K-Pop’s Sexual Assault Scandal Is the Tip of the Iceberg
Celebrities’ crimes are pushing South Korea’s reckoning with misogyny.
K-pop is a multibillion-dollar industry—and one that has long grappled with how it treats its women, from charges of sexual assault to backlash against female stars who dared to read a feminist novel. Right now it’s caught up in a sweeping scandal that has left several major stars facing accusations of arranging illegal sexual services for wealthy investors, filming explicit videos of women without their consent, and sharing those videos with each other in a now infamous chat room. That’s a contrast to K-pop’s innocent image—but it’s just the most visible example of questions about women’s role in society that South Korea has been grappling intensely with for a year.
The scandal started with an investigation over a fight that broke out at a nightclub managed by K-pop singer Seungri in November 2018. A man claimed that he was trying to stop a woman from being assaulted inside the club, but instead of helping the staff threw him out and beat him up. The incident sparked further investigation into the club, and allegations quickly grew to include claims of drugging women and sexual assault. By the end of February, journalist Kang Kyung-yoon from the SBS funE channel reported evidence that Seungri had arranged illegal sexual services for foreign investors while they were on a trip to South Korea in 2015.
The story spiraled dramatically from there, with reporters revealing last week that several male celebrities, including Seungri and singer Jung Joon-young, were part of a chat room where Jung shared explicit videos he had taken of women without their consent. Both men have since announced their retirement from the industry, and both have been dropped by their management agencies. Earlier this week, Seoul police officially booked Seungri on charges of acting as an agent for prostitution, and booked Jung for filming and sharing illegal videos. Both men face possible jail time.
Turning over the stones of K-pop has exposed a lot of worms. Last week, singer Yong Jun-hyung announced he would be leaving the group Highlight, admitting that he had viewed illegal video footage shared by Jung but didn’t speak up against it at the time. Choi Jong-hoon of FT Island also announced his retirement after investigations showed he may have gotten favorable treatment from the police after a drunk-driving incident in 2016. Police are looking into that incident, but are also facing accusations of not investigating this scandal properly until public pressure began to mount.
This saga—with rich and influential men abusing their power, harming women, and almost getting away with it—brings together an array of divisive social issues in South Korea right now. Over the past year, South Korean women have picked up the torch of the #MeToo movement, starting a sustained protest movement to spark conversations about sexual abuse and the fight for women’s rights.
The campaign began in January 2018, when prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun appeared on a JTBC news show to talk about her experiences with harassment and assault by a superior. Since then, many women have come forward with accusations against high-profile men, including film directors, actors, and politicians. South Korean students have taken up the cause as well, exposing incidents they experience at school and making #SchoolMeToo the social issue most discussed on Twitter in South Korea in 2018. The second-most discussed was feminism, and the third was molka, an abbreviated word both for spy cameras that are hidden in places such as public bathrooms and for the explicit videos later posted on porn sites.
Spy cameras, such as those used by Jung in this recent scandal, have been a major topic of conversation since last summer, when a woman was sentenced to 10 months in prison for secretly taking photos of a male nude model. This sparked outrage among South Korean women, who pointed out that the vast majority of spy-cam offenders were men and very few were punished so severely, if at all. The conversation culminated in a series of protests that drew tens of thousands of women to the streets with signs declaring, “My life is not your porn.”
These protests have sparked a larger debate about how to improve inequality for women in South Korea, which has the lowest ranking among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on The Economist’s “glass-ceiling index” for workplace equality. Some leaders have put forward innovative ideas to jump-start the movement toward parity, including a proposed measure by ruling-party lawmaker Park Young-sun to require parties to field female candidates in at least half of the districts they contest, with the goal of raising female representation in the National Assembly to 50 percent—right now, it stands at 17 percent.
In a depressingly familiar way, however, these women’s revolutions have sparked reactionary backlash. After Park proposed her quota system for candidates, protests grew among young South Korean men who view this sort of measure as giving an unfair advantage to women and promoting “reverse sexism.” For many young South Korean men, steps that improve life for women are seen as just another way society is hitting them while they’re down. Young South Koreans coined the popular slang term “Hell Joseon” to describe South Korea’s rising youth unemployment, unaffordable home prices, and long work hours. Both genders have felt the strain, but men, used as they are to privilege, feel particularly slighted by these inequalities in society, particularly as the push to improve women’s rights gains steam.
Angry men have also spoken out about popular feminist novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, calling for boycotts against female K-pop stars who discussed reading the book and South Korean actresses who have signed on to a forthcoming screen adaptation. Famous rapper San E even went so far as to release a series of diss tracks criticizing the women’s rights movement, including “Feminist,” which includes the lyrics, “You’ll probably say among OECD countries/ Korea has a gender pay gap of blah blah blah/ Fucking fake fact.”
The public is beginning to question how powerful men in the K-pop industry behave behind closed doors, and how to react once their crimes come to light. But K-pop is just one industry—and the wider conversation about women’s rights, and men’s abuse, has a lot of twists ahead.