncommon for victims to be discriminated against as guilty because of their clothing.”
Seoyun is part of a group which calls itself Burning Feminists. The group was founded after a murder in 2016, when a woman was stabbed to death in a public toilet in Gangnam. The perpetrator stated at the time that he did not know his victim, but was driven by a deep hatred of women. That case marked the birth of the feminist movement in South Korea. For the first time, South Korean women began to publicly denounce patriarchy, share their stories of suffering and show their solidarity by participating in demonstrations.
A few years ago, the scandal surrounding Big Bang’s Seungri might have had little or no consequences for him, but now, massive social pressure has forced the pop star to announce that he’s withdrawing from public life. The value of the shares of his label YG Entertainment also plunged by 15.6 percent on the day of his withdrawal announcement.
A widespread problem
Since it was first uncovered, more and more people are being implicated. According to police investigators, Seungri was part of a chat group in which celebrities shared secretly filmed sex videos. One of the perpetrators is the singer Jung Joon-young, who shared online mobile phone videos of at least ten female victims with whom he had sex. He too faces legal action.
Another star, singer Choi Jong-hoon of the band F.T. Island, is also under the purview of investigators, as his statements in the same group chat suggest that he used his connections with a corrupt policeman to hide a case of drunk driving.
“Molka” is the name given to the phenomenon in South Korea in which secret recordings of women – during sexual intercourse or when showering or when in public – end up on the internet. It is common for many South Koreans to look for hidden cameras while entering public toilets.
Activist Seoyun believes that South Korean society has changed since last year’s mass protests against sexism and hidden camera pornography.
A safer place for women?
For a long time, the problem was ignored by the authorities. But after massive protests, there was a rethink. Many websites that featured voyeuristic videos have now been closed. The Seoul city government has also trained specially equipped search teams to systematically search public spaces for hidden cameras.
Even though the Korean entertainment industry outwardly propagates rigid moral concepts, sexual exploitation and abuse of power have repeatedly occurred behind the scenes.
According to a survey conducted by the South Korean Human Rights Commission in 2010, 55 percent of all actresses interviewed stated that they had experienced unwanted sexual advances. Half of them said they had suffered professionally for rejecting such advances.
But activist Seoyun believes that South Korean society has changed since last year’s mass protests, with more women now resisting and many perpetrators facing legal action: “The Korean entertainment industry will also change. Sex offenders will soon no longer be seen on TV screens. In their place, there will be female singers who were previously given no chance.”