The recent death of K-pop star and actor Sulli (Choi Jin-ri), reminded me of one evening in late 2017. At that time, I worked as a culture reporter covering K-pop news in Seoul, South Korea.
That day, I took a bus home after work. Then I got an urgent call from my editor. I was told that K-pop boy band member SHINee’s Jonghyun (Kim Jong-hyun) had died by suicide. I wrote the breaking news hastily in the bus. Jonghyun allegedly had depression and was bullied online and on social media. He was 27 when he died.
There was a strong sense of déjà vu all over again when I heard of Sulli’s own death last week. She was 25.
Korean media was again filled with stories about cyberbullying and the pressing issue of depression. Media also emphasized the severity and destructiveness of online bullying that the former member of the girl band f(x) was often a victim of. Sulli herself often spoke publicly about her own mental health issues.
I've never interviewed or met neither Sulli nor Jonghyun, but I’ve interviewed numerous K-pop artists. I discovered one commonality in the conversations: depression. Many shared how they felt depressed and how often their minds created extreme thoughts. Some talked about seeking help with medical professionals. Often, PR managers politely asked us journalists to delete these parts.
Those who dared to speak were mostly senior K-pop stars who were past their peak popularity. I noticed that junior K-pop stars who recently debuted were more mum about personal issues and opinions, especially those under giant K-pop labels. To a certain extent, I understood the labels’ intervention, who also wanted to protect their own artists from vile attacks. But unsurprisingly, the immense control and restrictions these artists face can take their toll.
Last year, a K-pop star from an influential boy band used an unfamiliar term, even to us culture reporters: “idol’s puberty.” “Most artists who were or are members of K-pop groups go through this period and this syndrome comes from experiencing an abnormal tsunami of varying emotions: zeal, love, hatred, and loneliness,” he explained. In other words, he seemed to suggest that what made everything overwhelming were not just the negative comments and cyberbullying, but also the uncontrollable roller coaster of reactions from fans and critics alike, especially when K-pop artists start expressing their own thoughts and identities.
The combination of this toxic fandom and vigorous constraints on the stars proves destructive, and in some cases, fatal.
Sulli, who debuted as a child actor at 11 years old, was hugely popular and became one of the top K-pop stars. But she was also subjected to intense online bullying because she was deeply outspoken. She openly supported South Korea’s abortion legalisation, which passed earlier this year. She was an avid women’s rights advocate, and was a big supporter of the no bra movement. She insisted that women don’t have to wear bras if they found them uncomfortable and showed herself wearing a T-shirt without bras multiple times. Her advocacies made her the target of severe criticism.
K-pop is the most popular type of music coming out of Asia and many young people who dream of becoming future stars come to South Korea from all around the world to be trained under prominent K-pop labels. But the tragic stories of K-pop stars shed light on the need for South Korea to rethink its acceptance of diverse opinions. Sulli was, in many ways, only praised for her advocacies after she was gone. Her death has intensified demands for the government to create new laws to protect people against cyberbullying.
K-pop has thrived in its consistency and formulas, with artists’ fame stemming from distinctive music elements, the perfect synchronicity of dance steps, and their picture-perfect packaging. But perhaps we should all start recognising and appreciating K-pop artists for the unique individuals they are.
Junhyup Kwon is an editor at VICE Korea.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.