How success of K-pop bands like BTS hide dark side of industry steeped in sex scandals, 'slave' contracts and suicides
THEY are the poster boys for the K-pop craze with a net worth of £50million and more female fans than One Direction.
And this weekend, Korean pop band BTS will send their UK ‘Army’ into a frenzy at two sell-out Wembley concerts where over 100,000 fans are expected.
With their glamorous lifestyles and high-fashion clothes, K-pop bands like BTS have become a global phenomenon over the past two decades, and in April, BTS became the first one to score a number one album in the UK.
But the bright, shiny pop bands are often a facade for a sinister industry plagued with sex scandals, eating disorders and suicide.
While BTS themselves have thoroughly escaped the whiff of scandal, kids as young as 10 are often put through their paces in harsh boot camps where weight and diet are monitored in their bid to become famous.
Some pop hopefuls are also made to sign crippling contracts that could leave them penniless or offered plastic surgery to improve their looks – and several executives have been accused of sexual exploitation.
One manager even shared video footage of himself having sex with his pop artist after she tried to break off her contract.
Here, we take a look at the dark side of the K-Pop phenomenon that has propelled BTS and other Korean bands to fame…
Kids as young as ten forced to diet
K-pop – a fusion of Western and Korean music – first became popular in the 1990s in South Korea but since 2008, social media has fuelled a global explosion with acts like BTS, BlackPink and EXO finding millions of fans in the Western world.
With the K-pop industry now worth around £3.7billion the number of kids trying to become the next pop superstar – and the people exploiting them – has risen.
K-pop colleges have opened all over South Korea, aiming to get ambitious kids the look, style and dance moves that will get them through the tough auditions for the three top labels – SM, JYP, or YG.
If they succeed, life gets even tougher.
Each of the Big Three has their own boot camps where children as young as 10 are put through gruelling training for dancing, singing, modelling and working out 'to achieve the perfect look'.
Their diet is said to be strictly monitored and they are weighed morning and night, with their weight reported to a master trainer.
The alleged pressure to be stick thin means some trainees end up on extreme diets and even starving themselves, even after they make it.
Ladies' Code singer Sojung of girl group admitted on a Korean TV show that she has dieted so much her hormone level dropped to to "those of a menopausal woman."
OneKet from Global Icon allegedly lost a 1st 6lbs in a month by consuming just one bottle of soya milk per day.
Solo artist T.O.P reportedly lost over 4stone in a few weeks by taking in nothing but water and a few jelly beans.
The unhealthy diets can also spread to bands' legions of fans, with some stars advocating food fads like the banana diet or watermelon diet.
One girl band, Nine Muses, revealed they used the 'Nine paper cup diet' – where you eat a daily ration of nine cups of any food except refined sugar.
Unsurprisingly, some fans then tried to follow it.
'A bad face can be fixed with plastic surgery'
But enforced diets are not the only way that some music bigwigs ensure their boot camp wannabes get the right look.
In a country where plastic surgery is common, young hopefuls are often offered loans for cosmetic procedures with the label paying half.
Kim Min-seok, a former master trainer with YG, claimed to Vice: "The first, most important thing is their appearance. If a girl has a bad face and a good body, the problem can be fixed with plastic surgery."
The teens in training can wait between six months to ten years before getting their chance of stardom and those that succeed often find they have signed so-called "slave contracts" that will see them earn 'next to nothing' for up to 15 years.
If they attempt to break the contract there can be severe financial penalties – or worse.
In one shocking case, singer Baek Ji-young's manager Kim Shi-won filmed them having sex without her knowledge, prosecutors said.
He then allegedly threatened to release the footage after she tried to get out of his contract. She called his bluff and he did just that.
When Baek tried to sue, Kim fled to the States where he was later arrested for having sex with a minor, which he was also alleged to have filmed.
He is reported to have served time in an LA jail over the charge.
Sexual exploitation has also been widespread in the whole Korean wave – which encompasses film and TV as well as K-pop.
Seoul Beats recently reported that the CEO of one unnamed K-pop agency was given 20 months in prison for being involved in prostitution.
Spy-camera, sex workers and chat rooms
When actress Jang Ja-yeon killed herself in 2009, at the age of 29, she left a seven page suicide note claiming that modern-day sex slavery was rife across the Korean entertainment industry.
In February, YG star Seungri was reported to have offered sex workers for clients at his Seoul nightclub, Burning Sun, and in March he was arrested for sex bribery.
On March 12, star Jung Joon-young confessed to filming himself having sex with women and sharing the videos in a chat room, without their knowledge or consent.
A Soeul TV station, SBS, then discovered the chat room was used by many more entertainers who watched the videos, leading to the axing of members from three different bands.
There were also vile threads discussing the abuse and rape of women in graphic terms.
The scandal – along with widespread reports of spy-cams being used in hotel rooms and women’s toilets – led to protests in the South Korean capital against a “toxic” culture that allegedly treats women as sexual objects.
As well as sexual exploitation, the pressure to look "perfect" and strive for success has apparently led to some high-profile suicides.
In 2017, pop star Kim Jong-hyun, better known as Jonghyun, took his own life, leaving a note which read:“I am broken from inside.”
Charles Park, known by the stage name Seo Ji-won, was one of the first K-pop celebrities to take his own life in 1996, shortly after his debut album proved an overnight hit. He was 19.
And just two days ago, pop star Goo Hara apologised to fans and promised to "steel my heart" after she was rushed to hospital following a suicide attempt.
Superfan spread urine and faeces on manager's doorstep
Adding to the pressures heaped on the stars are the attentions of the superfans – known as the Sasaeng.
The acts are followed wherever they go by crowds of loyal fans who buy details of their movements – including flight numbers – over the internet and often book themselves into the same hotels or turn up at gyms.
Last December, three fans caused an hour-long delay in Hong Kong by following boy band Wanna One onto their flight, forcing every passenger to go through a second security check.
One K-pop manager told the South China Morning Post he had fans breaking into his building multiple times, saying that one group spread urine and faeces over his doorstep to "mark their territory".
The bands go out of their way to keep fans happy – upsetting them at their peril.
Fans of Super Junior demanded that band member Sungmin be ousted after he wed in secret, without telling them.
Jay Park was forced out of 2PM at the peak of their prominence after remarks such as “I hate Koreans”, allegedly made on a MySpace page years earlier, came to light.
And in 2006, Yunho, a member of boy band TVXQ, was rushed to hospital to have his stomach pumped after the fan of a rival group was accused of serving him a drink laced with glue.
As BTS prepare to rock the crowds this coming weekend, their clean cut and vibrant set will seem a world away from the seedy side of K-pop.
But the popularity of bands like them has helped to fuel the dark underside of the multi-billion pound business.
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