Yonden Lhatoo
SCMP Columnist
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo
Just Saying
by Yonden Lhatoo

K-pop is an infectious disease, not a cultural export to be proud of

Yonden Lhatoo highlights the tragic suicide of boy band idol Jonghyun to argue that the so-called Korean Wave of cultural entertainment is an affliction that the world would be better off without

To be honest, I had never heard of Kim Jong-hyun until the recent media coverage of his suicide snapped me out of blissful ignorance.

Blame my cluelessness on the fact that, to the untrained eye, all of South Korea’s prettiest and shiniest humanoid cultural exports look and sound exactly the same. I can’t tell them apart.

Kim, better known by his stage name, Jonghyun, was one of the original luminaries of K-pop, the beloved lead singer of boy band SHINee and one of the most bankable stars of the so-called Korean Wave or Hallyu brand of entertainment that has colonised the known world.

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The circumstances of the 27-year-old pop idol’s tragic death have put the spotlight on the sheer pressures and shameful exploitation that young people like him in the entertainment industry have to face.

“I am broken from inside. The depression that gnawed on me slowly has finally engulfed me entirely,” the harrowing suicide note he left behind read.

“I was so alone.”

The circumstances of 27-year-old Kim Jong-hyun’s tragic death have put the spotlight on the sheer pressures and shameful exploitation that young people like him in the entertainment industry have to face. Photo: AP

You know what’s even sadder than the plaintive cry of this young man cut down in his prime? The fact that it will do nothing to end the true horrors of Hallyu, in essence a pandemic of trashy, shallow entertainment masquerading as culture that has inexplicably captured hearts and minds across the globe.

I’m talking about the unholy business of putting youngsters through the meat grinder to churn out a seemingly endless supply of assembly-line clones, sliced and diced by cosmetic surgeons to meet the specious standard of plastic perfection that we all know as “K-beauty”.

Behind the bubbly bling and superficial glamour of their glossy photographs, formulaic song-and-dance routines and insipid TV melodramas, the reality is a depressingly dystopian existence.

Many are literally owned – mind, body and soul – by their unscrupulous and abusive agents and studio bosses who project them as role models for youth while treating them as slaves and sex dolls.

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Would-be K-pop stars, while still underage, are regularly locked into unbelievably unfair contracts and incarcerated in gruelling boot camps for training, a good decade before they get to even record a song, let alone become famous. The ones who are lucky enough to make it end up paying off debts and earning a pittance for years.

Behind the bubbly bling and superficial glamour of K-pop bands such as Girls’ Generation, the reality is a depressingly dystopian existence. Photo: Reuters

Physical and mental abuse is commonplace, and there is no shortage of stories of aspiring idols being pimped out by their bosses to lecherous executives and politicians. Two thirds of girls and women in South Korea’s entertainment industry admit to being pressured into having sex to further their careers.

Take the case of actress Jang Ja-yeon, which makes for very unsavoury reading indeed. Like Jonghyun, she was suffering from depression when she killed herself in 2009, at the age of 29, leaving behind a seven-page suicide note that blew the lid on modern-day sexual slavery in the Korean entertainment industry.

To a large extent, like it or not, all this is a reflection of a deeper cancer in South Korean society that draws from a tradition of monolithic patriarchy and all its trappings of male chauvinism and misogyny.

Young fans of Kim Jong-hyun shed tears as a hearse carrying their idol’s coffin leaves hospital in Seoul. Photo: Reuters

My Korean friends openly tell me that the dark side of K-pop is only one manifestation of the malaise afflicting a country in which half of all women have undergone plastic surgery – less visible and newsworthy is the same brand of exploitation and abuse in regular companies that normal people work for.

Is this the kind of culture that the world wants to absorb and imitate? Is this really the best that South Korea can offer us?

I have a 13-year-old niece who adores all things Hallyu. I’m really hoping it’s just a fad that she will grow out of soon.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: K-pop is an infectious disease, not a great cultural export