K-pop’s rose-colored glasses


Rachel Choi

Rachel Choi

By Riley Nemes, Beacon Correspondent

In recent years, K-pop’s popularity has skyrocketed around the world as Korean pop groups break billboard records in the Western entertainment industry. In 2022, a handful of K-pop artists, including BTS, Stray Kids, BLACKPINK, TWICE, TXT, and NCT 127, entered the top 20 of the Billboard 200.

But this popularity has come at some serious costs for many idols. Entertainment companies maintain a training system that normalizes verbal and physical abuse so much so that it’s often overlooked, in the name of perfection. Nowadays, idols are not trained, they are produced. Despite the harsh reality, Korean idols continue to capture the hearts of fans worldwide as talented dancers, vocalists, and charismatic personalities.

 However, what many Western consumers don’t see is the dehumanizing and abusive nature of the K-pop training system: a rigid schedule with 18-hour work days and extreme diets that lead to health issues and exhaustion. The current factory-like structure needs to be overhauled for the safety of the artists before any more carbon copy money puppets are produced.

The increase in global popularity of South Korean culture—also called the Hallyu Wave or Korean Wave—first began in the 1990s but didn’t truly take off until 2003. The wave’s growth has been gradual: it took until the mid-2010s for Korean music to extend its fan base into the global stage.

South Korean music chart tracker Gaon Chart reported that recent global K-pop sales have risen immensely, with the nation’s top 400 albums selling 57.09 million copies internationally in 2021, up by 36.9 percent from the previous year’s 41.71 million

Much of this international success is attributed to the U.S. According to a 2021 survey, the U.S. makes up for 62.14 percent of K-pop’s global popularity—and that’s only counting the U.S. Financial Supervisory Services reported that of JYP Entertainment’s 72.9 billion won in total sales, 39.5 billion won were exports compared to the 33.3 billion won in domestic sales.

Professor Kim Seiwan from Ewha Womans University estimates that South Korea generates about $10 billion each year from the K-pop industry. This economic influence began in the early 2000s and helped relieve economic stress from the 1997 Asian Financial crisis. This is not the only time that the economic influence of K-pop helped the South Korean economy. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and Korea Culture and Tourism conducted a joint study that showed the revenue generated by BTS’s hit song, “Dynamite,” provided approximately 8,000 jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Korean Wave boosted South Korea’s economy by $9.48 billion. A large portion of these exports are from K-pop merchandise sales; BTS merch in particular brought in an economic revenue of $114.5 million

South Korea is definitely profiting off K-pop artists, so why are they treated poorly in training? 

For all its global popularity and economic impact, the well-being of idols and the strategies of their upbringing should be considered just as vital. But the idol training system is kafkaesque in many aspects: it’s gross and bureaucratic. 

Any aspiring artist must first audition for an entertainment company, with competition spanning 10-year-old children to 30-year-olds. After idols are signed by companies, they are subjected to isolating and dehumanizing regulations.

 Dehumanizing methods of training can be traced back to the formation of the “big three” entertainment companies: S.M. Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment, which are all founded by popular music artists from the 90s. 

JYP Entertainment, for example, imposes a strict three-year ban on new idols dating—which forbids them from using their phones or meeting others of the opposite sex. Policies also include absurd weight regulations. Momo, a member of the supergroup Twice, was once ordered to lose 15 pounds in a week. Rules with adverse effects are normalized at most companies in South Korea. Former Super Junior member, Hankyung, even sued S.M. for “unfair activity scheduling” which has caused him to develop gastritis and kidney illness. 

A group’s success directly impacts a company’s profit, yet in many of the 316 K-pop companies in Korea, there’s only about a 10 percent chance of ‘stars’ making a successful debut. Knowing this, smaller companies often follow the training trends of aforementioned larger companies hoping that the enforcement of similar training techniques will increase trainee success and annual profits. 

Absurd and dangerous expectations within companies are fairly common. The industry searches for female idols from 5’2 to 5’9 who weigh a maximum of 104 pounds. These parameters form life-threatening eating disorders. Lee Jong-im, a pop culture expert and author of “Idol Trainees’ Sweat and Tears,” said in an interview with K-POP HERALD that agencies “have trainees constantly on diets or encourage them to get plastic surgery.” 

There have been several instances where idols have been physically abused by their management as well. Most recently, male idol group Omega X was subjected to verbal and physical abuse by Spire Entertainment CEO Kang Seong Hee. The incident was caught on video making it one of the few documented pieces of evidence of K-pop abuse. 

Many idols who wish to achieve their dreams are met with constant scrutiny and harm. At the end of the day, these idols are still people and deserve to be treated as such. No person deserves to be subjected to constant pain and fear, especially if that person is putting in the effort to reach their goals. The idea that young artists must endure abuse in order to climb the ranks, and rookie idols must earn respect is unethical. 

Some U.S. companies perpetuate this abuse. California-based production company Republic Records announced at the beginning of 2022 that they would be expanding their existing partnership with JYP Entertainment. The partnership between the companies was established with a focus on the international promotion of the girl group TWICE. Now, the companies have decided to include K-pop groups Stray Kids and ITZY in the expansion plans. They’re also hoping to find the next global girl group in a joint venture titled America2Korea, or A2K. 

In the announcement video, JYP said with the help of Republic Records, they will be training the first American artist with the K-pop training system. Going on, JYP believes the reason global audiences fell for idols was their “dedication, their discipline, their hard work, and the values they carry.” Republic Records  adopting the dehumanizing K-pop training system means that corporate success could eclipse human rights. 

Advertising 101 says that sex sells, but when you take a system that debuts 13-year-old boys and girls, sex should be the last thing selling. K-pop’s training system should not be a system to attracted pedophiles. 

South Korean law states underaged workers may not work overnight, and workers ages 15 to 18 may not work more than seven hours a day, or 40 hours a week, without consent from the employee or the Ministry of Employment and Labor. 

Consent from a parent or guardian doesn’t protect the minor from overwork or sexualization. In 2014, Korea altered its minor employment laws, specifically for K-pop trainees. The South Korean government granted underage stars the basic rights to learn, rest, and sleep, though exceptions can be made for projects requiring long-distance travel. 

It is also illegal to coerce minors into wearing revealing stage costumes or dancing sexually suggestive choreography routines. Companies that break these laws by forcing underage talent to act out rape or sexual harassment scenes will be fined nearly $10,000, and in severe cases can face up to five years in prison.    

However, these protective laws are not above being broken. Female K-pop group NewJeans debuted on Aug. 1, 2022, with the song “Attention,” which is about getting attention from one’s crush. This song doesn’t call for much concern and even gained much support, but their subsequent release, “Cookie,” came under fire by listeners. The lyrics suggest sexual themes regarding a woman’s vagina and fans felt very unsettled because more than half the members are minors. 

In the West, the idea that “sex sells” is nothing new. Now that K-pop training is reaching the West, the oversexualization of young idols seems primed to continue.

The shortcomings in the K-pop system are obvious. The dismissal of these issues by leaders in the industry only perpetuates the narrative of the strict, unreasonable, cookie-cutter image of the successful K-pop artist. Idols are people, not cash cows.