2019 marks the decline of the family-friendly, relentlessly upbeat Kpop scene. The industry has grown so far as to become one of South Korea’s top exports, worth $5 billion annually. However, what used to be a PG-rated genre has now shifted to one tainted with sex crimes, tax evasion, and assault. Illegal hidden camera footage (non-consensual porn, essentially) exchanged between a circle of Kpop stars make up a scandal simply referred to as “Burning Sun.” The term was coined by Korean news outlets, named after the flashy Gangnam-district nightclub, where many of the crimes took place, and established by now-former BigBang member, Lee Seungri. BigBang shaped a new generation of fan culture and helped Kpop cross over to America, with new acts such as BTS and Loona taking spotlight in the States. This legacy built over thirteen years crumbles as more and more information pertaining to Burning Sun shatters public expectation of Korea’s law system.
This issue isn’t just about whether your favorite celebrities careers are crashing down; real people, who don’t have money and power to cover up their mistakes, are involved. Hidden-cameras have been an epidemic in the country since the early 00s, having evolved into such an issue that you cannot purchase a phone in Korea that doesn't make a loud shutter sound when a photo is taken, no matter the brand or setting. In March of 2019, South Korean police discovered approximately 1,600 victims (mainly women) of molka, or spy cams recorded and live-streamed in motel rooms as they changed clothes or used the restroom. More than 5,400 people were arrested since 2017, yet less than 2% were jailed.
In 2018, thousands of women protested illicit hidden-camera footage under the slogan “My Life Is Not Your Porn.” With the #MeToo campaign in mind, previous scandals of the past that were never dealt with properly are being revisited in Korea. SouthPresident, Moon Jaein, called for a re-investigation of the covert sex footage case. He considered the illegal footage as part of the Burning Sun crisis, referencing the death of actress Jang Jayeon, who commit suicide in 2009 and left behind a note outing thirty powerful people she had been forced to have sex with if she wanted to continue her career.
The public, who previously turned a blind eye to rape allegations and harassment, are finally starting to recognize the issues with their government. Within online communities like Pann, the South Korean equivalent of Facebook, people are voicing outrage at the lack of action or steps being taken to bring justice for the victims of the Burning Sun case. Despite leaks of Seungri’s texts containing messages like “You raped her haha,” he still hasn’t been arrested. Meanwhile, other celebrities within the group chat have either turned themselves in or been trapped by their own lies. Jung Joonyoung, a Korean rock singer, apologized by stating, “I admit to all my crimes. I filmed women without their consent and shared on social media,” after the group chat data surfaced to the general public. A petition seeking to extend the investigation has received over 685,000 signatures thus far. The widespread news of the scandal resulted in the retirement and imprisonment of a handful of celebrities with otherwise clean slates. Stocks for major South Korean entertainment companies plummeted as the general public expressed disgust with not only the entertainment industry, but their government as well.
It isn’t until recently, however, that the general public begins to grow intolerant of their celebrities’ bad behavior. Snippets of the Burning Sun scandal first appeared in January of this year and more dirt is uncovered each day. Based on user surveys on Naver, Korea’s version of Google, it’s already been named as the most corrupt incident in Korean entertainment history and the facts are only just beginning to come out. Drug distribution and prostitution only touch the surface of Korea’s deep-rooted issues, all of which heavily imply instances of police corruption. Seungri bribed foreign investors with prostitutes, essentially acting as an international ringleader. His label, YG Entertainment, is one of the top companies in Korea interlinked with other like-minded companies, infamous for their ability to sweep incidents under the rug with money and power.
The story strikes a chord in many South Koreans who want an end to the hidden cameras, sexual violence, and general mistreatment for being, well, a woman. As investigations continue and justice is served, there’s renewed hope that this could be a turning point in Korean culture of women perpetrated by powerful, wealthy men in various industries.