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Cracks in the Porcelain: Revisiting Burning Sun and the Lurid Underbelly of Korean Pop Culture

It’s easy to think of Korean culture at its face value: bright colors, aegyo (cuteness), quirky outfits, and the glamorous perfection of K-pop idols. Nothing is ever so perfect, though, and the projected innocence of this shining facade has always been just that–a facade. Under that unassuming exterior lurks something dark, a web of sex, drugs, secret cameras, and celebrity and political corruption. 

That being said, there has never been a more shocking or sweeping scandal that rocked South Korean pop culture like the scandal of Burning Sun, named after a popular nightclub. 

Alt="Burning Sun festival"

THE BEGINNING

The Burning Sun scandal came to light in 2019 as a terrifying entertainment and sex scandal in Seoul, South Korea. This was no ordinary revelation, as it involved several celebrities, including Korean idols of popular K-pop groups, and both police and political officials.

January of 2019 was the beginning of the end, and the way that the scandal made its way into the public sphere is telling in itself. The abuse of women is at the crux of the Burning Sun situation, but it was only when a male clubgoer went to the news that the investigation began to take shape. The man, Kim Sang-kyo, spoke out about the assault he faced at Burning Sun by the club staff. What was originally only thought to be a matter of an assault quickly turned into so much more, as this served to be the spark that lit the gasoline-drenched underbelly of the club. The deeply rooted ring of drug trafficking, prostitution, and police corruption soon began to be unearthed to the shock of Korean society as a whole. And at the center of it all? Beloved K-Pop celebrities. Boy-next-door types with meticulously curated images, poreless faces, and the most innocent of reputations.

THE ALLEGATIONS

In a country as technologically advanced as South Korea, it comes as no surprise that tech would become the damning evidence that took down the major players of the scandal. Kakao Talk, a popular messaging app in Korea, housed chatrooms in which Burning Sun club staff and VIP clients shared group messages that display the horrifically casual approach to the abuse of women, sex, and drugs that Burning Sun allowed. At the core of such group chats were the rich and famous–singer Jung Joon-young, boy group F.T. Island’s Choi Jong-hoon, several men with ties to K-pop girl groups and the music label YG, former CEOs, and, the most well-known, Seungri of BIGBANG. There was also the fringe involvement of Highlight’s Yong Junhyung and CNBLUE’S Lee Jong-hyun.

Within the group chats, there was conversation that would make most people feel ill just reading through it. Casual, even humorous discussions of secretly filming sex acts (hello, spy cam epidemic), date rape, and prostitution litter the texts. It’s alleged that the club staff drugged, forced, pressured, or paid young women so that VIP club members and investors could do what they please with 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.

The spy cams mentioned, also known as “molka”, are tiny voyeuristic cameras that are hidden in a room either to be viewed live or have its contents sold, all without the permission of (at least some of) those being filmed. South Korea’s digitized society has contributed to the underground obsession with “molka”, which make footage easy to spread and near impossible to take down. These hidden camera crimes have been a prominent point of contention in the South Korean #MeToo movement, and arrests for hidden camera crimes has increased since 2011. They’ve been found hidden in subway bathrooms, hotel rooms, and even in women’s apartments (put there by landlords).

Alt="Small hidden microphone"

The famous stakeholders, like Seungri, reportedly ordered employees to carry out such business practices. Many of those at the forefront of the scandal have strong ties to police and political power. Those involved in the scandal were soon booked on charges of pimping prostitutes and/or illegally filming and distributing sex tapes without consent. 

Police have conducted raids and expanded their drug investigation into all clubs in the Gangnam area, and The Commissioner General of the Korean National Police Agency stated they would conduct an internal investigation into police corruption. He also revealed plans for a nationwide investigation into drugs, sexual assault, hidden cameras and corruption.

SEUNGRI

So why has Seungri’s (one of the club’s directors and member of boy group Big Bang) involvement sent such violent shockwaves? His group, once coined the “Kings of K-pop”, was an incredibly influential force in the development and international spread of South Korean pop, which now serves as a pillar of South Korea’s economy, culture, and international recognition. Debuting in 2006, they’ve since dropped 3 chart-topping Korean albums, toured the world, and continuously been named some of the most powerful celebrities in Korea by Forbes. Their group has been notable for their experimental music, outlandish outfits, and earworm-inducing lyrics. 

Sadly, the highly admired, bad-boy-next-door image that was so meticulously curated all those years would crumble by the hand of one member, Lee Seung-hyun–also known as Seungri. Once part of one of the best selling boy-groups in the world, Seungri sank to infamy as the scandal came to light.

Seungri specifically was indicted on sex bribery charges in early 2020 along with his dramatic departure from the music industry.

Photo by YONHAP/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (10161056a)

The more evidence that came to light, the more that the entertainment industry was affected. More popular boy groups such as Highlight, F.T. Island, and CNBLUE all found their members embroiled in this scandal.

RESPONSE

So what is the impact of this? And what does this scandal teach us?

Burning Sun has led to outrage and street protests in Gangnam and beyond. Protesters, a majority of whom are women, call for an end to the cultural norms that treat women as sexual objects. This call-to-action wasn’t the first, but one of many. The lack of attention paid to this outcry prior to Burning Sun evidences the blind eye often turned to women’s issues in Korea. The culture was clearly conducive to such behavior, but still, the idealized images of the K-pop idols involved surprised the public nonetheless. The seemingly “perfect” world of K-pop serves as a weak bandage over the top of the misogyny and violence that is undeniably present within the real culture that K-pop draws from; an opaque dressing atop the nurtured misogyny that fuels such scandal.

If you take a closer look at K-pop, the cracks are there. The skimpy outfits of female artists compared to male artists. The overt sexualization of even the most cute, child-like of female stars. The unrealistic standards pushed by the industry, with dangerously low weight, and perfect looks (often through thousands of dollars of plastic surgery) being the “natural” ideal for women. These patriarchal standards contribute to the heavy-handed pressure placed on women of all ages through pop culture not just in Korea, but across the globe. 

When scandals like this come to light, everyone seems to be shocked and surprised. The behavior and mentality behind Burning Sun is absolutely nothing new, and the sheer amount of “average, unknown” men participating in such a system is uncountable. The problem doesn’t stop after the Burning Sun indictments. The problem doesn’t stop at Seungri. The problem encompasses everyone who participates in the abuse and mistreatment of women, everyone who turns a blind eye to this, everyone who empowers and enables abusers. Can you imagine a world in which the roles of Burning Sun were reversed? Where female celebrities and CEOs were swapping men like currency, drugging and degrading them as though they have no humanity? I doubt you can. Burning Sun is a reflection of the deeply-ingrained problems that exist below the shiny exterior of K-pop and pop culture in general. The numbers show it: in a 2015 survey conducted by the Korean Institute of Criminology on a national random sample (4,000 people) in South Korea about incidents of intimate partner violence, 71.7% of female respondents felt the incidence of “being controlled” by a male partner, 36.6% felt psychological or emotional violence, 22.4% felt physical violence, 37.9% felt sexual harassment or misdemeanor, 17.5% felt sexual violence, and 8.7% felt physical injury.

 As outsiders looking in, it’s important to recognize that a nation can’t be encapsulated or understood through the facade that pop culture provides. In order to avoid ignorance, in order to avoid appropriation, tokenism, and fetishization, one must dig deeper. One must understand the good and the bad, and avoid using the positive side to excuse the negative. The standards of perfection have real implications.  


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