The South Korean entertainment industry has proved to be one of the most successful global ventures producing consistent quality content with a wide range of genres appealing to the general population from their most primitive entertainment needs to intellectually intriguing productions. Popularly known as the “Hallyu” wave, it is renowned for its flawless performances and production values, with the industry being rewarded with annual revenue of over $3 billion.
This industries’ image portrays everything in the quintessential sense making it a potential retreat for many to indulge in. It has been very successful in painting a fancy picture that we all want to be part of, but what actually goes on behind the scenes? While all industries have an ugly side to them, just how deeply rooted and toxic is this worldwide wave?
The Korean pop music sector was perhaps one of the sections of this industry that broadcasted the potential of these talented set of people to the world and is still the most dominant in terms of popularity. While producing work which boasts of near perfection, it employs a concept so cruel in intent that it is popularly known as “slave contracts”.
These contracts force “idols” to remain with the agencies for long periods of time. The signing of these contracts typically takes place at the ages of twelve to thirteen, when these agencies fish for attractive and talented children. The trainees are not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions as a result of their alarmingly young age.
While being highly talented, these industries believe in maddening perfection and hence, these idols are subjected to long and intense hours of inhumane training. Ruthless humiliation is used as a tool to supposedly bring out the best. To achieve the image the audience look up to, agencies invest millions in vocal coaches, makeup artists, stylists, choreographers and accommodation to mould the idols to fit into the Korean entertainment standards. The conservative rationale behind these contracts is to extract the money invested on these idols.
A lot of the concepts displayed by these idols diverge from their skillset and are the results of immense training. The agencies follow a policy of continuous indoctrination to keep the idols constantly in debt and hence, within the agency. SM Entertainment, one of the leading agencies in South Korea had made headlines for the exposure of these cruel principles by trainees and idols.
EXO-M’s (EXO’s Chinese sub-unit) leader Kris filed a lawsuit against SM Entertainment for being treated like a property of the company. He stated: “The company has treated me like a machine part or as an object of control rather than presenting a vision as an entertainer.” His departure was followed by fellow EXO-M members Luhan and Tao on grounds of inhumane treatment.
Members of JYJ (Part of leading K-pop band TVXQ) claimed that these supposedly terminating contracts were virtually life long due to convoluted policies and obligations. In 2009, Korea’s free trade commission presented standardized contracts not exceeding seven years but since the handling of the money solely lay in the hands of the agencies, idols had to pay inordinate amounts of money to terminate their contracts.
The Korean beauty standard has a rather conservative set of expectations that generalize people into the categories of beautiful or ugly. During these progressive times where people promote the need to embrace one’s talents and beauty, this industry goes out of the way to alter its trainees to fit by these standards. South Korea is popularly known as the “Plastic Surgery Capital Of The World” with plastic surgery clinics spread out on the street like grocery stores. Idols are put through these image altering processes to please the general public.
The slightest variation from these standards results in the shunning of the idol irrespective of their talent. These impossible standards set by the agencies also have a negative impact on the public. Many teenagers have their plastic surgery procedures funded by their parents as a high school graduation gift. It is an endless list of procedures until perfection is achieved while their identity is lost.
While fair skin is viewed with awe in many countries, South Korea takes it to the extreme end of the spectrum promoting abnormally pale skin and dismissing darker complexion. The darker complexion is supposedly a representation of the working class and hence is viewed as a disgrace.
These problems branch out into the personal lives of the idols as well. These agencies have a “no dating” policy which the idols must follow rigorously. The obsessive and territorial fan base of these Korean pop bands detests news of their idols dating. Popularly termed as “Sasaeng” fans, they have a psychotic obsession with the members of the band and react violently to such news. Since an entertainment industry solely relies on its fan base, these idols are obligated to stay away from any acts of affection.
In recent news, popular soloist and former member of veteran girl groups 4Minute and Wonder Girls, Hyuna, and Pentagon’s E’Dawn, both from renowned entertainment agency Cube Entertainment were immediately kicked out when Hyuna publically announced her relationship with E’Dawn. Many choose to hide it but if exposed, are subjected to unmerciful interrogation and punishments.
It is not uncommon to see a band member disappear from promotions without a trace when a dating rumour about them pops up. Unfortunately, both sides of the fan base resort to toxic measures to express their hatred or devotion. The “Anti-Fans” employ acts of immense cruelty to express their venomous emotions.
Yoon Kye Sung of the K-pop band g.o.d was a victim of the actions of these anti-fans receiving a drink laced with laundry chemicals which resulted in his mother being hospitalized due to consumption. Consequently in 2009, Yunho from the band TVXQ had his stomach washed due to the consumption of a drink adulterated with adhesive substances.
For many young women in Korea, entering the K-pop world is a dream. It might sadly be a consequential one. Many trainees are abused sexually by various faculties and mediators making sexual favors the route through the different levels of the industry. Talent is a secondary perspective while aiming high or in pleasing the elite niche of this industry.
In 2012, Jang Seok Woo, the CEO of Open World Entertainment was arrested on the grounds of sexual harassment of his female trainees and his encouragement to his male staff members to practice the same. The “meetings” with these trainees by the agencies’ employees were charged according to their position in the hierarchical system. The “meeting” with the startups was generally $220 while those female trainees associated with distinguished labels varied from $700-$900.
It is clear that the Korean industry and its portrayal are on opposite sides of the spectrum. While hitting the mark with the audience, we must question the cold-blooded principles behind the perfection we see on stage. Viewing them as fellow humans and seeing the pain beyond the charisma is the least we can do as fans. While it’s implausible to eliminate a billion-dollar industry, instilling a little humanity in it would do wonders for the well being of its members in general. Food for thought – Isn’t an industry aimed at entertainment defeating the purpose by subjecting its very members to barbaric principles denying them of their happiness?
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