But that hasn’t stemmed the shock. K-pop fans — many of them teenage girls — are boycotting their former heroes in what has become a South Korean version of #MeToo outrage. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition to the presidential office demanding a full-scale investigation.
The drip feed of dishonor is forcing South Koreans to abandon long-held assumptions about their homegrown music industry — which built a global fan base around its boyish stars and their carefully cultivated clean-cut image.
“I couldn’t believe my star boy exploited women in such a lurid and degrading manner,” said Cho Yeon-joo, who once admired K-pop group Big Bang and skipped school to attend its concerts.
Reports of sex crimes by Big Bang singer Lee Seung-hyun have ended her decade-long love for the band, she said. Lee has denied the allegations
K-pop — synchronized dance routines, bright costumes, catchy tunes and a heaping dose of stage-managed pouts and preening — is wildly popular in South Korea and perhaps the country’s premier cultural brand.
But the allegations against the singers threaten the nonthreatening image that makes K-pop tick.
Damage to the industry’s squeaky-clean appeal “could rock the image of ‘Hallyu’ as a whole,” the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial in March, using the term for the Korean Wave of products, including elaborate skin-care regimes.
Seoul-listed entertainment stocks most exposed to the scandal have slumped as the accusations began to roll out.
At the center of the scandal is Big Bang’s Lee, better known as Seungri, and the Burning Sun nightclub he part-owned in Seoul’s glitzy Gangnam district. (Yes, the place of Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”)
Prosecutors allege that the club was a haven for date-rape drugs and that it offered illegal prostitution services for VIP customers.
Lee is under investigation for allegations of prostitution and sharing footage of women filmed in sex acts without their consent.
“I should have acted with more responsibility,” he told the audience at a concert earlier this year. “Hope you could at least enjoy the show. . . . I am grateful and sorry.”
The scandal has grown to implicate numerous other K-pop stars, including singer Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon of boy band FT Island. Jung and Choi allegedly took part in a secret group chat that included discussions of sexual violence and sharing videos of women in sex acts, according to details leaked to the South Korean media.
Jung’s lawyer told the judiciary that the group chat was illegally collected evidence that was inadmissible in court, according to South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap news agency. Efforts to reach the lawyer weren’t successful.
Roy Kim, a singer-songwriter and a recent graduate of Georgetown University, also was placed under investigation by the South Korean police in April for allegedly sharing an explicit photo in the group chat. Before entering the police station for questioning, Kim said that he is sorry but did not respond to journalists’ questions about his allegations. Kim’s case has been sent to prosecutors.
In a statement in March after the group chat’s existence came to light, Choi said he was humiliated and promised to “repent” for his misdeeds. Jung, too, said he admitted to “all my crimes” and acknowledged filming women in sex acts without their consent and sharing the footage.
Their trials began last month amid blanket media coverage. Jung, through his lawyer, admitted that he filmed women without consent, but denied sexual-assault charges, saying the intercourse was consensual, Yonhap reported. Choi also denied rape allegations, according to the same report.
The chief executive of Lee’s record label, YG Entertainment, resigned last month and apologized to fans after being accused of trying to cover up charges against the firm’s singers. Police also allege that he solicited prostitutes for foreign investors.
Outrage over the stars’ alleged actions is also fueling a national debate about the status of women in one of Asia’s most gender-unequal societies. South Korea ranked 115th out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report last year, which measures disparities in economic participation, education, health and political empowerment.
The stars’ alleged actions in resorting to rape drugs and prostitution are “a telling example of how women are routinely treated as sexual commodities in South Korea’s male chauvinistic culture,” said Kwon-Kim Hyun-young, a women’s studies scholar and visiting professor at Korea National University of Arts.
“Girls in South Korea grow up admiring and loving K-pop boy bands,” she added. “The misogynistic behavior of male K-pop stars, who enjoy financial and popular support from mostly female fans, is a shocking hypocrisy and an act of betrayal.”
In May, hundreds of women rallied near the Burning Sun nightclub to call for a rigorous investigation into the scandal. The rally’s organizers accused YG Entertainment of profiting from a network of nightclubs that systematically abused and exploited women.
In response to the petition to President Moon Jae-in, Police Chief Min Gab-ryong said the force had conducted a three-month investigation to root out crimes targeting women, leading to 920 arrests. Police will “follow up with rigorous measures to crack down on illicit behaviors that are of immediate concern to women’s safety,” he said.
Cho says she still has fond memories of the group from her teenage years. But the 26-year-old graduate student says she can never look at her former idols the same way.
“The boy bands still appear charming. But the sex scandals traumatized me so deeply that I can never go back to liking them,” she said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Lee faces allegations of prostitution, drug abuse and filming women in sex acts without their consent. This article has been updated to reflect that he faces allegations of prostitution and sharing footage of women filmed in sex acts without their consent. It has also been updated to add details about the investigation into K-pop performers.