Everything that happened to K-pop in 2019

Let's face it, it was a real rollercoaster.

by Taylor Glasby
18 December 2019, 10:00am

Some years hurt more than others -- 2019 was one of them. But it was the relentless waves of scandals and losses rocking the Korean idol industry and devastating fans that prompted many to call this year a cursed one.

As headlines around drugs, death and sexual and physical assaults continued to pile up, so did the salacious crowing from the western media who couldn’t churn out “the dark side of K-pop” pieces fast enough, overlooking factors involved that went beyond K-pop and soapboxing like their own entertainment industries weren’t rife with illegal activity and social frameworks just as inherently flawed.

It’s no secret that K-pop has long-term problems when it comes to idol welfare, and these problems are slow to see change. But now, more than ever, idols are making their voices heard -- HyunA, Mina of Twice and S.Coups of Seventeen are all vocalising their battle with depression and anxiety, they're reaching out for help, pushing past the stigma that mental health issues hold.

Some of the bad news this year proved to be a necessary evil, prompting institutions to clean house. In July, the wildly popular survival talent show series, Produce 101, was accused by the public of vote manipulation in deciding the members of its debuting group, X1. By December, there was confirmation that all four seasons had been rigged, and high ranking executives, including the head of Mnet (the South Korean music network TV channel who produce the show), were arrested on fraud and bribery charges, whilst the releases and schedules of the series’ active groups (X1 and IZ*ONE) were cancelled.

For the fans, groups, and trainees wrongly eliminated, it was outrageously unfair. For CJ ENM, Mnet’s parent company, to face only minor fines (USD $30,000) seems ridiculous. They'll definitely feel the profit loss long-term though, considering Mnet took 25% of the USD $71 million profit made from Wanna One’s 18 month post-Produce 101 career alone, and the fact that X1 (who had a five year contract) was set to rake in even more than Wanna One. Clearly not discouraged, Mnet are currently gearing up to launch another survival show, Teen Singer. As for what effect the Produce 101 debacle will have on it, we'll have to wait and see.

On the flip-side, one company who had a stellar year was Big Hit Entertainment, home to BTS. If anyone thought the global spotlight might be brief for the seven member group, then the joke’s on them. In 2019, their tours -- which included two historic, sold out nights at Wembley Stadium -- tallied USD $196.4 million, their third album hit No.1 on the US Hot 200, they broke the box office record set by their first film with their second, BTS: Bring The Soul, and they won three AMAs. Not bad at all.

They weren’t the only ones breaking records. Blackpink became the first Korean group to hit one billion YouTube views with "Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” and SuperM became the first Korean group to score a No.1 US Hot 200 album on a debut release. Then there was girl group ITZY, who made a splash with their debut “Dalla Dalla” -- the most viewed K-Pop debut in 24 hours, a record almost broken two months later by TXT’s “Crown”. The five-member group TXT also penned on the dotted line with US label Republic, while fellow rookies ATEEZ took up with RCA, NCT127 went with Capitol Records and MONSTA X partnered with Epic Records as the ascension of K-Pop in America continued.

Of these groups, MONSTA X had begun a concerted campaign to push through in America, which included a string of English-language singles. But controversy struck when a former flatmate, Jung Da Eun, called member Wonho out on Instagram in late October, asking him to repay an old debt of thousands. She was joined in this by South Korean actress Han Seo Hee, who’d already made headlines for having been tied to the marijuana and LSD scandal surrounding B.I from K-pop group iKON (the case is still ongoing), which was said to have happened in 2016 but only emerged three years later, in June 2019. B.I left his group immediately, much to the outrage of iKON fans, which only intensified when a local reporter claimed B.I was forced out rather than leaving of his own free will, as he’d originally stated.

Seo Hee claimed Wonho had a juvenile record for aggravated theft, and under increasing public scrutiny and criticism, he announced his withdrawal from MONSTA X in November 2019. South Korean tabloid Dispatch alleged he smoked weed with Jung in 2013 and Wonho’s contract with Starship Entertainment (who’d denied all allegations and begun forming a libel case) was terminated. The group’s fans mobilised globally to protest long and hard on Twitter for several weeks, rented billboards, drew up a petition to reinstate him with over 458,000 signatures, and held silent protests but to no avail -- the group has carried on with six members.

This targeted harassment, alongside cyberbullying, is something that’s long troubled South Korean celebrities and citizens. Whether the accusations are true or not, once your image is tarnished in a country where image is inherently vital, the damage to your life and career can be permanent. Cancel culture to the extreme. In early December, former Wanna One member (now soloist) Kang Daniel cancelled everything in his schedule, citing depression from being constantly harangued. Bullying was also seen as a factor in the deaths of former f(x) member Sulli in October, and former KARA member, Goo Hara in November. Both women, who took their own lives, had been harassed and abused online for years for their dating lives, wardrobe choices, the photos they posted, and their feminist beliefs. Both struggled with mental health issues and Hara, who’d already made an attempt on her life in May (and was publicly lambasted for it), had been physically assaulted and threatened with revenge porn by her ex-boyfriend, Choi Jong-bum, who was found guilty but released on probation with no jail time.

Following their deaths, there were calls for laws to make it harder for hate posts to be anonymous and for there to be harsher punishments for hidden cameras, non-consensual filming and distributing footage of sexual acts -- a wider problem that has led to protests across South Korea. This demand resonates keenly when you consider the mere six and five years of prison given, respectively, to Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon, two musicians found guilty of gang rape and illegally filmed and shared sex tapes.

These videos were revealed by the Burning Sun nightclub scandal, which began in January and saw Big Bang’s Seungri retire from K-pop as he, one of the club’s numerous directors, became embroiled in the wider allegations of corruption, drug dealing, and police and sex bribery. Seungri’s case is still pending (with eight alleged charges including embezzlement and gambling), but what looked as if it might be a day of reckoning for the entertainment and nightlife underbellies eventually fizzled into a series of judicial wrist slaps and media distortion, a cautionary tale rather than a major overhaul.

Amidst the confessions, confusion and reality checks, there was some uplifting news. CL, of seminal girl group 2NE1, broke free of her YG Entertainment contract and began releasing music once more, and Lim Kim returned after a three year absence with a hard-edged sound that turned her former work on its head. Girl group AOA, who’d been facing decline, found a reinvigorated popularity through the survival show Queendom, and Big Bang’s G-Dragon finished his military service and dropped a Nike sneaker collaboration that flew off the shelves, demonstrating that two years away hadn’t dimmed his creativity or popularity.

For international fans, at least, 2019 served mostly as a vivid reminder that no one should be vilified for living a harmless life merely on the basis that it makes you unhappy or uncomfortable. Nor should anyone be placed on a pedestal or have behaviour excused because of fame, beauty, talent or fortune. For regardless of how much we love an artist or think we understand them, the reality is always that we really don’t know them at all.

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