Haeryun Kang is a freelance journalist in Seoul and the former managing editor of media startup Korea Exposé.
This article has been updated.
Lee Seung-hyun, popularly known as Seungri, was generally thought to be a nice guy. A member of Big Bang, one of K-pop’s most successful groups, Lee appeared on multiple entertainment shows, showing off his sense of humor, work ethic and business ventures. Many called him “Seungtsby,” after the successful and lavish “Great Gatsby.”
Now, police are investigating Lee for violating South Korea’s prostitution law, among other charges. Police confirmed that Lee and several other stars, including singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young and rock band F.T. Island’s Choi Jong-hoon, were reportedly part of an online group chat that illegally shared “spycam” videos, sexually explicit videos of women shot without their knowledge or consent.
In one chat, first reported by broadcaster SBS, Jung allegedly wrote to his friends, “Let’s all get together online, hit the strip bar and rape them in the car.” Another member of the chat replied, “Our lives are like a movie. We have done so many things that could put us in jail. We just haven’t killed anyone."
When #MeToo brought down a handful of powerful men in South Korea last year, I thought it signaled a watershed moment. In the same year, when tens of thousands of women protested for months, condemning the consumption of spycam footage as porn, I thought we had finally arrived at some promise of positive change — at least in terms of public awareness — for women’s bodies and their safety. Now, as a few male celebrities are brought down, some are asking if this is a turning point for women’s rights.
What turning point? While I was watching how feminism is on the rise in South Korea, female high school students were allegedly forced to perform in private events and parties, instructed to “act sexy” and touch the male audience. They were from the School of Performing Arts in Seoul, which has nurtured many K-pop stars.
What turning point? While I was covering the spycam protests — which brought historic numbers of women out onto the streets last year — a dear friend moved out of her high-rise apartment in Seoul after police found images of her naked body, shot by a stranger in another building. By police estimates, there have been more than 6,000 spycam cases each year between 2013 to 2017. An overwhelming majority of the crimes are committed by men and target women.
So, what makes this scandal any different? This isn’t just cynicism. What we see in the headlines is only the tip of the iceberg. These stories don’t capture the pervasive power inequality between men and women in countless, unseen sectors of Korean society.
South Korea still has a long way to go in securing equal rights for women. Its gender pay gap is the highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. Men vastly outnumber women in leadership roles, including in politics and corporate management. Recently, three of Korea’s top four banks have been accused of systematically discriminating against women in recruitment.
The entertainment industry is just another part of this broader problem. “The industry in Korea … is a boys’ club,” said Jang Yun-mi, a spokeswoman for the Korean Women Lawyers Association, to Bloomberg. The founders of the top K-pop agencies in 2017 were all men. K-pop’s sexist representations of women have been long-standing topics of debate. Female acts unabashedly target the male audience, portraying either “extreme innocence” or “extreme sexuality.”
To make matters worse, the industry has a history of allowing powerful men to get away with misogyny — and worse. This isn’t even an isolated case for Jung, who is accused of filming up to 10 women in the past. Another example of this pervasive culture is the Ongdalsaem scandal in 2015, when three popular male comedians came under fire for making sexist comments in a podcast — including suggesting that women are “stupid” and that they “can’t stand women who aren’t virgins.” All three men are still operating in the entertainment world.
The most recent celebrity scandal has generated fury among so many Korean women not because it is unique but because the story goes far beyond K-pop. The patterns of male behavior feel disturbingly familiar. The gender power dynamics — that often objectify women into sex tools — feel exhaustingly repetitive.
Of course, the scandal isn’t just about misogyny and spy cameras. It’s part of a larger story about Burning Sun, a prominent nightclub where Big Bang’s Lee served as an executive director. The club is being investigated for its alleged involvement in prostitution, drug trafficking and police corruption.
In the chaotic maze of a complex and sordid story, where facts mix with rumors, some fans are siding with the male stars. To them, I say: Remember the victims of spycam porn, which overturns women’s lives. Nearly half of spycam victims thought of committing suicide, according to a recent survey by the Korea Women’s Development Institute.
Remember Jang Ja-yeon, the 29-year-old actress who killed herself in 2009, leaving behind handwritten notes about how her agency was sexually exploiting her. Jang claimed she was forced to sleep with at least 30 men, including high-ranking businessmen and media figures. Her case is still ongoing.
“Most of the victims were very young women in their early twenties,” said SBS reporter Kang Kyung-yoon, referring to the sources she met while investigating the spycam footage circulated in Lee and Jung’s group chat. “They didn’t even know they had been filmed, that the videos were being circulated in group chats.”
“Some of them begged, ‘Please save me. How do I live after this?’” With everything we now know, how can we continue to look the other way?