Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The K-Pop sex and drugs scandal sweeping South Korea

It started with Big Bang and has spiralled into an ever-widening controversy, with privilege and misogyny at the heart.

K-pop merchandise displayed in Seoul (Photo: Ed Jones via Getty)
K-pop merchandise displayed in Seoul (Photo: Ed Jones via Getty)
Published 20 Mar 2019   Follow @nic_desouza

What started as a police investigation into a South Korean nightclub has since erupted into a national scandal, sweeping aside in the public mind at least all the international talk of North Korean denuclearisation and instead shining a light into the shady private lives of K-pop celebrities. The fascination is intense – and at the centre sits Seungri, a member of the legendary group Big Bang.

This scandal intersects with major threads in South Korean society, a joyous enthusiasm for pop music, yet in a country that is still regularly witness to chronic examples of misogyny.

Big Bang is one of the groups that helped propel K-pop into the mainstream music scene that it has become today.

It began with The Burning Sun, a nightclub in Seoul that has received widespread media and police attention following allegations of drug use, violence, and sexual assault. An investigation commenced after a man claimed to have been assaulted by the nightclub staff when he tried to stop another female patron from being sexually harassed in November last year.

It’s alleged that the club staff drugged young women so that VIP club members could rape them. Local media reported a man who claimed to be a VIP member said that he regularly received texts from the club to say that they had women “ready” for him. One text included a video of an intoxicated woman being assaulted, unaware that she was being filmed because she had been drugged. It’s suspected that the date rape drug, gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), was used on unsuspecting women. Police have conducted raids and expanded their drug investigation into all clubs in the Gangnam area.

Then attention swung to Seungri. The singer unwillingly became the face of this scandal due to his ties to Burning Sun. Although he was not the owner of the club, he did work there as a director and is now facing charges of illegally supplying prostitutes for businessmen in the club as a form of sexual bribery. Prostitution is illegal in South Korea.

Big Bang’s Seungri (Photo: TPG/ Getty)

Investigations are ongoing, and Seungri has since announced his retirement from the entertainment industry. In an Instagram post, he said that the “societal disturbance” that his involvement had caused were “too major” and that quitting would help preserve the honour of Big Bang and his former management company, YG Entertainment. He is currently cooperating with the investigation and has denied the allegations in the charges.

This scandal intersects with major threads in South Korean society, a joyous enthusiasm for pop music, yet in a country that is still regularly witness to chronic examples of misogyny. For fans like Rana Metwally from Egypt, who has supported Big Bang for years, this scandal has been nothing but heartbreaking. “I’ve been a Big Bang fan since 2012,” Rana told me. “I feel disappointed in this whole situation. Big Bang have had scandals before, but never to this extent.” In the past, other members such as G-Dragon and T.O.P have had scandals for marijuana use, but Seungri’s alleged involvement in illegal prostitution is at an entirely different level. “I’m very hurt and ashamed of the whole situation. I want to believe that this is all a misunderstanding.”

Examinations into Seungri’s involvement led to the discovery of a group chat on KakaoTalk, a Korean messaging app. It was found that fellow singer and variety star Jung Joon-Young had secretly filmed himself having sex with at least 10 women and shared the footage in the group chat.

“I admit to all my crimes,” Jung said in a press statement. “I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a social media chatroom, and while I did so I didn’t feel a great sense of guilt.” He apologised to the women he had hurt and said he would suspend himself from the entertainment industry. The police have requested an arrest warrant for Jung, and experts say he could receive a prison sentence of up to seven and a half years.

Big Bang (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

These scandals in the music industry come while South Korea continues to grapple with a spycam problem (The woman taking on spycams in South Korea), in which women are filmed without their consent in toilets, change rooms, and other public spaces. These videos are then circulated or sold online. 6,500 reports of spycam crimes were shared to the police in 2017. Roughly 98% of offenders were men and 80% of victims were women. Tens of thousands of women protested against these crimes last year, saying “My life is not your porn”.

Other celebrities have been caught up in group chat offences. CNBLUE member Lee Jong-Hyun has this week also admitted to watching sexual videos of women shared by Jung. And Yong Jun-Hyung, from the K-pop group Highlight, and Choi Jong-Hoon, from FT Island, have both stepped down from their groups and are participating in police investigations. Yong admitted to receiving the illegal footage and participating in inappropriate conversations. “I treated it as not a big deal, without thinking that it is a crime and illegal act,” he said on Instagram.

It was also revealed in the group chats that Choi covered up a drink driving incident by manipulating his close ties with a police officer, leading to more questions about celebrity privilege and bribery. Choi has apologised for his “careless remarks” and his “sense of entitlement”.

President Moon Jae-In has called for a thorough investigation into the latest scandals and to similar celebrity cases from the past. He said:

If we fail to clarify the truth behind the cases that occurred within the privileged class, we will not be able to talk of a righteous society.

The ever-widening revelations have reignited the discussion about sexual crimes against women. Drugging women, using them for sexual bribery, and filming them without their consent are all reminders of how easily a woman’s trust and privacy can be violated. The involvement of the men in the group chat also shows how men can encourage rape culture, simply by participating in lewd discussions.

As Choi said, they all had a “false sense of ethics” and acted without “feelings of remorse”.

As more celebrities are embroiled in the scandal, disheartened fans can only ask, “Who’s next?”

Seungri at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on 15 March for questioning over criminal allegations (Photo: Jung Yeon-Je via Getty)

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