The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A top South Korean actor tested positive for drugs. His downfall was swift.

Yoo Ah-in at the premiere of “Burning” at the Cannes film festival in May 2018. (Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
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SEOUL — South Korean authorities this week raided the home of one of the country’s top actors as the fallout continues over allegations of drug abuse that have captured the nation’s attention and once again forced it to grapple with the realities of idol culture.

Yoo Ah-in — a household name in South Korea and beyond for his roles in the 2018 film “Burning” and the hit Netflix series “Hellbound”— has been under investigation after the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said last month that he had purchased suspicious quantities of the sedative propofol since 2021.

Subsequent drug tests found that Yoo had also used marijuana, cocaine and ketamine, the semiofficial Korean news agency Yonhap reported. Under South Korea’s strict drug laws, citizens can be prosecuted for using illicit drugs even if they did so outside the country’s borders.

The revelations about Yoo, released in the Korean media in a slow drip, have led to a sharp and steep fall from grace for the actor.

“It’s an exceptionally long fall for him, because he has won so much acclaim and so many different awards,” said CedarBough Saeji, an assistant professor at Pusan National University and a commentator on Korean pop culture and society. The New York Times named Yoo as one of the best actors of 2018 for his starring role in “Burning.”

The speed and scale of Yoo’s downfall highlight how the South Korean culture of celebrity worship demands perfection from “idols,” as they are commonly called, leaving little room for error or human struggles.

The allegations against Yoo, who has earned fans around the world not only for his acting but also his outspoken nature on societal issues — he declared himself a feminist in a 2017 interview with W Korea, a bold statement in a country where gender equality is a fiercely debated topic — have revealed a divide between South Korea and much of the West in how drug use, addiction and mental health are viewed.

In the West, Saeji said, “when you hear about this level of drug use, the expectation would immediately be, ‘Oh, he needs treatment for drug addiction.’” But in South Korea, where drug use is more stigmatized and views on mental health lag behind other societies, “there isn’t a strong infrastructure of things like drug treatment centers,” she said.

In the hours-long raid Tuesday, investigators conducted a “search and seizure” operation at Yoo’s home in Itaewon in central Seoul and another location in the adjacent well-to-do neighborhood of Hannam-dong, said a police official familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Yoo was not in custody as of Wednesday, the official said, but has been prohibited from leaving the country. He declined to comment on whether Yoo had been charged, citing the “sensitive, personal” nature of the case.

Representatives for Yoo, who was born Uhm Hong-sik, did not respond to requests for comment.

To many in South Korea, the scandal is effectively the end of his career. Netflix dropped Yoo from the second season of “Hellbound,” local media reported. (Netflix did not respond to a request for comment.) The future of unreleased films starring Yoo is unclear, with his co-stars lamenting that their efforts could go to waste.

Musinsa, one of the top clothing brands in South Korea, said it was considering terminating its endorsement contract with Yoo, telling the Korea Herald that it has decided to limit Yoo’s “public exposure considering the impact on the corporate image.”

Yoo’s case is an example of the extreme pressure on Korean celebrities to present themselves in a wholesome and immaculate manner. In a society that is rapidly changing yet still deeply conservative, actors and K-pop idols must juggle being flashy with being exemplary — swearing, drugs, tattoos and nudity are all frowned upon.

“You can get this amazing support from the fans,” Saeji said, “but it comes with this expectation that you are not going to let people down.” Yoo has been “consumed” by fans in a similar fashion to K-pop idols, having worked with them earlier in his career in Korean TV dramas, and because he fits the bill of being a well-spoken, handsome young man, she said.

And even in his downfall, Yoo is still being consumed. There is no shortage of coverage in local media; the slew of stories in recent days includes scrutiny of Yoo’s past interviews amid speculation they show possible signs of drug use.

“There’s this aspect of spectatorship,” Saeji said, comparing the situation to the traffic that surrounds a car crash as drivers slow down to look at the chaos. “People are enjoying the spectacle of the fall.”

Grace Moon and Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.