Sulli, the South Korean singer-actress who was found dead this week, was a rare taboo-breaker in a world where K-pop stars’ every move is strictly monitored by their management. Her death has exposed another dark side of the industry that propelled a global craze. She unveiled her relationship with rapper Choiza at the height of her career as a member of top girl group f(x) and was vocal about not wearing a bra, defying both the K-pop world’s careful brand management and conservative social attitudes towards young women – and provoking a stream of online criticism. Before her death on Monday at age 25, Sulli , whose real name was Choi Jin-ri and who police said was suffering from severe depression, spoke out strongly against cyberbullying. Colleagues and experts said her death highlighted the constant barrage of malicious online comments faced by young female artists in the public eye. “She wasn’t just an issue maker but I hope she will be remembered as a women’s rights activist who was free-spirited, who could truly speak her mind,” says Kwon Ji-an, a fellow South Korean singer and painter. Sulli’s most recent public appearance had been in a television programme in which K-pop stars spoke about their experiences with malevolent online postings. Kwon, 35, better known by her stage name Solbi, was also subjected to cyber insults in 2009, when she was a member of K-pop group Typhoon, after being wrongly identified in a sex video that went viral online. The incident triggered intense depression, social phobia and panic disorder, Kwon says. She sought therapy and learned painting, which was meant to be a way of “survival” but eventually became another career. I don’t get hurt any more even though I see those malevolent online comments, but now is time to discuss it as a serious social issue K-pop singer Solbi “I was too young and socially immature to digest all the glamour and changes in the environment, and there’s no self-medication whatsoever,” Kwon says. “Then how do you respond to all of those vicious online comments? If you explain, they’ll dismiss it as an excuse, and if you fight, they’ll dislike you even more.” Kwon calls for a change in the anonymous comment culture of the internet, which critics have long blamed for cyberbullying . In South Korea, local web portals such as Naver and Daum are major channels of news consumption; they allow users to leave comments without revealing their real names. In the wake of Sulli’s death, fans flocked to the website of the presidential Blue House to file a petition urging the adoption of a real-name online comment system. A spate of related bills has for years been pending in parliament amid heated debate. A poll by survey firm Realmeter released on Wednesday showed that nearly 70 per cent of South Koreans supported the scheme, with 24 per cent opposed. “The freedom of expression is a vital value in democratic society, but insulting and hurting someone else’s dignity is beyond that limit,” says Lee Dong-gwi, a psychology professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “There need to be far harsher penalties for those who violate that law.” Ex-boyfriend abused online after K-pop star Sulli’s death The number of cases of cyber defamation or insult almost doubled from 2014 to 2018, police data shows. An association of South Korean entertainment management companies issued a statement on Wednesday vowing to pursue sterner legal action for “verbal violence” online. Kwon has now found peace thanks, in part, to her painting. When she released a new single album in 2017, she expressed her suffering by dousing herself with black paint on the stage like a performance artist. “I’d got treatment out of desperation that I really wanted to live,” Kwon says. “I don’t get hurt any more even though I see those malevolent online comments, but now is time to discuss it as a serious social issue.” If you, or someone you know, are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. Visit here for a list of other nations’ helplines.