South Korea Grapples with K-Pop Sex Scandals

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Seungri, formerly a member of South Korean boy band Big Bang, is seen arriving at a Seoul police station on March 14.

A string of popular singers have quit show business after they were caught secretly recording and sharing videos of their sexual partners — without consent — but the celebrity cases are just the tip of the iceberg.

South Korea's K-pop star system is in turmoil after a string of recent sex crime scandals involving some of the country's most popular performers.

The ensuing controversy has ended careers, upended the lives of victims and also exposed a rampant trend among South Korean young men of secretly recording and sharing videos of their sexual partners, without the women's knowledge or consent.  

Last Thursday night, singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young, 30, was arrested by Seoul police for secretly filming intimate moments with about 10 women. He went on to share the videos with Seungri, the 28-year-old member of one of K-pop’s most influential boy bands, BIGBANG, and Choi Jong-hoon, the 29-year-old leader of the wildly popular K-pop group, FT Island.

All three have since retired from show business, and Jung, if found guilty, could face up to seven years and six months in prison.

Other stars have also been tainted by the scandal after it was revealed that they participated in a chat group where such illegal videos were shared. CNBLUE's Lee Jong Hyun, 28, and Highlight's Yong Junhyung, 29, for example, also have been implicated in the controversy.

Prior to his involvement in Jung's case, Seungri, whose real name is Lee Seung-hyun, came under scrutiny because of his part ownership of an upscale Seoul nightclub called Burning Sun. The club has been hit with a complicated string of allegations, including prostitution, drug distribution, police corruption — and, again, the illicit pornographic recording of non-consenting women. Authorities have accused club staff of drugging female clubbers so that VIP clients could sexually assault them in private rooms and film the act.

The K-pop scandal is a moment of reckoning for the South Korea's music industry and the country's pop culture as a whole. K-pop, with its millions of adoring fans worldwide, is a huge export industry for South Korea and an important source of the country's cultural identity.  But, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in noted, commenting on the lurid allegations against various K-pop artists: "If the truth is not revealed, we cannot say this is a just society."

In recent weeks, the scandal has expanded far behind the world of entertainment. Earlier in March, local police arrested two men who allegedly installed hidden cameras in 30 motels in 10 cities around the country. Some 4,000 internet users around the world, including paid subscribers, had access to live streams that exposed the private activities of over 1,600 hotel guests, mostly couples, over a period of three months. 

According to local reports, the number of reported crime cases tied to spy cams has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching 6,800 in 2018, compared to about 1,100 in 2010. Footage from miniature recording devices placed in South Korean private spaces are said to be widely and readily available online — such as through internet shopping malls — for peeping toms to pay to spy on unsuspecting victims. Cameras have been discovered in not only South Korean motels, but also in public bathrooms, locker rooms and even private homes. The resulting "spy-cam porn" has proliferated on illegal Korean-language sites.

Before K-pop stars were linked to spy-cam porn, however, the issue was largely overlooked in South Korea, local victim advocates say. "Punishing such crimes has been relatively tricky. One could be found guilty for making requests to see such videos, such as through messenger chat programs. But the reality is that most cases go unnoticed or taken seriously," lawyer Kim Bo-ram tell THR.

Last July, tens of thousands of South Koreans marched in Seoul, demanding more protection against spy cameras. Some female protesters carried signs that read "my life is not your porn." The demonstration has yielded some positive results, and the local government, in response, hired workers to conduct daily investigations for hidden cameras in public bathrooms.

But industry watchers have expressed concern that the general dismissive attitude toward such crimes is indicative of deeply rooted gender inequality and misogyny in the country. Over the past week, some fan groups have even come to the defense of the accused pop stars. 

"I thought common sense would incite anger over such heinous crimes [related to Jung and Seungri]," Seo Ji Hyun, a prosecutor who was a leading voice in South Korea's #MeToo movement last year, wrote in a Facebook post that has gone viral in the country. "But I am feeling almost faint to hear people say things like 'any kid could do that for fun; they were just unlucky to get caught — let's ignore it because it's [a conspiracy] to distract the public from [bigger controversies]'."

Holding the accused accountable "is not feminism or radicalism," Seo wrote, "It's simply punishing criminals."

In one widely cited recent court case, a young Seoul man was caught sharing photos and videos of his girlfriend over a period of three years. Taken without her knowledge while she was showering or sleeping, the content was exchanged with strangers through online communities.

"What is disturbing to note is that the boyfriend regards the photos and videos as products, and took the initiative to market them and exchange them," criminal psychologist Lee Soo-jung said on a widely noted debate program on the issue that aired Wednesday on Channel MBN.

On March 14, the Commissioner General of the Korean National Police Agency revealed plans for a nationwide investigation into cases of sexual assault and hidden cameras, together with related crimes involving drug dealing and corruption.

"Even though the local government offers support for deleting [spy-cam porn], it is virtually impossible to completely eradicate it. This proves increasingly difficult the longer such photos or videos have been online. The psychological and emotional wounds of victims, however, are lifelong," said Lee.