The sugary-sweet sounds of Korean pop music seem pretty harmless. Simple songs like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or the music of Girls’ Generation don’t exactly seem like hotbeds of corruption, but behind every hit song out of the K-pop machine are years of torment and exploitation.
Aspiring stars are pushed through the grinder of one of the most vicious entertainment industries in the world, starting when they’re kids. Children as young as ten years old get locked into unbreakable decade-long contracts, spending their better part of their lives owned by agencies that take advantage of them creatively and sexually.
Some come out celebrities, but most are just chewed up and spit out. They’re exploited and pimped out for years and then kicked to the curb, with nothing to show for going through the strangely dark and twisted world of Korean bubblegum pop.
10. Stars Sign ‘Slave Contracts’ When They’re Children
Korean pop stars don’t just sign a contract and record an album. They sign their contracts a good decade before they ever get to enter a studio and sing a single note. They have to spend about ten years training in K-pop “boot camps” before they’re allowed to record anything—and it usually starts when they’re ten to 13 years old.
Agencies make them sign their contracts when they’re still kids, and they hold them to the agreements for the rest of their lives. For a long time, these contracts would last for as long as 13 years. Performers would still be under contract until well after their bubble of fame had popped.
The contracts usually give next to nothing to the aspiring stars. Sometimes, they even have to pay the agency for the first ten years in boot camp. And there’s no way out of these things. If a pop star tries to cancel out, they often have to pay the agency three times as much as the company has invested in them—in other words, well over three times as much as they’ve earned in their entire lives.
That’s how it was at its worst, anyway. Lawsuits have lightened some of this now, but adults are still held to contracts they signed as kids, and the system is still set up to make sure every messed up thing you’re about to read happens.
9. Managers Pimp Out Their Stars
In 2009, a Korean actress named Jang Ja-yeon was found dead in her apartment. She’d committed suicide, unable to go on, as she explained in her note, with being pimped out to every executive she met. Her manager, she wrote, had been forcing her to service powerful people. If she tried to refuse, he’d beat her bloody.
The police raided her agency’s office and found, on the third floor of the building, a secret sex room hidden behind a paneled wall. They had a brothel in their office to keep VIPs entertained—and they were making their stars do the entertaining.
It was big news in South Korea, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. Two-thirds of all Korean girls in the entertainment industry say they’ve been pressured into having sex with an executive or a politician to advance their careers. In the world of Korean entertainment, this is just how things are done.
As one girl—who remained anonymous—put it, in Korea, “You have to know men in order to work.”
8. One In Three Stars Have Been Sexually Assaulted
Even if an aspiring star prizes her virtue so strongly that she risks obscurity and refuses to be pimped out, there’s still a good chance she’ll be sexually assaulted by her manager, anyway. It happens a lot. According to a survey, one-third of aspiring Korean stars have been molested.
One of the worst offenders was a man name Jang Suk-woo, a talent coach at Open World Entertainment. Jang was the man the company put in charge of screening new trainees and putting them through boot camp, and he used his aspiring stars as his own personal harem.
More than 20 people filed rape charges against Jang, including multiple minors. Jang would drug the girls’ drinks and rape them, often while they were unconscious. Other times, he’d order the boys to gang-rape the girls while he watched on CCTV.
Jang ended up going to prison, but he’s just one of many. Thirty-three percent of women in Korean entertainment admit to having gone through the same thing, but most don’t say anything about it. Every woman who filed a charge against Jang was someone who’d been spit out by the industry and never given the stardom they were promised—suggesting that, when a girl gets big, there’s a good chance she’s gone through all of this and just never told anyone what happened.
7. Stars Are Forced To Get Plastic Surgery
Most stars’ contracts require them to undergo plastic surgery. It’s not just women who get that in their contracts, either. In Korea, it’s perfectly common for both men and women to pick up a contract and read a clause telling them that if they want to enter K-pop boot camp, they’re going to need a nose job.
Plastic surgery is such an epidemic in South Korea, though, that they barely even bat an eye at this one. Half of all Korean women get plastic surgery by the end of their twenties, most getting double eyelid operations to make their eyes look like a European’s.
An aspiring K-pop star, though, has to completely resculpt her face into the image of perfection—and few question this. A journalist trying to write an expose on it questioned as many stars as she could, and she said that most of those she spoke to didn’t even understand why it worried her. Most of the aspiring stars said, “It’s a good thing to become prettier.”
6. K-Pop Stars Don’t Make Any Money
Until a K-pop singer has a hit song, he’s probably not going to see a dime. Most live in a shared dorm with their bandmates, surviving on microwaved noodles. It even happens to the big stars. One of the members of Girls’ Generation has said that she had to spend 11 years in boot camp before she could make her own money, surviving solely off the charity of her parents.
Some don’t even make money then. A group called Block B was one of the top bands in the country when they revealed that their agency hadn’t paid them in over a year. Their parents had been forced to pay the agency $65,000, and to date, they hadn’t made a penny back.
If the singers want to make money, they usually have to do things they don’t want to do. The group Stellar (pictured above) was making so little money that they were surviving by sharing one serving of food between four people each meal—until they caved to their agency and started making “erotic” music videos in which they exposed their thongs and let milk dribble suggestively out of their mouths.
“When we didn’t have skin exposure, nobody even knew we released a new song,” one member of the group said, explaining why she’d accepted her fate. “If it’s not provocative, there is no response.”
5. Boot Camp Trainees Have To Work As Servants
For the ten years or so that aspiring K-pop stars spend learning their trade, they live in conditions akin to slavery. It’s common practice to ban singers-in-training from using smartphones or dating. If they want to have a social life, they’re told, they’re going to have make a hit record first.
They’re not spending those ten years just practicing singing and dancing, though; they’re put to work. One singer called Jo Kwon told the press that while he was in boot camp, he was forced to make the executives coffee, run odd jobs, and scrub the basement floor.
As we mentioned before, South Korea has been trying to regulate how these kids are treated—but even their new, progressive laws are crazy by Western standards. Underage stars were only promised the “basic rights to learn, rest and sleep” in 2014. The bold new laws say that children under 15 can only be forced to work 35 hours a week.
Assuming they’re not on tour, that is. There’s an exception clause in the law: If there’s travel involved, agents can pretty well make children work as much as they want.
Kids have to agree to all of this, though, because they can get dropped from their contract at moment’s notice. “You feel insecure every day,” one K-pop star explained. “You may be kicked out of the company one day.”
4. Managers Blackmail Their Clients
Sometimes, K-pop stars actually make enough money to get out of their contracts. There are rare times when they can actually move on to a better deal—which is why a lot of the agencies keep some dirt on their stars.
One manager found out that one of his male clients was a closeted homosexual, and he decided to use it against him. He hid a camera in the aspiring star’s home, paid a man to seduce him, and secretly filmed the two having sex. Then he sent the video to the young man’s parents and threatened to release it to the public unless they gave him $500,000.
It even happens to big names. The manager of a major K-pop star named Baek Ji-young secretly filmed her having sex and used it to blackmail her when she tried to change contracts. When she tried to call his bluff, he leaked it onto the Internet, completely derailing her career for years.
The manager, Kim Seok-jin, fled to the US when Baek tried to press charges. For years, he managed to go on being just as sleazy as he’d been in South Korea. When he was finally arrested, it was because he got caught committing statutory rape.
3. Bribery Is Rampant
Pimping out stars isn’t the only way a K-pop agency can get what it wants. Sometimes, they just hand over massive wads of cash.
When an agency has to get a new star’s first song on the radio, it’s considered common practice to sort it all out by dropping off a bribe at a TV network. In South Korea, it’s just part of business. As one executive put it, “Bribing is marketing. With the least amount of money, you get the most effect.”
Agencies have been caught giving millions of dollars to networks for airtime and plugs—and they usually get away with it. It’s only gone to court a few times, and that usually only happens when it gets ridiculous, like the time a music executive walked into a TV network’s building with shopping bags full of wadded up bills.
One agent, trying to justify it, argued that bribery isn’t that different from taking a client out for drinks. “Sometimes we spend $3,300 drinking with four five guys,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t have time, so we just give them $1,600.”
2. Taxi Services Help Fans Stalk K-Pop Stars
If a singer makes it through all this and actually manages to become a star, they have to deal with a new problem: the fans. In the world of K-pop, the hardcore fans don’t just write letters and set up Angelfire fan sites. They stalk the stars.
Stalking K-pop stars is common enough that they have a name for it, sasaeng, and entire businesses are dedicated to helping sasaeng fans stalk their favorite stars. For $100, a K-pop fan can hire a “sasaeng taxi” that will follow their favorite stars around everywhere they go.
Sometimes, it gets deadly. A group of fans and sasaeng taxis followed the group Super Junior so closely that they ended up crashing into the band’s tour bus. They caused a six-car pileup that could have killed the band and left the members traumatized for life.
Even when they’re not in cars, though, K-pop fans get crazy. Popular groups have gone through some insane violations of privacy. One found out that their phones had been tapped by fans. Another person found a camera in his parking lot. And another says that a girl broke into his home purely to steal his underwear.
The weirdest story has to go to the group JYJ. They’ve complained about getting letters from fans written in menstrual blood. And, yes, those words are supposed to be plural—as in several letters from several different fans.
1. ‘Anti-Fans’ Try To Murder Them
K-pop stars don’t just have fans, though. They also have “anti-fans,” who basically just want them dead. Most of the time, these people just write mean comments on message boards—but some of them take it a bit further.
At least one has actually managed to poison a star. A fan snuck a toxic adhesive into the drink of a K-Pop singer called Yunho and got him sent to ER. The experience was traumatizing for Yunho. It took years, he would later say, before he could trust another human being.
But the most brutal anti-fans are probably those of Daniel Lee, aka Tablo, a Korean musician who earned an entire movement dedicated to ruining his life. Lee had told people that he went to Stanford University, and they didn’t believe him, so they started sending him death threats.
Lee tried to calm them down by showing them his master’s degree and getting Stanford to back him up, but it didn’t work. A conspiracy started saying that he’d stolen a Stanford grad’s identity, and it got really vicious. People sent him messages calling him a “liar” and telling him to “watch his back.” They would call his mother, too, with at least one yelling, “You’re a whore!” at her over the phone.
For a while, Lee was so terrified for his life that he retired from music. He’s since come back, but at his darkest moments, he said he was legitimately worried that someone would try to kill his children. “Honestly, I’m damaged,” he told a reporter, “and I don’t know if I’ll ever be better.”