ALL THAT’S left of the “Burning Sun” nightclub in Seoul are the faint outlines of the letters that used to spell its name, which have been hastily removed from above the former entrance. The club was run by Lee Seung-hyun, better known as Seungri, a member of Bigbang, a K-pop group. It was closed last month after police began investigating Seungri and his business associates for offences involving drugs, tax evasion and the provision of sexual services to potential investors (prostitution is illegal in South Korea). Though Seungri denies the allegations, he nevertheless made a grovelling public apology. Some called Mr Lee “Seungsby” (after the Great Gatsby, a high-living fictional anti-hero); the analogy has become even more apt since things all started to unravel spectacularly for Mr Lee. His music label has terminated his contract.
K-pop offers fans a polished and sanitised version of sex and glamour. Recording contracts often ban stars from having girlfriends or boyfriends to ensure that fans can project their desires onto them unimpeded. This makes the revelations that have emerged about the industry since Mr Lee’s downfall all the more damaging.
The part of the scandal that has sparked the most outrage is the revelation that male K-pop stars and their associates apparently used group chats to exchange pornographic videos of women who had been filmed without their consent, along with lewd banter. Jung Joon-young, a singer, songwriter and former television host, has been arrested on charges of filming and distributing illegal spy-cam footage. In a video a friend shared with him, a woman appears unconscious. In extracts of web chats published by a Korean broadcaster, the men joke about drugging and raping women. They also seem to implicate the police in their schemes, alluding to a senior officer who “has our back”.
Spy-cams are common in South Korea, where pornography is banned and internet porn is harder to access than elsewhere. Protests against them form the basis of an energetic women’s movement that began last year and has garnered fresh attention after two men were arrested for installing illegal spy-cams in motel rooms across the country, filming some 1,600 guests without their knowledge. For feminists, the latest K-pop scandal is yet another sign of pervasive misogyny. Jin Sun-mee, the minister for gender equality and family, called on men last week to “please stop” objectifying women, adding that: “Women are humans with souls.”
Fans are disappointed and angered by the revelation that their favourite stars may be truly awful people. “I hate myself for liking him so much,” one woman says of Seungri. YG Entertainment, his former label, has seen its valuation plunge since the scandal broke. Whatever else the investigation reveals, it has already shown that, in the K-pop business at least, not all publicity is good publicity.