On December 18, 2017, singer Jonghyun, the leader of the Korean pop boy band Shinee, was found dead in his rented apartment from carbon monoxide poisoning. He left a note that read in part: “I am broken from inside. The depression that gnawed on me slowly has finally engulfed me entirely.” He was only 27.
On October 14, 2009, Korean actress and singer Choi Jin-ri, better known to the South Korean public as her stage name Sulli, was found dead on the second floor of her Seongnam home. It was a suicide by hanging. She was only 25.
Only one month later, Goo Hara, a member of the band Kara and a close friend of Sulli’s, died by suicide in her Gangnam District home amidst an investigation regarding her boyfriend’s filming of a sex video without her consent and the subsequent online harassment she was facing on a daily basis. It was not her first suicide attempt. She was only 28.
Unfortunately, stories like this are not unique. If you know a K-pop act, chances are you also know a K-pop death: Park Yong-ha in 2010, Cha In-ha in 2019, actor Jun Tae-soo in 2018, actress Choi Jin-Sil in 2008, and model Daul Kim in 2009 at the age of 20. There are reporters that are equally burned out and filled with dread because of their constant reporting on the deaths of Korean celebrities.
So how did we get to this point? Why are so many South Korean’s in the entertainment industry taking their own lives? The answers, while by no means definitive, might be found by taking a broader look at the pressures and expectations that follow Korean entertainers and, perhaps more significantly, how they act as a reflection of Korean society as a whole.
First off, focusing on pop musicians as a case study. To put things simply, being in a K-pop act is extremely restrictive. For every member of BTS, whose unmatched worldwide fame allows them to control their own social media accounts, there are scores of young adults whose profiles are carefully monitored or outright directly controlled by the management companies they have been signed to.
Large talent agencies such as SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and the HYBE Corporation, helmed by K-pop architect ‘Hitman’ Bang, implement rigorous schedules for their stars-in-training to mould them into performers with the ability to work long hours and execute high-intensity routines. K-pop artists have very little autonomy, whether it’s financially, socially, or personally. They often don’t get to choose their own diets or sleep schedules. The ability to say no to an upcoming commitment is virtually non-existent.
But these controlling and high-pressure attitudes aren’t born in a vacuum. The intensity of the Korean entertainment industry may relate more broadly to Korean culture as a whole. According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in South Korea is the fifth highest in the world. A large percentage of suicides are by the elderly, those who wish to absolve themselves or their families of financial burdens or physical strain. However, an increasingly large number of South Korean suicides occur in individuals younger than the age of 30. By one estimation, nearly 27 young Koreans attempt suicide every day.
To see why, look perhaps at the societal pressures that come with education and economic prosperity. The expectations to succeed in school are extremely high, to the extent that nearly half of Korean students have reported suicidal thoughts. If the pressure to meet the lofty standards and almost unattainable goals of success and independence don’t wear you down, the lack of adequate goal achievement – especially as an individual gets older – just might.
According to American filmmaker Kelley Katzenmeyer, who has lived in South Korea for over a decade, societal pressure extends beyond academic achievement and into personal appearance. “In the subways in Seoul, there are plastic surgery ads everywhere,” Katzenmeyer explained in a People Magazine feature from last year. “To girls in Seoul, beauty standards are as important as their academics.”
“I thought I really did need it,” Amber Liu, Sulli’s bandmate in f(x) says in the same article. “Luckily [fellow f(x) member] Krystal talked me out of it. She was like, ‘Amber, you don’t need it. You don’t need it.’ We’re told that we need these things when we actually don’t. Our bodies are still developing.”
Sure, there are the goofier stories that crop up around this topic, like the British influencer who “transitioned” to a Korean complexion through a number of plastic surgeries. Still, even the lighter headlines that are fodder for scoffs and are unlikely to be taken seriously, like Kim Jong-un calling K-pop a “vicious cancer”, can at least detail the far-reaching status and possibly unstable political implications that the South Korean pop music industry has. A culture war can quickly turn into a real war in the wrong hands.
But the most crucial war is happening outside of the realms of political discourse: South Korea has a mental health crisis that is among the most significant and most serious in the world. In a culture that normalises hard work, determination, and success over the understanding of faults and insecurities that come with that success means mental health is a taboo subject in South Korea. The South Korean government spent 3% of its 2011 public spending budget on mental health care. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that up to 90% of South Korean individuals who commit suicide have suffered from mental illness at some point in their lives.
South Korean author Young-ha Kim kept it blunt during an op-ed for The New York Times in 2014 when he said: “Suicide is everywhere.” To see the troubling and tragic public deaths of a number of K-pop artists is to see the broader issues within Korean society that perpetuate success over health, determination over understanding, and hard work over personal emotional management. When it happens to a famous entertainment figure, the world begins to take notice. But there is a much more severe and everyday crisis within Korea that needs to be reckoned with before we off-handedly refer to the dark side of K-pop as something malevolent and intangible. It’s real, and it happens outside the world of K-pop far more frequently than anyone would want to admit.