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Student Blog Series: Burning Sun Scandal Illustrates Pervasive Exploitative Culture in K-Pop Industry

Posted: March 16, 2023

In March 2019, a widespread scandal involving prominent members of the Korean entertainment industry rattled the media. Police began investigating the Burning Sun nightclub in late January after employees of the Burning Sun club allegedly assaulted a male patron of the club. The investigation revealed that the club’s owners were involved in drug distribution, prostitution, and had a group chat where members shared illegally recorded videos of sexual encounters. Notably, Seungri of BIGBANG, who is a partial owner of Burning Sun and a popular K-pop idol, was implicated in the investigation. While Seungri was not the only K-pop star indicted in the scandal, he is the most prominent. His former group, BIGBANG, gained international popularity, with a performance at Coachella in 2020 and a song appearing in promotions for Pitch Perfect 2.

Given his prominence in the entertainment industry and ownership of Burning Sun, Seungri became the public face of the scandal. The investigation revealed that Seungri, other celebrities, and another owner of Burning Sun utilized a group chat to coordinate sex buying efforts, purchase drugs, and share illegally recorded sex videos. The group also maintained connections with police to cover up their activity. By mid-March, investigators uncovered hidden camera footage taken over several years and began formally charging the group chat members. In response, Seungri and his co-conspirators retired from the entertainment industry. Some members of the group chat confessed to their crimes, while others were adamant they were innocent.

Criticism of the scandal varied. Many South Korean men are critical of feminism and women’s rights, making it easier for them to dismiss women’s concerns over sexual abuse and exploitation. Meanwhile, the scandal broke at the same time Korean women were waging war against a hidden camera “epidemic.” These social divisions led to calls for both increased and reduced attention to the case. Two months into the investigation, Yang Hyun-suk, the founder of Seungri’s record label was investigated for similar crimes. Although he was not charged with soliciting prostitution, the public was skeptical of this connection between the head of the record label and one of their most popular artists. The day after one of Seungri’s business partners dismissed the group chat conversation about buying sex as “jokes,” South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, called for heightened scrutiny into sexual abuse cases in the entertainment industry.

K-pop is built on performers, called idols, maintaining carefully curated images defined by their record labels. Off-stage, idols are expected to present a clean-cut persona and be personable enough that their fans feel as if they are actually friends with the idol. To support these goals, idols are often contractually prohibited from engaging in wide variety of behaviors, including dating. Nevertheless, the industry is rife with exploitation, physical and sexual abuse and readily sexualizes performers. When idols do find themselves embroiled in scandal, like Seungri, they simply leave the industry and allow public attention to shift away from them. By January 2020, a year after the investigation began, Seungri was indicted on multiple charges, including organizing prostitution and illegal gambling, and later sentenced to serve three years in jail and pay around $880,000 USD in restitution. His sentence was later reduced to 18 months in jail and the restitution order was overturned.

The $5 Billion K-pop industry can recover from this scandal, but how do fans reconcile consumption and enjoyment of an industry built on the sexual exploitation of women? Because the industry primarily appeals to a young, female audience, fans must hold companies and performers accountable, denouncing these predatory tactics.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Sydney Sanders on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 

Category: News

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