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Poisoned drinks, sex tapes and suicide petitions: What's going on with K-pop.

Content note: This post deals with suicide and rape and might be triggering for some readers.

For such a light, poppy type of music, K-pop has attracted attention recently for far more serious reasons.

The recent apparent suicides of two female K-pop stars, Sulli and Goo Hara, as well as the jailing of two male K-pop stars, Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon, for rape, have shone a light on the industry. But the shocking stories go back many years.

K-pop is an industry where young, starry-eyed performers are exploited, and girls and women are particularly harshly treated. On top of that, fans – or “anti-fans”, as some of them are known – can be brutal.

Listen: Years of gruelling training, insane beauty standards, invasive fans and cyber hate… just the average day for a K-pop idol.

“Some female idol members have gotten ostracised for not smiling in a television show and reading a book about feminism that contradicts male-dominated patriarchal South Korean society,” K-pop journalist Park Hee-A told the Associated Press.

Young performers sign contracts that bind them to their agencies for a decade or more. There are harsh financial penalties for those who try to end the contracts – and some have even been blackmailed.

Back in 2000, singer Baek Ji-young sued her former producer, accusing him of releasing a sex tape of her. It took years for her career to recover from the scandal.

“Strangely enough, more women than men criticise me,” she said in an interview in 2006. “It’s like people who were beaten when they grew up tend to beat their own children.”

Stories of sexual exploitation are common. In 2012, agency head Jang Seok-woo was sentenced to six years’ jail for sexually assaulting his trainees, two of them minors.

Many young performers are pressured into having multiple plastic surgeries to achieve the “right” look. There are also frequent stories of performers going on dangerous diets.

Sojung, from girl group Ladies Code, said in 2016 it was “shocking” to see how she looked when she appeared on TV for the first time, weighing 49kg. She dieted till she weighed just 38kg and her periods stopped.

“My hormone levels were those of a menopausal woman,” she said.

Devoted fans can quickly turn on their idols. In 2009, Park Jaebum left the band 2PM, following controversy over comments he’d made on MySpace years earlier. A petition entitled “Jaebum should commit suicide” was signed by 3000 people, with comments such as “I’m disgusted by you”. Other petitions called for his deportation.

Meanwhile, in 2014, Yunho, from TVXQ, was poisoned by an “anti-fan” who came up to him and handed him a drink.

“I passed out, but I heard someone say that blood was dripping,” he said. “Later on, I found out that there was a strong adhesive chemical in there.”

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“At that time, I briefly thought that I should stop being a celebrity.”

Sometimes, the K-pop stars themselves are the predators, not the victims.

That’s true of Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon, who were jailed for rape late last month. Jung shot to fame through reality show Superstar K4, while Choi was a member of boy band FT Island.

Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon
Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, police investigating another K-pop star discovered that Jung had been bragging in a chatroom about drugging and raping women, and that he’d shared videos of the assaults online. This led to both Jung and Choi being arrested for rapes dating back to 2016.

The men claimed the women had consented, but the court found the women were incapacitated.

Judge Kang Seong-soo said the men had treated the women as “mere tools of sexual pleasure”​.

“It’s hard to fathom the pain the victims must have​ suffered,” he said.

Jung was sentenced to six years’ jail and Choi to five.

But the two cases that have attracted the most attention are the recent apparent suicides of Sulli and Goo Hara.

Koo and Sulli Hara
Koo and Sulli Hara. Image: Social.
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Sulli, real name Choi Jin-ri, was a member of girl group f(x) as well as an actress and the host of a TV show about cyberbullying called The Night Of Hate Comments.

She was outspoken, which is unusual for a K-pop star, as most are tightly controlled by their management. She talked openly about her relationships and shared her struggles with mental health.

Online, she was attacked for all sorts of things, including her decision not to wear a bra.

"When I first posted a 'no bra' photo there was a lot of talk about it,” she said in an interview. “I was scared and could have hidden, but the reason I didn't is that I want to change people’s prejudices about that.”

In October this year, Sulli was found dead at her home.

Goo Hara, one of Sulli’s best friends, was devastated, declaring tearfully in a video, “I will live twice more diligently now that you are gone.”

But Goo, a member of the girl group Kara as well as an actress, was struggling herself.

Last year, Goo filed a lawsuit against her ex, Choi Jong-bum, accusing him of threatening to release a video of them having sex which he’d filmed without her consent. In August this year, Choi was acquitted on the charge of illicit filming. He was found guilty of physically assaulting Goo and other offences, but got off with a suspended sentence.

Goo was relentlessly attacked by trolls for having appeared in the sex tape. Like her friend Sulli, she was open about her mental health issues.

At one point she wrote, “Can you please ask yourself what kind of person you are before you post a vicious comment online?”

But it didn’t stop the trolls.

Late last month, Goo, too, was found dead at her home.

Feature image: Instagram/@jelly_jilli @sun4finger @koohara_

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for immediate support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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