Did Exo and Red Velvet’s K-pop bullying and cheating scandals cause SM Entertainment to rush new girl group Aespa’s debut?

Exo, one of the biggest K-pop acts handled by SM Entertainment. The company’s own conduct is in the spotlight currently with some fans calling for a boycott. Photo: @weareone.exo/Instagram

After a glamorous debut, SM Entertainment’s newest girl group Aespa is getting a huge amount of attention and rapidly collecting followers – but as is too-often the case, this is balanced by a side order of controversy.

SM recently announced discussions were under way with China’s partly state-owned AI company iFlyTek, which has been sanctioned by the US for allegedly using its technology to aid in the mass oppression of Uygurs in Xinjiang. Many fans are criticising the agency behind hit groups like Exo, NCT and Red Velvet – and a call to boycott SM went viral on Twitter a week before Aespa’s debut.

SM Entertainment’s ethical track record

The hashtag #BoycottSM went viral on Twitter from November 10, the same day that SM Entertainment announced the possibility of a joint business venture with iFlyTek. The Chinese company supplies technology to the police in the Xinjiang region where at least one million people from the Muslim Uygur community are thought to be interred in mass re-education camps. Across the province, Uygurs are unable to practice their religion or travel freely, and its widely reported that children are often separated from their parents and placed in re-education schools, while women become the subject of forced sterilisation.

Many fans of SM Entertainment and Aespa don’t want to see their heroes in any way connected to this mass oppression. Fans have been posting on Twitter with the hashtag of #BoycottSM since the announcement, but there’s been no comment as of yet from the entertainment company.

SM has been called out before

Red Velvet and Exo, bands handled by SM Entertainment. Photo: @redvelvet.smtown; @weareone.exo/Instagram

Fans support their idols with their likes, support and financial backing by buying merchandise or concert tickets. As this is directly related to the money artists’ take home, fans care about its distribution. Back in 2018, KBIZoom revealed that among the top eight management agencies in South Korea, artists with SM Entertainment take home the smallest royalty share, only collecting five per cent from money made from physical sales and 40 per cent from events.

Now this issue has resurfaced, with artists everywhere facing especially trying times during the current Covid-19 crisis. Typically, K-pop idols get up to 70 per cent of their money from overseas promotion, making it attractive to attend international fan meetings or stage concerts around the world. Fans have been quick to note however that SM bands Exo and Red Velvet are rarely sent overseas.

It’s all in the timing


Fans have also pointed out the somewhat suspicious timing of Aespa’s debut. Other SM artists have been enduring a wave of bad publicity, with Irene from Red Velvet facing a bullying scandal, while Chanyeol from Exo has been accused of cheating on his ex-girlfriend multiple times. Some have gone as far as to suggest SM rushed Aespa’s debut to draw attention away from these unresolved controversies.

There is apparent precedent: Back in 2014, Red Velvet – who went on to become one of the hottest K-pop girl groups – made its debut while there were rumours swirling about Chinese band members withdrawing from Exo. Fans wonder if SM is playing the same trick card now.


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The South Korean agency behind star K-pop groups Exo, NCT, Shinee, Super Junior and Girls’ Generation faces calls for a boycott from fans over its low pay to artists and links to China’s controversial iFlyTek tech company