The South Korean entertainment business has been shaken deeply by scandal in the past year, and the fallout is still being felt across the board.
As K-pop superstars BTS glide triumphantly across the U.S. on a sold-out tour, fellow music superstar Seungri (ne Lee Seung-hyun) of boy band Bigbang is in the middle of one of the worst scandals in the Korean entertainment industry involving drug distribution, prostitution, hidden-camera footage, police corruption, embezzlement and tax evasion in a nightclub owned by Seungri.
Most damning were messages from Seungri on a Korean IM service KakaoTalk, in which he had discussed, planned and shared illegal acts in the group chat along with his business partners and fellow K-pop talents.
The #MeToo movement has been slow to gain traction in the Korean entertainment industry, but the unlawful acts that took place in Seungri’s Burning Sun nightclub immediately faced the public condemnation. It turned out that a number of high-profile celebrities had been involved in sharing hidden-camera footage. Singer and TV personality Jung Joon-young was arrested in March on suspicion of filming and distributing footage of himself having sex with 10 women on his Kakao group chat. Other popular K-pop idol band members such as F.T. Island’s Choi Jong-hoon, CNBLUE’s Lee Jong-hyun and Highlight’s Yong Jun-hyung have admitted they had also illegally filmed or at least watched those uploaded in the chat room.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in weighed in and called for a thorough investigation.
While the investigation is in progress, the celebrities implicated or arrested have all released letters of apology and have been quickly removed from their regular TV shows, bands and agencies, and most of them have announced their retirement from showbiz.
Though the industry’s decision to expel them was quickly made, companies, brands and shows they once worked with could not avoid criticism: Korea Broadcasting System’s hit variety show “1 Night 2 Days,” on which Jung had been a regular since 2013, had decided to continue without Jung, and in March the show went into hiatus. Although KBS has not announced the permanent end of the program, a new variety show has been announced to replace it in its time slot.
“[We] deeply apologize for having failed to supervise our cast and will arrange a measure to prevent any recurrence,” said KBS in a statement.
Seungri’s former agency, YG Entertainment, is also on edge. Seungri confirmed that he had used YG’s corporate credit card to pay his Japanese investors’ hotel charges in Seoul in 2015. Police allege the singer arranged for the investors, although he has not admitted to that charge. YG is under a wide tax investigation.
As the stories and charges widened in scope, female stars were unfairly brushed with allegations, mostly stemming from out-of-control social media postings. In one set of Kakao messages, Seungri and Jung allegedly tried to recruit an “actress” for Seungri’s party but failed because she was in New York then. Wild speculation on social media and in the local media named an actress who had to had to use social media to defend herself and also to opt out of a new KBS series.
“As the focus of the rumor, I’ve become a victim,” she said on Instagram. “It is painful that victims, and not the perpetrators, get all the attention, consumed as the subject of gossip and criticized.”
The entertainment industry is taking a careful approach to the issues surrounding the scandal. South Korea’s leading studio CJ Entertainment is releasing “Miss & Mrs. Cops,” a film about a victim of night club spy cam pornography and two policewomen working on the case. Though the film was made before the Burning Sun scandal surfaced, its subject matter recalls recent events. But hidden cameras are not just a problem for stars and night clubbers.
“This film has no connection to any specific events or people,” said director Jung Da-won at a press event. “ ‘Cops’ is not directly related to the recent events, but similar crimes have always been prevalent. I think our film slightly covers the ongoing issue of digital sex crime,” added actress Ra Mi-ran (“Ode to My Father”).