- By Fan Wang and Yuna Ku
- in Singapore and Seoul
The death of K-pop star Moonbin has shocked fans around the world – and has once again highlighted the pressures these artists face.
While the exact cause of death is still under investigation, police said Moonbin “appears to have committed suicide”.
This is the latest in a series of sudden deaths of young celebrities to hit the South Korean entertainment industry.
Jung Chae-yull, a 26-year-old actress, was found dead at her home earlier this month. Actress Yoo Joo-eun died aged 27 in August last year. Sulli, a former member of girl group f(x), died in 2019 aged 25 following a long struggle with online bullying. And her close friend Goo Hara, also a K-pop star, was found dead at her home a month later.
Not all were recognized as suicides. But Moonbin’s loss has renewed scrutiny of the highly competitive world of Korean show business.
The tough road to becoming a K-pop star
Known for its hyper-competitive culture, South Korea also has the highest youth suicide rate among developed countries. As its overall suicide rate goes down, the deaths of people in their 20s go up.
And being a celebrity in South Korea means they would be under far greater pressure than pop stars in North America or Europe, according to Rob Schwartz, Asia correspondent for Billboard Magazine.
The competition is fierce from the start. Entertainer is a very popular career choice for budding young Koreans. A survey by South Korea’s Ministry of Education in 2021 showed that actors, models and singers were among the top 10 dream jobs for elementary school students.
To be a K-pop star, most people have to go through a grueling training period, which means they will largely lose ties with their friends and peers, and that could take years.
Beyond Glamor – The Other Side of K-pop
In Moonbin’s case, although he had already been a child actor in the popular Asian-scale Korean drama series Boys Over Flowers at the age of 11, he still needed to train for eight years before to debut as a member of the idol group. Astor. Her sister, Moon Sua, also a K-pop singer with girl group Billlie, spent 12 years preparing.
After many intense selections, only a small number of trainees arrive on stage. And what awaits them is an industry already overflowing with stars.
The control of celebrity agencies and fan culture are the two biggest contributors to the massive stress faced by Korean stars, Schwartz pointed out.
Previously, it was common for new starts to be tied to so-called slave contracts – long, exclusive agreements with little control over their timing or financial reward.
While some K-pop stars have won lawsuits releasing them from unreasonable contracts in recent years, he doesn’t think the relationship between the two parties has fundamentally changed.
“K-pop stars are more in control, in the sense that they’re not as controlled,” says Schwartz. “Things have changed, I wouldn’t necessarily say they’ve improved.”
And fan enthusiasm, amplified by the country’s extremely active social media, could sometimes be a double-edged sword.
“They pay attention to every gesture, they comment on their hair,” says Schwartz. “It’s crazy how they have these guys under a microscope.”
Once they’ve made their debut, celebrities aren’t just watched closely by their fans, but by society as a whole. In a country where disparity has long been a talking point, being a public figure means higher standards expected by the public.
Drunk driving, commonly regarded as one of the worst offenses a public figure can commit in South Korea, could easily end their career there. Prominent actress Kim Sae-ron, 22, faced a huge public backlash after crashing her car while driving drunk.
“Korea has a very strict moral standard for celebrities compared to other countries,” said Korean pop culture critic Ha Jae-kun.
“If a star behaves a little differently from what is perceived as ‘decent’, the public would attack them. And it’s hard for a star to ignore that kind of aggression because of the strong social pressure of a strong collectivism.”
Being a celebrity with mental health issues could be extremely difficult, insiders pointed out.
In an interview with BBC Korean in 2017, rap star Swings, who himself has been diagnosed with multiple mental disorders, revealed the burden it could place on them.
“It’s like walking around naked,” he said. “They say ‘I thought this guy was sick, you know, how does he get on stage?’ They obviously don’t know what’s going on.”
The industry is aware of the strain on their stars’ mental health, and some K-pop idols have taken long breaks for wellness reasons.
Jeongyeon, a member of top girl group Twice, has taken four sets of hiatus since 2020 due to mental health issues and a neck injury. She made her comeback last month. Moonbin also went on hiatus in 2019 and 2020, citing health reasons.
Several agencies have also introduced therapist sessions for interns and celebrities. Naver, South Korea’s largest search engine, closed the comments section under its entertainment news in 2020, acknowledging how potentially toxic the environment has become.
But some still don’t see a momentum for fundamental change coming soon.
“K-pop is a special thing and everyone would like to improve it for K-pop idols. But how do you do it?” argues Mr. Schwartz.
“The super fans are so obsessed with these idols, it feels like a vicious cycle of being put under the microscope to perform at a high level.”
Yuna Gu is a reporter for BBC Korea based in Seoul.
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