A farewell note written by Korean pop star Kim Jong-hyun, made public Tuesday a day after his apparent suicide, points to the crushing pressure he felt from being a celebrity in South Korea.
“I am broken from inside,” wrote Kim, better known as front man Jonghyun in Korean-pop sensation SHINee. “The depression that had been slowly eating me up finally devoured me and I couldn’t defeat it.”
The 27-year old singer-songwriter was found unconscious at a private hotel in Seoul on Monday and died in the hospital. Police are treating his death as suicide.
The police said that Kim’s older sister had received a text message from him Monday suggesting that he was going to kill himself. On Tuesday, a longer suicide note was uploaded on the Instagram account of Nine, a musician with modern rock band Dear Cloud. According to Nine’s management, the note was handed to her two weeks before Kim’s death.
Kim wrote that his doctor had blamed his personality for his inability to shake off the depression. Kim’s note does not specify what he had been burdened by, but it suggests that being a celebrity added to the pressure.
“Maybe I wasn’t supposed to come up against the world; maybe I wasn’t supposed to be known to the world; I’ve learned that’s what [makes my life] difficult. How come I chose that,” he wrote.
The Korean entertainment industry is notoriously high-pressure. It fosters a “Hunger Games”-like work environment in which every colleague is also a competitor and only the strongest survive. Many talented people are recruited as teenagers, who may not be emotionally mature enough to handle the discipline and the scrutiny. The Korean public sets high standards of behavior and physical appearance, and uses social media to pass instant judgment.
Since the late 1990s, when Korean pop, film and TV dramas grew into an Asia-wide phenomenon, several other young Korean talents have committed suicide. Many have left behind notes about how harmful the industry is.
Korean-American singer Charles Park, known by his stage name Seo Ji-won, was one of the first K-pop celebrities to take his own life, on Jan. 1, 1996. In his own note, he expressed concern about the sudden success of his debut album, and whether its follow-up, which he had finished recording before his death, would be equally successful. He was 19.
Actresses and other female artists have also killed themselves, complaining of depression and disillusionment with the industry. Jang Ja-yeon, who had a supporting role in the Korean version of hit TV series “Boys Over Flowers,” wrote in her suicide note that she had been forced to perform sexual favors to so-called sponsors who help talent get roles in popular TV series or films.
A source close to actress Jeong Da-bin, who died in 2007, told the police that Jeong had been depressed over her lack of work, the imprisonment of her previous manager, and online attacks about her appearance.
Actress-turned-singer U;Nee hanged herself the same year. According to the police report, people close to U;Nee stated that she had become depressed by online criticism, especially attacks over her sexy style.
The reasons for Kim’s decision to kill himself are not yet clear. The last words from one of the industry’s most popular acts, however, reveal some of the dark underbelly beneath K-pop’s gorgeous, glittering façade.