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The Sex Scandals Shaking K-Pop And A Reckoning Over How South Korea Regards Women

Seungri, photographed as he arrived at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on March 14, 2019. The former pop idol was there to undergo police questioning over charges of supplying prostitution services.
Chung Sung-Jun
Getty Images
Seungri, photographed as he arrived at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on March 14, 2019. The former pop idol was there to undergo police questioning over charges of supplying prostitution services.

A total of four Korean entertainers have abruptly retired from the industry this week, in a widening scandal linking the glossy world of K-pop with a series of seedy sex crimes. The biggest players — Seungri, of the influential all-male group Big Bang, and the 29-year-old singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young — have both apologized to the public for their involvement in twin, interlocking cases of exploitation of women.

To catch you up: Investigators booked Seungri on Monday on suspicion of supplying prostitutes for businessmen at one of Seoul's upscale night clubs, setting off a media feeding frenzy that ensnared the second star, Jung, and potentially more famous men to come.

Seungri is denying charges of brokering prostitution. But in statements to the press, Seoul Metropolitan Police say an investigation into his Kakaotalk messages (Kakao is South Korea's dominant messaging platform) found evidence of "pimping" — they claim he was not only offering different types of women to investors, but he was part of a separate group chat with the other star, Jung.

That's where the details get more sordid. Police say the near-dozen participants in the Jung chatroom were sharing hidden camera footage of sex with drugged and unconscious women. Korean broadcaster SBS showed the leaked text exchanges, which include Jung responding to a video of one unconscious woman by texting in Korean, "You raped her, LOL."

Korean wire Yonhap reportsJung is under investigation for secretly recorded and shared videos of his own sexual encounters with at least 10 women he filmed between 2015 and 2016.

Jung, who rose to fame on a Korean equivalent of American Idol, is cooperating with police and released the following statement:

"I admit to all my crimes. I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a social media chatroom, and while I did so I didn't feel a great sense of guilt... More than anything, I kneel and apologize to the women who appear in the videos who have learned of this hideous truth as the incident has come to light."

The other men who have apologized and suddenly retired from the industry after being implicated in the chat rooms are Choi Jong-hoon, singer from FT Island, and Yong Junhyung, singer from Highlight, who admitted that he was in the chat and saw the videos and did not speak up.

K-pop is such major cultural export and economic boon for the Asian nation of 55 million that this scandal — or scandals, depending on how you're counting — has attracted global attention. (One of the genre's most successful groups, BTS, had the No. 2 and No. 3 bestselling albums worldwide last year.)

Within South Korea, the business' darker underbelly is well-known. Its three top entertainment companies — SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment — are notorious for running their artists through a militaristic system of rigorous dance and singing training, restrictions on their private lives and cosmetic surgery regimens that begin when they're teens. When women artists have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment or abuse in the industry, they are rarely investigated. K-pop is so interwoven with Korea's soft power identity that Seungri said on Instagram, "I've been branded as a 'national traitor.' "

His agency, YG Entertainment, dropped him on Wednesday, apologized for failing to "manage the musician more thoroughly" and has watched its stock shares tumble.

Celebrity involvement in these sex crimes threaten to taint the carefully-crafted image of the K-pop industry, sure, but for South Korea, it shines an international light on an already-festering societal problem: hidden camera porn, known in South Korea as "spycam," or molka, and its role in promulgating a misogynistic culture. Since last year, outrage about law enforcement's uneven response to spycam has swelled into the streets, leading 22,000 women to protest last June, marking the largest women's protest in South Korean history.

South Korea is a modern country that boasts of its advanced consumer electronics and fast internet speeds, but on the measure of equality for women, it ranks at the bottom among developed countries. As we've reported, school curriculum even teaches that victims are to blamefor sexual assault.

Jung Joon-young, arriving at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on March 14, 2019.
Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images
Getty Images
Jung Joon-young, arriving at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on March 14, 2019.

Combined, these factors feed a widespread spycam porn epidemic that's gone on for years. Tiny hidden cameras that look like lighters secretly film women in dressing rooms, bathrooms, public places like subway stations and during private moments — while they're having sex. The footage of sex acts is considered a "natural porn" that's commonly distributed and profited off of on online platforms, without the victims' knowledge.

Officially, police estimate more than 6,000 cases of people filmed on spy cams without their consent, each year, between 2013 and 2017. The victims are overwhelmingly women. But most of the time, people aren't aware their images are being traded: A 2018 study by the Korean Women Lawyers Association found 89 percent of spycam crimes were perpetrated by strangers.

"There have been plenty of celebrity scandals before, including pretty serious charges like domestic abuse, but those usually ended being isolated incidents that faded from the public consciousness fairly quickly," says Jenna Gibson, a Korea columnist for The Diplomat and a longtime K-pop watcher. "This time, because Korea has been directly grappling with issues like MeToo, spy cams, and women's rights in general, there's no way they will let these crimes go so easily. The things these men have allegedly done hit right at the heart of the biggest societal divisions in Korea right now."

The justice system is also being put to the test, as the Korean public raises questions about police complicity in the prostitution brokered at nightclubs. "We will conduct a strong internal investigation, and ... we will take stern measures regardless of their rank," South Korea's National Police Agency Chief Min Gap-ryong told lawmakers on Thursday, according to CNN, in response to questions about police looking the other way.

All of this is forcing a reckoning in several layers of the public sphere, but most notably for the entertainment engine that is K-pop, which churns out stars and groups that earn the devotion of fans worldwide. The packaging of these artists is squeaky-clean, but can you still love a product that's cooked in an exploitative culture? And as it is often asked during this #metoo era: What do we do with the art of monstrous men? The K-pop fanbase is now the latest to be working these questions out.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 14, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story originally identified K-pop group BTS as having had the No. 1 and No. 2 bestselling albums of 2018. They were the No. 2 and No. 3 bestselling albums of that year.
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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