Cracks in the Porcelain – Sexism and the Dark Underbelly of South Korea’s Ruling Class


KPOP and systemic corruption have allowed South Korea’s ruling class to act above the law and how women are paying the price.

On 12th August, an infamous KPOP idol named Seungri from Big Bang was jailed for three years for arranging prostitution and gambling. He was also fined 1.15 billion won ($989,000). This has spotlighted the dark underbelly of South Korea’s most successful cultural export and how Korea’s elite protect each other rather than those not in power.

KPOP, short for Korean pop music, is a global phenomenon thanks to its distinctive blend of addictive melodies, sharp choreography and production values. KPOP has been present for two decades and in particular has become increasingly visible to global audiences in the past five to ten years. South Korea is one of the only countries in the world, if not the only one, that has a dedicated goal to become the world’s leading exporter of popular culture. K-Pop is making a major contribution to the South Korean economic system. According to Korea Foundation for International Cultural Exchange, the “Korean Wave” of K-Pop, TV dramas, and games contributed USD 9.5 billion to the Korean economy in 2018.

Seungri was indicted in January 2020 on multiple charges, including arranging illegal sexual services for business investors from Taiwan, Japan, and Hong Kong from 2015 to 2016. He was also convicted of embezzling funds from a Seoul nightclub and violating laws prohibiting overseas gambling by betting heavily at foreign casinos from 2013 to 2017. He denied most of the charges.

This was further known as the Burning Sun Scandal. The Burning Sun, a nightclub in Seoul, received widespread media and police attention in 2019, following allegations of drug use, violence, and sexual assault. In addition, 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 2018.

The investigation was undertaken to further discover allegations 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.

Seungri was one of the biggest players in this investigation and became the face of the investigation due to his ties to Burning Sun. While he was not the club owner, he worked there as a director and was allegedly responsible for the charges noted above.

Further examination into Seungri’s involvement led to discovering group chats on KakaoTalk, a Korean messaging app. In addition, 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. Jung Joon-young’s group chat includes discussions of rape, drugging women, and having sex with women who are being filmed without their consent. The case resulted in five- and six-year prison sentences for their roles in gang-raping drunk, unconscious women.

One of the exchanges on the chats was this: “Let’s all meet online and go to a strip bar and rape in a car.”Another is in one of the messages, a man brags, “I gave her sleeping pills and did her.” In another conversation, a different male singer jokes, “You raped her, Lol.”

In April 2019, a woman testified that she was one of the victims described in the messages. After seeing the images, videos, voice recordings, and conversations, she believes she was sexually assaulted by five men who had participated in the chat. She said she could not remember what had happened the night of the incident but woke up fully naked next to one of the men in the morning. She has since filed a lawsuit against them alleging assault.

Why did Seungri receive such a small sentence? Why were they just given a slap on the wrist? Seungri may not have directly hurt these women, but he aided and abetted; he knew it was happening in his proximity, and he had the power to do something, and he didn’t. This horrific trial and its poor excuse for justice feeds into South Korea’s unfair and unjust treatment of women, the protecting of corrupt police enforcers, the toxic nature of KPOP fandom culture, and the judicial system’s laxity.

We need to look at South Korean Judicial system’s leniency towards perpetrators of sexual abuse. However, this requires an understanding of gender relations in a deeply patriarchal country. Firstly, South Korean women wield far less political power and confront harsh economic realities. South Korean women struggle to find high-paying employment; less than 47 top executives are women, who are regularly subject to rampant workplace discrimination. A 2015 survey found that 8 out of 10 respondents experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

When it comes to gender-based violence, it’s no better. In 2019, women accounted for 98% of victims in the nearly 10000 cases of crimes against intimate partners, and the Korea women’s hotline estimated that a woman was almost killed every 1.8 days that year.

Workplace harassment, discrimination, domestic violence, and rape, none of these are legal, however the laws clearly do not provide sufficient deterrence for perpetrators of sexual or gender-based violence. Seungri’s slap on the wrist sentencing is a pure example of how systemic corruption has allowed Korea’s ruling class to act above the law and how women are paying the price.

What about law enforcement, and how did they treat the case? Well, in a manner of speaking, they deterred it. The police have reportedly made thousands of arrests in the Burning Sun investigation (most are drug-related). However, many of their own were accused of wrongdoing. And few are sharing cells with the denizens of the Korean underworld and now disgraced stars.

The Seoul Metropolitan Police concluded that one of their own, the former officer surnamed Yoon, was initially gaining favours and therefore potentially protecting the club and its illicit activities. He had received endorsements such as golf sessions and meals from Seungri.

But Yoon was not charged, either with bribery or graft, because the favours he received — four golf sessions, six meals, and three concert tickets over two years, worth 2.6 million won ($2.18 million) — did not reach the threshold that would have been necessary to charge him. Under the Kim Young-ran Act, the limit on such gifts is 1 million won on any one occasion or 3 million won over a year.

The idea that a police officer was accepting favours to ignore these illicit activities should not sit right with anyone. And the fact he also was not punished for his actions is more concerning. Why is the judicial system so lax on men who abuse their position of power? Who can women trust to protect them? Here we see the laws favour those in power rather than protect the vulnerable.

In recent years, we have seen a surge in political correctness and accountability on social media platforms; every wrong step celebrities take is called out immediately by the general public. This accountability is beneficial because it helps everyone peak out against discrimination and makes society a safer place. However, when Seungri’s sentence was revealed, instead of conversations about the justice system and support for the survivors, there was overwhelming support for Seungri, an unrelenting belief that he is innocent and that the system is corrupt.

The above tweets and ignorance are an example of KPOP’s dark side. Unfortunately, many KPOP supporters focus unrelentingly on a KPOP star’s image that they have cultivated for their entertainment rather than focus on their wrongdoings. A KPOP star or idol’s image is basically their bread and butter. Arguably, nothing is more important for an idol than the public’s perception of them. And here, the public perception allows the idol to get away without so much as a scratch. This can link to selective exposure. Selective exposure, a psychological theory related to media communication that involves individuals’ tendencies to favor information that reinforces their pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information, also plays a role. For example, fans will often ostracize an idol for a situation solely because they don’t like the star or group based on their own personal views. Despite this, we have witnessed the other side of this spectrum; communities of loyal fans cover up missteps, toxic behaviour, and potentially dangerous behaviour.

And it’s not like this behaviour has not been apparent. Sex has always been a part of Seungri’s image. He was the face of Tinder for South Korea, was the face of Netflix sitcom “YG Future Strategy Office,” which was criticized for scenes that employ sexual harassment for humour. In one scene, a model was ordered to expose their top in front of a foreign investor. Seungri aided the situation, and the model’s manager eventually forced the model to take off their top. His behaviour and what he represents has been in public view this whole time. While representing Tinder may not be dangerous, being the masthead of a TV show that uses sexual harassment for humour should be challenged. When it’s not ridiculed it gives the perpetrator a sense of power and entitlement.

Unfortunately, these fans, in their eyes, believe he could do no wrong. The kind of fabricated personalities these idols promise cause fans to grow protective and push blame in the other direction rather than admit their behaviour. If the fandom culture can keep going with this perception that powerful men like Seungri can do no wrong, and if they become overprotective, there is no space for victims and survivors to share their stories and experiences.

The amount of revenue KPOP brings in means women won’t see proper justice. This underlying issue of ignorance is a deterrent to women’s rights, and instead, we need to know that these conversations are allowed to take place. We need to discuss why the consequences for Workplace harassment, discrimination, domestic violence, and rape are so lax. We need to discuss what happens if law enforcers are not correctly regulated, how women are protected, and how the elite are kept in line and not abusing their power. We also need to discuss how a KPOP star’s fabricated perception can prevent true justice and prevent other survivors from sharing their experiences.

How can women have a safe environment to exist without being abused? How can we sit back and accept South Korea’s ruling class and systemic corruption?

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