One of K-pop’s biggest idols has dramatically quit the entertainment industry after it emerged he is being investigated on suspicion of violating South Korea’s prostitution law.
The youngest member of K-Pop mega-group Big Bang, Seungri made the announcement on his official Instagram account on Tuesday.
“I think I’d better leave the entertainment industry at this moment,” he wrote. “I just cannot bear causing any further damage to people around me, while being hated and criticized by the public and being treated as a nation’s enemy during the investigation.”
Seungri has for years maintained the squeaky-clean image required of South Korean entertainers.
But in recent months a scandal dogging the Burning Sun nightclub in Seoul, which Seungri sat on the board of, had put that reputation in danger. It had also caused some to question how clean-cut K-pop idols really are.
The Burning Sun club, located in the upscale Gangnam neighborhood, faces allegations of bribery, violence against customers, securing prostitutes for VIPs, rape, drug trafficking and drug use, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Police. Numerous women have come forward with claims of being assaulted or drugged at the club, which the authorities have been investigating for two months.
Burning Sun last month posted a statement on social media saying it was “actively cooperating” with the police. It had also promised to introduce measures to protect customers, including female security officers and extra surveillance cameras. But since then the hotel in which it is located said Burning Sun has opted to end its lease early and close.
The club did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, 28-year-old Seungri, who also oversaw publicity for Burning Sun, resigned from the club’s board. Neither Seungri or his label, YG Entertainment, responded to CNN’s request for comment, but a statement from the label said that he and its executives were cooperating with police.
According to multiple reports, Seungri apologized on stage at a concert on February 14 and canceled events in Osaka and Jakarta this month. But, in the end, those efforts were not enough to save his career.
“I’m truly grateful for all my fans in Korea and in the world for showing much love for the past 10 years,” he wrote on social media. “I feel that I need to end it here for the reputation of YG and Big Bang.”
K-Pop stars are expected to conform to notoriously high standards of conduct, both from their management and fans. Their labels impose restrictions on who and how publicly they can date, what they wear and how they behave in public.
Big Bang has been at the forefront of the K-Pop industry since its debut in 2006, and was the first Korean group to win the Best Worldwide Act at the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2011. That success put additional pressure on Seungri.
CedarBough Saeji, an expert in Korean culture and society at the University of British Columbia, said that for K-Pop stars: “Their every public moment is a product to be consumed as representative of the nation, representative of ideal behavior, and representative of performative talent.”
Jenna Gibson, a Korea expert at the University of Chicago, said that if the allegations against Seungri and Burning Sun were true, “this level of scandal goes beyond anything we’ve seen in recent memory” in K-pop.
Drug laws are exceptionally strict in South Korea and drug use is also rare. Only about 7,800 arrests were made in 2017, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service, in a country of more than 51 million people.
Celebrities caught with even small amounts of marijuana can find themselves suspended by labels or forced to make public apologies.
“Scandals involving drinking, drugs or even dating not only make waves in the entertainment news section but also the finance news section,” Bernie Cho, a Korean music industry executive, told CNN last year.
“Many of the biggest Korean music management companies are also publicly traded stocks on the Korean stock exchange. Sensational headlines can take a serious hit on the bottom line.”
Often in the wake of a scandal, labels and stars will cancel events – as Seungri has done – and postpone record releases until attention in the story wanes.
Gibson predicted Seungri might choose to begin his mandatory military service early in order to get out of the public eye.
All South Korean men are required to perform between 18 and 21 months of public service, something that can be devastating for entertainers’ careers. But in this case it could benefit Seungri.
Fresh accusations around the Burning Sun scandal have been appearing in the Korean press almost every day. There is huge public appetite for the story because part of the case resonates with an ongoing reckoning with attitudes in South Korea towards women, said Korean culture expert Saeji.
Last year, tens of thousands of women took to the streets of Seoul to protest against an epidemic of illegal filming and sexual harassment, under the slogan “My Life is Not Your Porn.”
An increasingly active women’s movement has also taken aim at the country’s gender divide and pay gap, one of the worst in the developed world, which President Moon Jae-in has described as “shameful” and pledged to improve. In 2018, the country ranked 30 out of 36 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations for women’s employment, even though it has the highest tertiary education rate of the group for women aged 25 to 34.
Politics is particularly unequal. Women hold just 17% of seats in South Korea’s parliament, according to the World Bank.
Saeji said that the Burning Sun scandal came at a time when such issues “are being faced by society more directly than ever before.”
Like the spy cam epidemic – which exposed a constant unease many South Korean women felt about being watched, both in public and private – the nightclub scandal, particularly the allegations regarding date rape and sexual assault, has painted a picture of a predatory environment many women know only too well.
“Many Korean women have had unfortunate or scary experiences at clubs, and some men are also aware and outraged about this sort of predatory and illegal behavior,” Saeji said.
The presence of Seungri on the board, who as a K-Pop star “presumed to represent the best role model for young Korean men,” only heightens the anger over it, she added.
James Griffiths reported from Hong Kong. Yoonjung Seo reported from Seoul, South Korea.