South Korean Human Rights Monitor


The Ugly Truth Behind K-Pop Idols

Eugene Shin August 7, 2012

Recently, Korean idol group T-ara was in the scandal spotlight for allegedly bullying its own member Hwa-young. Employees in the entertainment industry, however, say bullying and conflict within idol groups is not unique to T-ara. Many point to entertainment agencies’ attitudes towards the ‘product development system’ as the reason why idols are constantly pressured to compete against one another, particularly against those in their own groups.

The lack of personal life for idol stars has often been discussed in TV shows. Last April, Sandara Park of 2NE1 revealed her CEO forbid the group from dating for at least 3 years after their debut. Another female idol group that debuted last year agreed to give up their cellphones until they top the charts, at the recommendation of their agency. Some agencies temporarily collect personal cellphones during training, but provide a shared phone for emergency use. Many idol groups are required to be housed together. While this may be convenient for the agency to manage each member’s schedule, it can also be seen as the members being forced to spend time with one another regardless of their actual dynamics. One idol group complained of having to share a single bathroom among seven to eight members.

This strictly controlled, ascetic lifestyle with questionable provision of basic human rights is often seen by both the agency and idol members as a rite-of-passage for fame.

Problems often arise with cut-throat competition in the industry. In order to promote the group name, agencies often select a small number of members from a group for individual promotion. Though idol group members interviewed by Kyunghyuang Shinmun said they understood the benefits of this strategy, many admitted they still felt jealousy and dislike towards more popular members, and anxiety over their own fame. A small number of agencies work to promote all members of a group, but many agencies still prefer to promote selected members.

Another common difficulty idol group members face is the lack of socialization that teenagers would normally experience. As they are separated from society at an early age, are exposed to the attention of the media and are spoon-fed by staff, many idol group members face difficulty adjusting to life after they retire. Complaints from retired members range from not knowing how to pay their taxes to not knowing how to use public transportation. While some agencies attempt to solve this problem by providing counseling programs and private tutoring of standard high school courses, this is limited to a very small number of large agencies.

Pop culture critic Tae-kyu Kang commented that although thorough product development for profit is a natural part of capitalism, it is dangerous for entertainment agencies to only view idol groups as the means to profit maximization.

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