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How K-pop's Cancel Culture Exposed the Industry's Perfect Illusion

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

For those who may or may not know, 'cancel culture ' is where highly-regarded figures, whether they be organizations, brands, or even celebrities can be exposed and called out on social media for engaging in problematic behaviour. This could be anything from being racist, sexist, homophobic, religiously insensitive, and more. However, cancel culture is not just an occurrence that takes place in Western countries. Cancel culture is a worldwide phenomenon, and one that holds a lot of weight in a country like South Korea.

People who are exposed for engaging in controversial behaviour are often called out and critiqued on social media, analyzed as to whether or not what they did is worthy of redemption, and then either given a second chance or have their careers brought to an abrupt halt. This may be because Korean people don’t want those who may jeopardize the image of Korea to still be in positions of popularity and power and be representing them. In fact, this belief is known as ‘kibun ‘기분’ which “permeates every facet of Korean life and can be described in terms of pride, face, mood or state of mind and feelings.”

This relates to Confucian values and principles and South Korea being heavily influenced by it. These principles state that one should respect authority, behave with virtue, work diligently, avoid extremes, and to live fairly. Kibun relates to this because as a major concept to the way of life within Korea, it means that you have to make sure that you are being respectful, courteous, and not engaging in any activity that would result in a loss of face whether in a social setting or a business context. This notion pertains to Korean idols too. Koreans expect everyone, including idols, to follow the rules and social norms of their society, so when someone does something outside of the expected behaviour and strict set of rules, they are met with the vitriol and heavy critique for it.

From major scandals like distributing revenge porn, blackmail, underage trafficking, domestic violence, and spycams and sex abuse to normal things like dating or gaining weight, there has always been scrutiny and crticism involved. There are already overwhelming amounts of pressure on these idols to be perfect and maintain their image. It’s one thing to expect idols to be decent human beings and not abuse, violate the autonomy of others, or distribute illicit drugs because not only are those things against the law, but they’re the things we expect of someone who is moral, has common decency, and isn’t a monster. But, demanding idols to not date, adhere to strict beauty standards and not gain weight, and even reprimanding them for the harmless things they’ve done in the past is still fair game for Korean netizens and the general public to analyze and judge.

This behaviour relates to the theory of Panopticism by the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, which discusses the concept of constantly being surveilled and not wanting to engage in activity that would go against society nor the government’s principles for the fear of being punished, which causes people to live their lives almost as prisoners. There are huge expectations placed on Korean idols to be perfect, so when they stray from that - even just a little, they’re often met with malicious online remarks, cyber attacks, bullying, and wrath from Korean netizens.

On Sunday, November 24th, former KARA member and popular soloist in both Korea and Japan, Goo Hara, was found dead in her apartment. Reports have not yet been released as to what the cause of death was, however, Goo Hara had previously attempted suicide back in May of 2019, but was unsuccessful, so there are speculations that this may have been the cause of death. Nonetheless, Goo Hara was a victim of endless online bullying from people who either blamed her for being abused, didn't believe that she was actually abused, or claimed that she deserved it. People always took the chance to trivialize her experience and try to silence her. Goo Hara was not only both sexually and physically assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, but she was manipulated and blackmailed with revenge porn.

Despite everything going on in her personal life, K-netizens never failed to slander her in the public eye rather than extend a hand of sympathy and understanding. On top of being nitpicked by the general public, she was made fun of by some popular idols , as well. She was rarely offered the necessary moral support and grace that every human being needs, especially one dealing with trauma. Goo Hara experienced so much grief, suffering, and even gender-based violence and rather than being supported online by the general mass, she was met with even more harassment and vitriol.

Back in August of 2019, Jihyo , a member of the superstar girl group, TWICE , was exposed by Dispatch for being in a relationship with former Wanna One member and current solo artist, Kang Daniel. Despite the fact that dating is completely normal and a regular part of everyday life, it is heavily looked down upon for Korean idols. Both Jihyo and Kang Daniel were met with comments admitting disgust, disappointment, and anger from fans and just average Korean netizens. Some of the most top-rated comments translated by NetizenBuzz include:

  • “4. [+382, -10] His fans helped him sell 450,000 albums and he pays them back with news of a relationship, I feel bad for his fans ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ”

  • “5. [+336, -10] He's really stupid. All he had to do was wait a bit and he'd be able to afford several more buildings at his age but he blew it all over a relationship.”

And, even after Jihyo made her first public appearance after her relationship was exposed, a lot of the translated comments were about how her appearance had declined or how she just wasn’t attractive at all anymore, such as:

  • “3. [+434, -117] Jihyo's pretty but I'll be honest, her beauty changed for the worst compared to when she was younger…”

On October 14, 2019, a former member of a top Korean girl group, f(x), Sulli, committed suicide. Sulli had long been a target of vicious comments from netizens who constantly critiqued her for her image, her rumoured sexuality, her confidence, and her passion for social justice. Sulli, is just one of the many examples of Korean idols who was never given the chance to grow and live authentically and carefree as they are without being met with online persecution, torment, and harassment by netizens.

There was also the persecution of Tablo from Epik High who endured death threats, abuse, and heckling online from hundreds of thousands of Koreans who did not believe that he graduated from Stanford University. He was accused of having a fake diploma and despite being forced to provide his transcript records, he was still accused of engaging in diploma fraud. The non-stop attacks and doxing affected not only Tablo, but every member of his family, which unfortunately, resulted in his father dying of heart disease. Eventually, Tablo was able to prove himself to be telling the truth and filed a lawsuit against those who were apart of the smear campaign against him. Additionally, Wonho of Monsta X has been met with vitriol online based on a string of allegations from 2013 made against him by former idol trainee, Han Seo Hee, and a former ulzzang model, Jung Da Eun. Despite both parties involved in accusing Wonho of these allegations being involved in scandals of their own with Han Seo Hee who reportedly admitted to be the “middle man” to distributing LSD to another idol and Jung Daeun who admitted to smoking marijuana too. Nevertheless, Wonho is dealing with the brunt of the infuriation and disfavor from the Korean netizens. Some of the top comments under this post as translated by Netizenbuzz reveal sentiments about Wonho like:

  • 1. “[+442, -7] He lived his life in such a makjang way that it makes you question how he ever got to debut at all”

  • 2. “[+421, -6] He's pretty much exiled from the industry for good at this point, Wonho's songs should all be banned from broadcast”

  • 9. “[+43, -0] Dispatch is on this now, it's game over ㅋㅋㅋ probably why he tried to beat everyone to the punch by leaving the group ㅋㅋㅋㅋ meanwhile his fans are crying and whining asking him not to leave ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ”

  • 10. [+35, -1] The other Monsta X members better get drug tested too.

Regardless of the fact that Wonho has lived a life free of scandals up until this point and has actively worked towards being kind, respectful, and has gotten involved in a multitude of different social justice initiatives, that hasn’t been enough to protect him from the critiques he’s received from those who believe him continuing as an idol would negatively affect Korea’s image. Fans of Monsta X have been raising the awareness and advocating for Wonho’s behalf for the hostile treatment that Wonho has been experiencing from the constant cyber attacks and from having to withdraw from his group. Still, the future of Wonho’s career lies in the hands of his company, his legal team, and whether or not the general public in Korea are willing to grant Wonho a second chance for the mistakes he allegedly made in his youth. As of November 29, 2019, the Korea Singers Association calls for all portal sites, like Naver, to shut down the comment sections on all entertainment articles. Additionally, they want the National Assembly to create a bill that encourages for there to only be factual articles and to punish those who write articles that will encourage malicious comments. This is all being done because they want for there to be better policies to protect Korean artists online. This may hopefully encourage Korean entertainment companies to do a better job at implementing measures to properly protect their artists rather than leaving them to either deal with the abuse by themselves, or terminating their contract so that the agencies don't have to deal with the negative publicity. With all of that being said, it’s very unfortunate that idols are made to conform to this narrative that they must be perfect and appeal to the conscience of the mass, even if it means compromising their own identity. It’s irrational to expect people to live a life without flaws because everyone makes mistakes. That’s what makes us human. What’s important is being able to acknowledge where one went wrong and then grow from there in an effort to not make that same mistake again. We cannot erase, change, or alter our past in any way, but at the very least, we can work towards being better people for the future. Applying these unnecessary pressures on idols to be perfect to not only debut into a ruthless and incredibly competitive industry, but to have a spotless past, as well, is unreasonable. Setting high performance standards and wanting the best for your country’s people, especially those who have a higher social standing, is completely understandable. This system of upholding a high standard is one of the many things that makes Korea unique, especially because of its lengthy history of making use of Confucianism. And, it would be incredibly difficult to try and reverse and change centuries of how a society operates and what it expects from its citizens. But, it’s important to note that making mistakes and doing things outside of the social norm are okay as they are essential for growth, developing individuality, and a strong sense of self as a human being. This culture of purity is not realistic, especially knowing that people don’t apply those same rules and restrictions to themselves. Not wanting to support people who are rapists, abusers, or have said/agreed with violent and problematic sentiments is totally okay, but condemning and cancelling people for doing things that anyone else can do (like dating, gaining weight, or not having a perfect youth) with lesser criticism and vilification is another. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “if you look for perfection, you'll never be content.”

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