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K-pop, Mandopop and other Asian pop

Death of K-pop star Jonghyun sends out tragic message

It serves as a wake-up call, not only to the entertainment industry, but also to South Korea, Hong Kong and elsewhere with their unreasonably high pressures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 1:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2018, 5:15pm

Too often and sadly, too late, it takes the death of a celebrity to highlight the ills of society. The suicide of South Korean K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun, better known as Jonghyun and the lead singer of the boy band SHINee, has shone a much-needed light on the pressures of the country’s entertainment industry. The note he left spoke of depression and a feeling of being alone and helpless, references to the demands required by profit-driven managers. Those same constraints permeate all areas of the country, from highly competitive education to corporate culture, where failure is little tolerated.

Jonghyun was just 27, and his legion of fans across Asia and elsewhere had marvelled at how he avoided the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol that brought down many of his peers. Their shock at his death was compounded by his having seemed happy and at ease with himself in recent public appearances. But the careers of K-pop stars and South Korean actors and dancers are carefully cultivated by management agencies, which can determine their every aspect of life, including what they eat, how they dress, who they can date and even when they can use their smartphones. The contracts they sign can lock them into a gruelling schedule of performances, appearances and tours, often for less than the expected income.

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But the pressures are not for entertainers alone; parents, investors and voters alike have the highest expectations for their children, companies and political leaders. It is one of the main reasons why the World Health Organisation says South Korea has the world’s second highest suicide rate. Studies have shown that up to 40 per cent of actors have considered suicide, a lack of privacy, unstable incomes, bullying and a sense their talents are not appreciated being among the reasons. The parting message of Jonghyun gives insight; it ends, “You’ve worked hard. You’ve really gone through a lot. Goodbye.”

He was praised for his singing and dancing and the outpouring of sorrow on social media forums shows how loved he was. His death has to be a wake-up call, not only to the entertainment industry, but also to societies in South Korea, Hong Kong and elsewhere where unreasonably high expectations and pressures are heaped on others.