Have you ever dreamt of being a K-Pop star? Do you know what it takes to be one? It is no walk in the park; Korean boys and girls go through highly competitive auditions starting at ages as young as 10 to 121 Vox.com. (2018). How K-pop became a global phenomenon. Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/2/16/16915672/what-is-kpop-history-explained . Their battle does not end there: They must suffer through special schools known as “boot camps” where they take intensive singing and dancing lessons. This goes on for years, where each idol-wannabe will spend hours each day attending grueling rehearsals. If you think these years of specialized learning are what makes Jin from BTS or Jennie Blackpink, you would be wrong still: They can only have their debut if the agency thinks they are worthy. Otherwise, the end of boot camp would mark the end of their yet-to-begin careers.
Korean Pop or K-Pop music has become a global phenomenon, growing ever rapidly as we speak. Google Trends show an increase in global interest of almost 109% in 10 years2 Google Trends. (2020). K-Pop Trends from January 2010 to January 2020. Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2010-01-01%202020-01-29&q=kpop . In 2018, the South Korean music market experienced a 17.9% increase in revenue growth3 K-Pop Is More Global Than Ever, Helping South Korea’s Music Market Grow Into A ‘Power Player’. (2019). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/caitlinkelley/2019/04/03/kpop-global-bts-blackpink-grow/#72b2c21b24e2 . It’s leading to the cultural boom in Korean entertainment industry, which gained popularity around the world. Colloquially known as Hallyu, Chinese for “Korean Wave”, the phrase refers to the global popularity of South Korea’s cultural export of pop culture, entertainment, music, as well as TV dramas and movies4 Korean Wave (Hallyu) – Rise of Korea’s Cultural Economy & Pop Culture. (2018). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://martinroll.com/resources/articles/asia/korean-wave-hallyu-the-rise-of-koreas-cultural-economy-pop-culture/ .
Fanbases and idol culture spread rampantly, with total youtube views generated by music video have reached 86 Billion5 Statistics for K-Pop Music Videos on Youtube. (2020). Retrieved 5 February 2020, from http://kpop.aoimirai.net/kpop_statistics.html . K-Pop culture created a culture of fanatic idolization, hence the term ‘idols’ is used to refer to the performers. When the idols or the entire industry got mocked or criticized, the entire fanbase would rage a war and celestial cyber attack. Jerinx, a drummer for Indonesian local band Superman is Dead, had his account suspended due to a blasphemous tweet comparing the K-Pop industry to marijuana6 Media, K. (2020). Twitter Jerinx SID Kena Suspend Usai Singgung Ganja dan K-Pop Pembodohan. Retrieved 5 February 2020, from https://www.kompas.com/hype/read/2020/02/04/224326166/twitter-jerinx-sid-kena-suspend-usai-singgung-ganja-dan-k-pop-pembodohan .
Such feats of successes were achieved with significant personal costs. Many idols have committed suicide, such as Lee Hye-Ryeon aka U;Nee, Lee Seo-hyun, Park Yong-ha, Ahn So Jin, and the most recent; Kim Jonghyun, Sulli, and Goo Hara7 7 K-Pop Stars Who Tragically Committed Suicide Due to Depression. (2019). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.worldofbuzz.com/7-k-pop-stars-who-tragically-committed-suicide-due-to-depression/ . Most such cases are due to depression, exposing the disquieting life of being a K-Pop star. Idolizing celebrities occurs all around the world, but how does K-Pop take this to the extreme compared to other pop cultures? Is there something foul behind the sparkling curtains and glittering veil from which K-pop idols draw their magic? Or perhaps, can their history and culture shed some light?
Idols or slaves?
Before entering boot camp, young Korean children must sign a contract that lists terms and conditions during and after training. The contract specifies training duration, profit sharing percentages, and the amount the idols must repay to the agency to break even with respect to training costs. Further, the contract contains little to no freedom of activity for individual idols for a long period of time, ranging from 7 to 13 years. These contracts are designed in a way to operate the machine that will bring cash cows (idols) to the agencies. Long and tiresome training, unhealthy diet programs, forced plastic surgery, controlled identities, etc. are the initial components necessary in completing the final product.8 What is a slave contract!! | K-Pop Amino. (2015). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://aminoapps.com/c/k-pop/page/blog/what-is-a-slave-contract/qWIR_udn3aePZVJVaPBqwrKbvpmX2q .
These restrictions are some of the main reasons these arrangements are called the ‘’slave contract’’, as the idol-wannabes sacrifice a significant portion of freedom. The term was first used in relation to SM Entertainment’s in 2004 contract with their boyband, TVXQ, which jump-started the industry. Its success inspired other big management companies and agencies to adopt similar contracts.
It is clear that an idol’s career heavily depends on their management or agency. In order to preserve its success, the agency maintains significant control over their talent. The industry, run by agencies, is responsible for all aspects of shaping the global image of K-Pop, including the idol’s private behaviour, dating life, and public conduct9 ICDS. (2019). The Capitalist Control of K-pop: The Idol as a Product. Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://icds.ee/the-capitalist-control-of-k-pop-the-idol-as-a-product/ .
Idols as ambassadors for the South Korean image
Meanwhile, physical appearance is a major feature of the K-Pop industry. The more attractive you are, the more likely you make it to fame. This fact in turn manifests itself in the slave contracts themselves, and has been known to put heavy pressure on idols, forcing them to strive for perfect faces and bodies. They bleach their skin to achieve light complexions, they remove parts of jaws and place it elsewhere to have a V-line face, they put themselves through severe diet plans to obtain slim bodies11 korean actors/actresses before and after plastic surgery | K-Drama Amino. (2016). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://aminoapps.com/c/k-drama/page/blog/korean-actors-actresses-before-and-after-plastic-surgery/moGs_kux8G5k8qQrZ07Enn7g1RxQxwx . Such efforts were ensured by the slave contracts to remake the idols, shaping and fulfilling unrealistically high beauty standards in South Korea.
Even if the idols initially don’t meet the agency’s standards but are deemed to have enough potential, they must sign the contract for diet programs provided by the agency. The problem is, the diet programs provided are not strictly healthy in the conventional sense, but rather take the form of suffocating and unhealthy regimes, causing prevalent eating disorders among idols. Oh My Girl’s Jine chose to resign from the industry because of Anorexia. Another example was the rising star Lee Ji-eun or also known as IU that suffered from Bulimia in her training before her debut. Fortunately, none of the cases reached lethal critical eating disorder disease13 Oh My Girl’s JinE Leaves Group And Agency. (2017). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.soompi.com/article/1067943wpp/oh-girls-jine-leaves-group-agency 14 IU Reveals She Received Treatment for Bulimia on “Healing Camp”. (2014). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.soompi.com/article/628777wpp/iu-reveals-she-received-treatment-for-bulimia-on-healing-camp .
History speaks much to explain these drastic conditions. The popularity of plastic surgery in Korea can be traced to the end of the Korean War in 1953, when South Korea met negative press from nations around the world15 Korean War, a ‘Forgotten’ Conflict That Shaped the Modern World. (2018). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/01/world/asia/korean-war-history.html . As such, the South Korean government sought to repair their image of being war-torn and destitute into a nation of beauty and development16 EXPOSÉ, K. (2018). Why is Plastic Surgery so Popular in South Korea? | KOREA 101. Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.koreaexpose.com/plastic-surgery-popular-south-korea-history/ . A part of being healthy and beautiful is having clean skin, bright faces, and skinny bodies.
The United States, as South Korean’s ally in the Korean War, provided huge influence to South Korean’s definition of beauty, specifically by two prominent figures: Dr. David Ralph Millard and Dr. Howard A. Rusk. Their expertise brought new levels of reconstructive surgery, so that it was not only limited to repairs, but also rebuilding a person’s looks. They also brought with them american ideas of beauty that were further enforced by sending a generation of South Korean doctors to study modern medicine abroad.
Currently, idols have practically become South Korea’s ambassadors to the international community. They underpin the South Korean government’s effort to maintain their image of wonder. Idols must depict South Korean’s perfect definition of beauty. Shindong from Super Junior confessed in an interview with SBS’ “Strong Heart”, at first he didn’t think he needed plastic surgery but his management ‘suggested’ he had double eyelid surgery because “his eyes don’t look good […] So I decided to follow his suggestion”17 Super Junior’s Shindong Talks About His Double Eyelid Surgery. (2011). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.soompi.com/article/366451wpp/super-juniors-shindong-talks-about-his-double-eyelid-surgery-on-sbs-strong-heart . The same thing happened with Hwang Chi Yeul who was told to go through plastic surgery ahead of his debut18 Singer Hwang Chi Yeol Freely Admits to Plastic Surgery. (2015). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.soompi.com/article/753175wpp/singer-hwang-chi-yeol-freely-admits-to-plastic-surgery .
The link to history and traditional values?
Idols are thus seen as objects of aesthetic purity and ideals, controlled by their producers (agencies and even government). In fact, these conditions mirror the 19th century capitalism in sweatshop industry, when its laborers were fully exploited without earning sufficient leisure time or freedom.
The pejorative term ”sweatshop” is commonly used to describe unhealthy, poor working conditions19 2005 Public Report. (2005). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from http://www.fairlabor.org/sites/default/files/documents/reports/2006_annual_public , first used to refer to 19th century European workplaces whose labourers work with more than 10 hours/day on average. Those conditions really reflect what K-Pop idols go through from the moment of signing their slave contracts, entering the boot camps, up until debut and rehearsals for their album releases.
We can put forth the conjecture that one of the main catalysts for these practices is the early adoption of economic capitalism. One of the reasons South Korea was too early to adopt economic capitalism can be traced back on how Confucian values stem inside East Asian Nation for centuries including in South Korea. Even though western capitalistic culture and values had arrived on Korean shores through the United States in the aftermath of the Korean War, it didn’t necessarily extinguish Confucian values of authoritarianism21 Chai, S. K., & Rhee, M. (2010). Confucian capitalism and the paradox of closure and structural holes in East Asian firms. Management and Organization Review, 6(1), 5–29. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1740-8784.2009.00168. . Confucianism highly values authority and hierarchy in the doctrine of 5 cardinal relations (A lord a lord, a minister a minister, a father a father, a son a son). This highlights the importance of reciprocal relationships between different roles in the corresponding hierarchy. The subordinate has to be loyal and the ruler has to be righteous and caring. However, this philosophy inclines a justification of crude authoritarianism. The authoritarian rule of Syngman Rhee from 1946 to 196022 South Korea – The Syngman Rhee Era, 1946-60. (2010). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from http://countrystudies.us/south-korea/11.htm was an example of such authoritarianism. Although the regime ended in 1960, South Korea didn’t abhor the liberal democratic values of United States until 1979 with the assassination of Park Chung-Hee23 10·26사태”. terms.naver.com (in Korean). Retrieved 2019-03-19. , the then-president considered by citizens as the “military dictator”. It is then when liberal democracy was finally adopted by the Korean government but alas, Confucianism remained rooted inside the heart of its society. As such, the final product is an amalgamation between Confucianism and Capitalism. And ironically, the K-Pop industry clutched both the negative aspects for each which is exploitation (Capitalism) and authoritarianism (Confucianism) that manifested through the misconduct of K-pop management and agencies.
When the government changed their focus of export selling trajectory from manufacturing industry to the entertainment sector by privatization of major government-controlled media companies24 Korea.pdf South Korea country profile. Library of Congress Federal Research Division(May 2005) , it ultimately gave birth to major entertainment agencies such as SM, YG and JYP Entertainment. In order to completely reach bigger international markets, agencies formed a complex systematization on how it operates. With TV being their main media to publicize entertainment products, agencies manufactured their products to a certain degree of completeness so the public can see idols as “aspiring individuals” with no defects whatsoever, from visual to audio. Such degrees of control were enabled by the prevailing authoritarian organisational culture that roots from confucianism.
Another root cause is from how music was perceived differently in the industry itself. In the Western world, music is generally viewed as a hobby to complete their leisure time from work26 Karlsen, S. (2017). Leisure-Time Music Activities from the Perspective of Musical Agency. Oxford Handbooks Online. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190244705.013.11 . Two centuries after the Industrial Revolution has generated less working hours and more leisure time. The excess of leisure time then drives more people to invest in hobbies such as music as it became a profession. Although the music industry generates considerable revenues, countries of the West have arguably not been able to obtain full control over the production process, thus generating the complexity and fluidity of diverse music genres as we have today.
However, the case is different in South Korea. In markets, there are of course winners and losers, and the winners in the music industry then cumulatively become what we call popular music. Popular music then became systematized in melody and harmony so there are little to no differences between different artists at all during a particular period. There are little variations between the K-Pop music styles as they are all being produced systematically with one particular direction. In the West, music companies don’t inherently participate directly into the music creation or artist’s visual representation but only as its record label. Each artist has their own producer, composer, and songwriter to help create the final product. This is clearly antithetical to South Korean agencies partaking in full control of music creation, record label, and visual representation of each idols so the final product is exclusively manufactured by companies, instead of being freely created by individuals27 Gil-Sung Park. (2013). Manufacturing Creativity: Production, Performance, and Dissemination of K-pop. Korea Journal, 53(4), 14-33. doi: 10.25024/kj.2013.53.4.14 .
Media censorship also plays a pivotal role in the K-Pop industry. During the Syngman Rhee regime until the end of Park Chung-hee, the media had been fully controlled by the government, which conducted mass control on public information so that the government can maintain the mass consensus. When liberal democracy was formally implemented in 1979, the mass media became fully privatized. This privatization thus transfers the governmental power to censor towards private firms. KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) and SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) have dominated the media industry since then28 Korea.pdf South Korea country profile. Library of Congress Federal Research Division (May 2005). .
Obviously, the media plays a huge part in shaping societal values and norms, especially in a high media consuming country such as South Korea – according to 2019 report by eMarketer, the average media consumption of adults in South Korea sits on 7 hours and 36 minutes. Traditional media consumption such as TV and Radio account for almost half of total consumption (47.8%). We can interpret that roughly half of korean adults have devoted most of their media consumption through traditional media. In this manner, the media shapes the society to become what it is today, practically creating a Simulacra29 Baudrillard, J. and Glaser, S. (2018). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press . Coined by Baudrilliard, Simulacra refers to a shape-shifting society generated by mass information through copying without a defined origin. When TVXQ first debuted in 2004, new social foundations were born30 JungBong., Choi (2014). K-pop – The International Rise of the Korean Music Industry. Maliangkay, Roald. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. pp. 66–80. ISBN 9781317681809. OCLC 890981690 . Societal values had shifted so that idols and actors are thus viewed to sit at a higher social standing, singing and dancing becoming a national treasure and the entertainment industry growing bigger than ever. We can actually draw a line when the first spark that is the K-Pop industry had spread to other mediums of entertainment such as TV dramas, reality shows, etc. that started the Hallyu31 Farrar, Lara (December 31, 2010). “‘Korean Wave’ of pop culture sweeps across Asia”. CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Retrieved March 16, 2010. .
It’s then established that the combination of early capitalism adoption, rooted confucianism, highly manufactured music, rampant media engagement manifest into what the K-Pop industry as we know today. It drives what we know as “Hallyu wave” rapidly and generates the global Korean image. The conditions listed constructed uneven power relation between idols and the management or agency that enabled the firms to tip the balance of focus more to reap profit than the wellbeing of their human capital. Inhumane practices and contracts serve as the manifestations of violences the firms’ committed.
Pornography, Suicide, Idol Culture and Commodity Fetishism
The spark of K-Pop’s success had brought the Korean economy into a whole new level. BTS, one of the major boy groups , has brought nearly $5 Billion into the national GDP33 BTS Can’t Save South Korea, Though Its $4.7 Billion GDP Boost Sounds Good. (2019). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/williampesek/2019/10/10/bts-cant-save-south-korea-though-its-47-billion-gdp-boost-sounds-good/ . This may seem miniscule compared to other industries such as technology and manufacturing. But the most tremendous impact of K-Pop and Korean Wave was on visualizing the South Korean image globally. However, a problem arises in the market that leads to negative effects in and beyond in the market.
The problem in South Korean branding efforts can be explained by Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism34 Marx, Karl (1887). Capital Volume One. Moscow: Progress Publishers. . In an economically capitalist society, commodities are only exchanged to fulfill one’s particular need so that the final value apart from the process in which capitals are exploited were mutually exclusive. However, the case can be different in reality which consumers often assign some abstract, mystical value out of thin air towards the product barring its economic value. In the entertainment industry when the product was in actuality presented by one or more individual craves mystical value otherside than a mere entertainment as it attach deep emotional values to its consumers. The emotional attachment generated fanaticism and embarking idol fan culture domestically and globally. And one of the reasons was surprisingly, the visual imagery that made consumers overflowed by amazement. K-Pop music videos are produced by agencies on a high budget dedicated to bringing the image of perfection with different styles and different concepts for each group/individual35 “12 Concepts and Styles in K-Pop”. The Odyssey Online. February 8, 2016. Retrieved November 15, 2018. . The spectacle is also accompanied by other extensive entertainment programs for idols. For example, most K-Pop idols often participate in reality shows, K-drama, or movies to ensure engagement fit for a media consuming country36 Howard, Keith (2010). “Review of East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave. (TransAsia: Screen Cultures)” (PDF). Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 73 (1): 144–146. doi:10.1017/S0041977X09990589. ISSN 0041-977X. JSTOR 25703012 . With the addition of boot camp programs showing the journey of becoming an idol, emotional attachment surely ballooned.
This Idol Culture has beautified the Korean image by shifting the beauty standard, even driving the cosmetics industry. However, one of the unsettling downside of commodity fetishism is that idols become sexual objects and victims of sexual misconduct. There are several alleged cases of rape and sexual assault whose victims are idols. Not only as the victim, idols also contribute to being a persecutor of sexual conduct. The famous “Burning Sun” scandal has included some of the upper management in agencies and idols as persecutors alongside some female idols as victims37 Kil, Sonia (March 28, 2019). “K-Pop Crime Cartel Revealed as Korea’s Burning Sun Scandal Expands”. Variety. Retrieved April 4, 2019. . Even though capitalism and liberal democracy had thrived in South Korea, the conservative value in its society hasn’t completely gone but rather amalgamated with the established capitalist economy system. LGBTQ values are still shunned and pornographic contents are illegal. In this vein, idols must maintain their good and innocent image to avoid being shunned by South Korea’s conservative society. Korea has implanted strict media censorship for illegal contents so that proxy servers are often being used for porn consumption. The development of deepfake technology also contributes to the sexualization of idols when they become sexual fantasies for their fans to be consumed38 Dickson, E. (2019). Deepfake Porn Is Still a Threat, Particularly for K-Pop Stars. Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/deepfakes-nonconsensual-porn-study-kpop-895605/ . This abuse of new technology even further perverted the spectacle of fanaticism and how commodity fetishism had flourished in this particular industry.
The harsh working conditions and limited freedom of expression has taken South Korean boys and girls into a cage of dystopian loop that turns them into no more than dolls. Every second, every minute, every hour, every day they must maintain their supposedly “god-like” image between citizens and a single wrong step will drown them deeper into alienation and mental distress caused by society. These conditions have notoriously driven some idols into deep depression and eventual suicidal episodes. Last year’s case of Sulli39 McCurry, J. (2019). K-pop under scrutiny over ‘toxic fandom’ after the death of Sulli. Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/oct/18/k-pop-under-scrutiny-over-toxic-fandom-after-death-of-sullii was one of the famous one that hit the most to fans all over the world followed by Goo Hara40 Goo Hara, K-Pop Star of the Group Kara, Is Found Dead. (2019). Retrieved 29 January 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/24/arts/goo-hara-dead.html in the next following month. Their causes of death is similar; depression through cyber-bullying although Goo Hara’s case was a combination of other factors such as sexual harassment. These repeated cases have brought the question of personal liberty to each idols to the public eye. However, cyber-bullying is often aimed at female idols because of the patriarchal values that are still rooted inside society based on Confucianism41 Joanne D. Birdwhistell (2007). Mencius and Masculinities: Dynamics of Power, Morality, and Maternal Thinking. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-8038-0. Retrieved 31 July 2013. .
Being a K-Pop star may be a pipe dream for many people, particularly young Koreans. Its fame and glamour has attracted a lot of people to become one and to look like one. However, as Thanos famously said, “Reality is often disappointing”. Living under an unliving homestead, honing their vocal and dance skills for their entire life, Sleeping under irregular hours, Engaging in unhealthy diet programs become their normal lifestyle for 7 to 13 years. Being an idol will snatch enjoyment of regular life as long as the slave contract stands. Not to mention the accumulated costs needed to perfect your facial shape and retain your beauty in order to meet the requirements. Like it or not, plastic surgery will be a regular part of your life and rejection means no hope for your debut.
The training regimen and contract can be clearly traced to how Korea implemented capitalism too soon to expand their economy. Such modern slavery was perpetuated by a lack of understanding of humane needs and lack of promotion of human rights in modern South Korea’s capitalistic society. Alas, they have only fully adopted liberal democracy in 1979. With a shift of focus towards the entertainment industry, the government fully condoning the status quo that has been designed by agencies to fully control the music production, resulting in strict, oppressive, and authoritarian industry practices. Additionally, high media consumption also plays part in this spectacle so that it created a new wave and contributed to the new established South Korean image. However, the aftermath of this phenomenon had brought many calamities such as the fanaticism that led to idols’ sexualization and suicide.
Ironically, the early adoption of full-blown capitalism into South Korea’s traditionally conservative and strict authoritarian cultural foundations, while fruitful in terms of persistent economic development, has brought with it horrific consequences unheard of in conventional liberal-democratic societies. As such, we must finally lament that freedom for economic agents does not necessarily come attached with a capitalistic economic system; rather, it must also rise from the cultural foundations embedded into the society itself.
Editor : Miftah Rasheed Amir, Rama Vandika Daniswara
Illustrator : Yosia Kenneth Manurung
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