South Korea’s Darkest Clubs Are Being Dragged Into the Light

The Burning Sun investigation has exposed horrors against women—and men getting away with it.

The pop star Seungri, implicated in an abuse scandal, arrives at a Seoul police station on March 14.
The pop star Seungri, implicated in an abuse scandal, arrives at a Seoul police station on March 14. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

What began as a K-pop scandal has warped into something far worse. South Korea’s prosecutors have brought charges against several famous singers, including former heartthrobs Seungri and Jung Joon-young. Seungri is accused of procuring prostitutes for potential investors through his club, Burning Sun, and Jung has been charged with taking explicit videos of women, filmed without their consent, and sharing them with other celebrities in a now infamous chatroom.

But those initial, already horrifying charges pale before the new revelations, as reports suggest Burning Sun and another popular Gangnam club called Arena may have been systematically trafficking girls and women for their VIP clientele to abuse. The revelations have left the country shaken—but have also opened up the possibility of change.

The new and credible allegations, brought to light on South Korean investigative TV programs, are shocking in their depravity. For VIPs, the clubs’ managers would drug female patrons and bring them to be assaulted while unconscious. The clubs recruited minors for sex work, promising them a debut as a celebrity. The clubs also maintained an offsite location, where so-called VVIPs were able to commit particularly violent rapes.

To be sure, prostitution and criminal sex trafficking are not new. Former sex workers have accused South Korea’s then-leaders of enabling and encouraging the sex trade in the 1960s-1980s, particularly catering to the U.S. military. In the mid-1980s, lurid reports of young women being kidnapped and trafficked for sex work were regular items in the nightly news. Yet the scale of the public outrage in South Korea suggests that this particular scandal is not like the ones that came before.

What’s different this time? Of course, the horrific details of what the victims endured are hard to ignore. But the impunity that seemed to be enjoyed, until recently, by the perpetrators is particularly galling for Koreans. To the South Korean public, still nursing the fresh memory of late 2016, when the bizarre and far-reaching corruption of the Park Geun-hye administration was revealed (leading to her impeachment and removal), the intersection of power and celebrity leading to lawlessness is familiar and dark.

Koreans previously saw the sex trade as a seedy business, relegated to the red light districts in the outskirts of cities or in underground “room salons” (a karaoke bar with scantily dressed women who might offer prostitution on the side) that were closed off to the public. The public was more willing to accept this out-of-sight, out-of-mind type of sex trade, arguably with the patriarchal attitude that prostitution was acceptable for some women deemed unworthy. The South Korean government’s response to sex work reflected this attitude. The government mostly looked the other way, but when the criminality crossed a certain line—as it did in the 1980s, when gangs began kidnapping women off the streets for sex work—the government responded strongly, for example by declaring a “war on crime” during the Roh Tae-woo administration in 1990.

But the new Gangnam clubs, including Arena and Burning Sun, which began to emerge in the mid-2000s, were opulent, glamourous, and above the law. International capital flowed to these clubs: Burning Sun had investors from Japan and Taiwan, and many of the club’s VIPs were reported to be men from China. K-pop’s international success, and the glitz that came with it, was certainly a factor. A significant figure in the Burning Sun scandal has been the mysterious “Madame Lin,” rumored to be the wife of a Taiwanese casino owner and an early investor in the club. She reportedly invested in Burning Sun as she was a fan of Seungri; the K-pop star returned the favor by procuring prostitutes for her male entourage.

Seungri aspired to make the move from pop star to business entrepreneur, dubbing himself as “Seungtsby,” after Jay Gatsby. (It’s possible he didn’t quite finish The Great Gatsby, given Gatsby’s eventual fate.) Celebrities gave the clubs the leverage to attract vulnerable female patrons looking for a chance to meet stars. And with the new inflow of wealth and celebrity, the clubs’ ties to the powerful became much more blatant. Lee Si-hyung, the son of disgraced former President Lee Myung-bak, reportedly was a regular at Arena, using the club’s secret entrance reserved for VVIPs. The drug runner for the clubs also supplied drugs for the scions of Korea’s conglomerates. In one notable case that has spun out of the investigation into Burning Sun, Hwang Hana, the granddaughter of a dairy mogul and frequent customer at the club, has been arrested for allegedly using and distributing a form of methamphetamine. Hwang’s connection to the case came after a Burning Sun employee mentioned her name while undergoing his own arrest for drug use.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the clubs’ reach was the role of the Gangnam police. They didn’t just look the other way but served as active enforcers for the clubs. In fact, this entire scandal first came to light because of an incident at Burning Sun involving the police. Last November, a clubgoer called the police after seeing club employees taking away a woman who was drugged and unconscious—closed-circuit film footage later showed him being beaten by the club’s security staff after he reported the incident. The police came to the club, but instead of investigating the allegations, they arrested the patron who called them in the first place; the news coverage of this outrageous behavior was the first thread that unraveled the scandal. Allegations of police involvement in covering up crimes at Burning Sun or taking bribes to look the other way have already led to charges for a police superintendent and an officer. At the end of March, the commissioner general of the Korean National Police Agency officially launched an internal investigation into the issue. While petty police bribery cases have existed in Korea, the wholesale capture of the police within a city district by private individuals such as the club owners came as a shock to Koreans.

In the absence of the police, journalists stepped up—continuing a tradition of resistance to power that had already helped bring down a president. The first time the public heard about Burning Sun was from SBS funE, an investigative TV program that unearthed some of the original allegations and reported on the KakaoTalk chatroom where celebrities were sharing illegal explicit videos. The journalist Kang Kyung-yoon, one of the main reporters on the original project, said in an interview that many of the victims turned to her as they were afraid to file a public complaint. The most recent, horrific details about what was happening at Burning Sun and Arena came to light thanks to MBC’s investigative program Straight, which kept digging into the story for weeks after the scandal began receding from the headlines.

These reports landed with extra force as Korean society has been openly grappling with toxic sexism. Not only did the #MeToo movement lead to convictions for several high-profile men in entertainment and politics, Korean women also took to the streets in the largest women-focused protest in Korean history, calling for tougher regulation and punishments for filming and sharing explicit hidden camera videos. These issues drove major conversations online—according to Twitter Korea, the top four social issues discussed in 2018 were “School MeToo,” “feminism,” “spy cams,” and “hatred,” often used in the context of misogyny. The Gangnam club scandal exemplifies everything Korean feminists have been fighting: commodification of women’s bodies, constant surveillance and invasion of privacy, and the power structure that enables all of this with impunity.

Koreans endured years of authoritarian rule characterized by massive power disparities and government overreach in the name of security and just a few years ago stood up en masse to remove a government rife with corruption. These experiences, coupled with a burgeoning feminist movement and growing attention to the particular dangers women face in Korean society, have brought the Burning Sun scandal into the forefront of social conversations in Korea. Koreans—and Korean women in particular—have said they will no longer endure abuses at the hands of society’s most powerful and will stand up to the impunity that elites have enjoyed all these years.

The intensive investigative work done by journalists, in addition to public outrage, has kept the pressure on authorities to take these allegations seriously and continue to bring charges against those proved to be involved in these heinous acts in any way. If the perpetrators are really held to account for their actions, it may mark a turning point in the way Korea treats powerful men—and its women.

Jenna Gibson is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago and a Korea columnist for The Diplomat. Twitter: @jennargibson

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.