Biggest Scandals To Ever Hit K-Pop

It took a few decades for the Korean Wave (known locally as "Hallyu") to reach the shores of the United States, but it fully arrived in 2017 in the form of BTS. Also known as Bangtan Boys, this seven-piece boy band has become an "uncontested US phenomenon," according to Vox, and the crossover success the boys have enjoyed will inevitably encourage other K-pop acts to try and follow in their perfectly synchronized footsteps. It takes more than just impeccable dance moves and a good voice to make it as a K-pop idol, however. Hopeful groups need to impress at home before they can even think about America, and the standards they're held to in South Korea are almost impossibly high.

"Just that word [idol] gives the idea that they have to be perfect—they have to be the ideal standard of entertainer," K-pop columnist Jeff Benjamin told CBC. "That's a lot of pressure for a young person." Whether you're a solo artist or you're a member of a group, top K-pop idols all live by a strict set of rules. Relationships are forbidden, and looking good is a must, with plastic surgery reportedly rife. In this pressure cooker environment, the temptation to stray from management's chosen path often becomes hard to resist for idols, and this has resulted in numerous scandals over the years.

From shocking suicides and mysterious deaths to revenge porn and blackmail, we're looking into the biggest scandals to ever hit the K-pop industry.

Kim Jong-hyun's tragic suicide

The K-pop community was dealt a devastating blow in December 2017 when SHINee's lead singer Kim Jong-hyun (known professionally as Jonghyun) tragically took his own life at age 27. SHINee fans from all over the world gathered on the streets of Seoul on the day of his funeral, dressed in black and grey as a mark of respect for their fallen idol. "I am so sad that I cannot even cry," one Chinese fan told The Guardian. "My heart aches so much."

According to Yonhap (via Teen Vogue), the singer's sister raised the alarm after receiving some troubling text messages from him. "Please let me go," Jonghyun reportedly told her. "Tell me I did well." By the time help arrived, it was too late for her brother, who was found unconscious and pronounced dead at a Seoul hospital soon after. Grief turned into outrage when it transpired that the idol had died by suicide because the pressures put upon him by the demanding K-pop industry became too much to bear.

Friend and fellow idol Nine9 revealed that Jonghyun had given her a letter and asked her to release it should he ever "disappear" from this world. "I suffered and agonized about it," the letter read (via Metro). "I never learned how to turn this pain into happiness. [I] was not meant to lead a life in the public eye. Why did I make those decisions? It's ridiculous. It's great that I even made it this far."

K-pop star Baek Ji-young's scandalous sex tape

Baek Ji-young is best known for two things: her booming ballads and her scandalous sex tape. In 2001, the solo singer's career was thrown into turmoil when footage of her having sex with her manager at the time was posted online — by none other than the manager himself. According to The Korea Times, Kim Seok-jin fled to the States after releasing the graphic video, where he was later arrested for having sex with a minor. He was deported to face charges in South Korea in 2008, but Baek Ji-young's reputation was already in tatters by then.

The singer revealed that at one stage it became so dangerous to hold fan meetings that she had to organize events at secret locations in South Korea's mountainous regions. "I remember the mountain fan meeting," she recalled during her appearance Star Gazing (via Koogle). "At the time, I really wanted to do the fan meeting because I couldn't see my fans any other way. I couldn't hold the meeting openly because I didn't want other people to find out that the fans were my fans. I was worried that they would be criticized because of me."

Baek was involved in a fresh scandal in 2018 when her husband (actor Jung Suk-won) was arrested on meth charges. "I recognize my husband's misdeed, and as his wife, spouse and lifelong companion, I've been deeply regretting it along with him," she told her fans during a concert (via The Korea Herald).

Park Yoo-chun was hit with multiple rape allegations

Pressing charges against a celebrity in South Korea is a risky business, as accusers are often severely punished if the courts don't rule in their favor. This is precisely what happened in the case of Park Yoo-chun. In 2016, four women accused the JYJ star (known mononymously as Yoochun) of rape, which the K-pop idol categorically denied. According to The Korea Times, these alleged sexual assaults were said to have happened between 2014 and 2016, with one reportedly taking place in the bathroom of a karaoke bar.

"The bathroom of the adult entertainment facility in which [the accuser] claimed she was sexually assaulted has a lock on the inside," Judge Choi Jong-jin said (via Soompi). "Considering that fact, it is difficult to understand why [she] did not leave the bathroom or yell for help. Even after [the accuser] left the bathroom, she stayed with Park Yoo-chun's friends to hang out, and after Park Yoo-chun's party left, she was seen laughing and happily talking to a waiter. These facts confirm suspicions that [her] claims of sexual assault were false."

The first woman to come forward with rape allegations was sentenced to 20 months in prison, while her boyfriend and cousin were sent down for 18 and 24 months, respectively. The judge claimed that the gang had done "irreparable damage" to Yoochun's public image with their attempted blackmail and were therefore "deserving of severe punishment." The singer-actor was eventually found not guilty on all charges.

Seungri's Japanese sex scandal

He may not be the most famous member of five-piece K-pop sensation Big Bang (that title undoubtedly belongs to rapper, singer, and fashion icon G-Dragon), but Seungri is certainly well-known when it comes to scandal. In 2012, photos of him asleep in bed were sold to a tabloid by a Japanese fan who claimed to have had a one night stand with the idol. According to KpopStarz, the singer's name was "tarnished" after this, and not just with fans — even his own bandmates reportedly scolded him for his "careless behaviour."

Seungri later apologized for the incident, revealing that he was "scared and shocked" when the drama unfolded. "It was the first time in history that an idol became the center of a scandal like that," he said during his appearance on South Korean TV show Incarnation (via AllKpop). "The tabloid I was published in is very famous—they don't even bother to talk about anyone who isn't famous. It was my first scandal, but it was so big."

It wouldn't be Seungri's last brush with the Japanese media. The singer allegedly has a thing for Japanese women, and according to Japanese magazine Shukan Bunshun, he simply can't help himself when he starts drinking alcohol. "His behavior is bad when he drinks," a Tokyo bar worker told the gossip mag (via Koreaboo). "He calls a lot of girls over at the karaoke bar and takes home the person he likes."

Son Ho-young's suicide attempt

2013 was a rough year for G.O.D's Son Ho-young (a.k.a. Andrew Son). The singer and actor was sucked into a high profile scandal when his girlfriend of one year was found dead in his car. According to Gangnam police (via Soompi), a "used briquette, an empty bottle of sleeping pills and a suicide note" were recovered by officers, and the contents of the note caused a huge backlash against the idol. "I feel disappointed by Son Ho-young," she reportedly wrote.

Son (who was born in New Jersey) was questioned for two hours in the presence of the deceased's family, but the idol insisted he had no idea something like this was about to happen. "The couple had little fights, but nothing big that could have led to this incident," the singer's rep said, according to KpopStarz. "Son Ho-young is in great shock because he never imagined anything like this to happen."

Just days later, Son attempted suicide using the exact same gas poisoning method as his girlfriend. Luckily for him and his fans, he wasn't successful. When the singer lit a coal briquette inside his car, he accidentally set the vehicle on fire. The blaze was broadcast all over South Korean news. "Son Ho-young will need to be hospitalized for two to four days," his agency said in a statement (via AllKpop). "Although there is no damage to his health, he is in a very fragile state of mind and needs to find stability."

Kim Hyun-joong was accused of beating his pregnant girlfriend

In 2015, SeoulBeats took a deep dive into "the mess that is Kim Hyun-joong's very public domestic violence case," which played out like "the convoluted and tragic storyline of a K-drama." It all began the previous year when the SS501 singer's girlfriend (referred to in the media as Miss Choi) filed a lawsuit claiming that Kim had beaten her repeatedly over a two-month period. As proof, Choi released her medical records, which showed evidence of "severe bruising" and "broken ribs," among other injuries.

It took Keyeast Entertainment a while to respond to the allegations made against their idol, and when they did, they downplayed the whole thing, reportedly suggesting that it was just "rough play" and that broken ribs weren't even that painful. While this outraged certain sections of the public, Kim's fans took his side and even began trolling Choi. In the end, she dropped the charges, allegedly taking a payoff to keep quiet about the incident (via Inquisitr). 

Unfortunately for Choi, she didn't stick to her end of the bargain and was hit with a counter-lawsuit to the tune of $1 million, and that wasn't even the worst of it. After discovering that Choi had allegedly manipulated photos of pregnancy tests to make it appear as though Kim had made her miscarry, the Korean Prosecutor's Office intervened. In 2018, Choi (who has a child by Kim) was found guilty of attempted fraud and defamation and was fined.

K-pop star Kangin's drunk hit and run scandal

Super Junior's Kangin wasn't a name you'd associate with scandal back when the all-boy group (a.k.a. SuJu or simply SJ) debuted in 2005, but over the last few years, he's started to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. In 2016, Kangin was involved in a hit-and-run in Seoul's trendy Gangnam district, reportedly plowing into a streetlight right in front of a convenience store. According to Koreaboo, the idol was allegedly under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crash and he fled the scene out of fear of being arrested.

"It is true that Kangin had a DUI accident," his management company, SM Entertainment, later confirmed (via Soompi). "Kangin contacted the police regarding the accident and received an investigation at the arranged time. Kangin is deeply regretful of his actions and will cease all entertainment-related schedules to take some time to self-reflect." SM (who had only recently created a new label to deal with Super Junior exclusively) had to apologize for Kangin's behavior again the following year after he reportedly assaulted his girlfriend in a bar.

"We're deeply sorry for causing trouble," a statement from Label SJ said. "Kangin had a quarrel with a friend at a bar, which caused a misunderstanding that ended up with a police dispatch to the scene. Once again, we're very sorry that he caused trouble while having time for self-reflection." According to The Korea Times, the woman in question chose not to press charges.

Ivy was blackmailed by her ex-boyfriend

Dubbed "K-pop's most resilient scandal maker" by SeoulBeats, solo singer Ivy found herself in hot water not long after her debut when the video for her breakthrough hit, "Sonata of Temptation," was adjudged to have plagiarized Square Enix's animated movie, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. In 2007, a Seoul Central District Court judge ruled that the music video "illegally used 80 percent of the storyline, setting, characters and their styles of dress and their demeanors," Engadget reported.

The producers of the video were fined 16 million won (approximately $17,400 at the time) and the video itself was subsequently taken off the air, but 2007 had a lot more scandal left in store for Ivy. Before the year was out, the singer was back in the gossip mags and newspapers when rumors of a sex tape emerged. According to The Korea Times, an ex-boyfriend attempted to blackmail the idol's management with an intimate video of the singer he possessed, threatening to release the footage if he wasn't paid 45 million won (around $50,000 at the time).

Instead of paying, Fantom Entertainment went to the authorities, who placed the man (named only as Yoo) under arrest. Police confirmed that Yoo made threatening phone calls and harassed Ivy with text messages on around 200 occasions over the course of a single month, and he also damaged her car. "We have been seeing each other since 2005 but Ivy recently decided to dump me," Yoo revealed.

The mysterious death of K-pop's Kim Sung-jae

The death of first-generation idol Kim Sung-jae has fascinated K-pop fans and conspiracy theorists alike for many years. In 1995, the singer (one half of seminal duo Deux) was found dead in a hotel room with a total of 28 needle marks on his body. He wasn't known to have been a drug user, so these puncture wounds immediately raised suspicion. Traces of tiletamine-zolazepam (an injectable anesthetic agent typically used on cats and dogs) were found in his system, and police were able to prove that the drug had been purchased by Kim's girlfriend at the time.

His partner was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison, but the ruling was later overturned and she was acquitted. To this day, there are those who believe the star was killed by his girlfriend. The story was back in South Korean headlines as recently as April 2018, when fans launched a government petition named "Please Reinvestigate Kim Sung Jae's Case." The mystery has always plagued the late idol's former bandmate, Lee Hyun-do.

"Anyone who got close to me would ask, 'Who really did it?', and I'd close my heart again," Lee, who spoke to Kim on the phone the night that he died, said (via AllKpop). "When people ask me that, I say, 'It's just as everyone else knows.' But I feel that it's unfair sometimes, and thought that the world didn't always run based on the truth."

The Burning Sun scandal ended Seungri's K-pop career

Seungri's career in K-pop came to a controversial end in March 2019. The former Big Bang member was at the center of what became known as the Burning Sun scandal, a series of events that rocked K-pop — and South Korea — to the core (via Billboard). The implications were so big that even the president got involved. "If the truth is not revealed," Moon Jae-in said, "we cannot say it's a just society." What did Seungri do to make an entire nation turn on him?

It all started with an assault at the Burning Sun, a Seoul nightclub in which Seungri (real name Lee Seung-hyun) reportedly had a large stake. A customer was allegedly attacked by a staff member, and the subsequent investigation led to the downfall of several K-pop stars. Drug use supposedly rife at the now-closed Burning Sun, and rape was reportedly a common occurrence. Meanwhile, Seungri was accused of recruiting prostitutes for some foreign investors that visited the club in 2015, something he's denied.

This all came to light when a whistleblower leaked a private group chat, the contents of which were highly incriminating and deeply shocking. Seungri and several others were caught sharing spy-cam footage of women who had been recorded during sex without their knowledge. The idol denied filming any of the footage, but admitted to sharing it. He announced his retirement on Instagram, conceding that this scandal was "too big" to overcome (via The Guardian).

Jail terms were handed down over the Burning Sun scandal

Former Big Bang member Seungri reportedly faces three years behind bars for his role in the Burning Sun scandal, but at the time of this writing, no arrest warrant has been issued. The Seoul Central District Court claimed that there was "room for dispute" when it came to the charges levied against him (via Korea Herald), but a couple of Seungri's friends weren't as lucky.

K-pop stars Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon were part of that now infamous group chat, the one in which they, Seungri, and a number of others allegedly shared footage of women who had been secretly filmed during sex and made jokes about raping drugged women. The difference with Jung and Choi was that they allegedly created some of the footage being shared. According to the Independent, Choi was accused of raping one woman as Jung operated the camera. Choi claimed that the sex was consensual, but judge Kang Seong-soo wasn't buying it.

"The defendants are well-known celebrities and friends, but the chat they've had showed that they simply considered women as objects of sexual pleasure, and committed crimes that were extremely serious," Kang said as he jailed Choi and Jung for five and six years, respectively. Jung, who was suspected of secretly filming at least 10 women, came clean about his part in the scandal. "I admit to all my crimes," he said in a statement (via Soompi). "I filmed women without their consent and shared it."

The K-pop suicide crisis reaches a breaking point

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and the intense pressure that K-pop idols live with makes them a high-risk group. While the country mourned the loss of SHINee lead singer Jonghyun after he appeared to take his own life in 2017, this problem was thrown back into the spotlight in 2019, when a spate of suicides brought the dark side of the Korean entertainment industry to the attention of the wider world.

It began in October, when Sulli was found dead of a suspected suicide. The singer-actress, who rose to fame as a member of the girl group f(x), had broken several K-pop taboos and was relentlessly targeted by trolls as a result. The following month, Sulli's friend, singer Goo Ha-ra (a.k.a Hara), was found dead in her home in another apparent suicide. That December, singer-actor Cha In-ha, whose cause of death has not been revealed, was found dead in his home after struggling with depression and anxiety.

All Korean entertainers are held to a "strict moral code," according to Lee Jeeheng of Seoul's Chung-Ang University, and women often get it worse than men. "Demonizing the K-pop industry alone doesn't solve the problem," Lee told Variety. "Sulli and Hara suffered more from misogynistic attacks than from K-pop fans."

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.