Two years ago to this day, at 15:30, Jang Ja-yeon complained in a phone call with her sister that she was overwhelmed by stress and wanted to end it all. The sisters (along with their brother) had been living together since a decade prior, after car accident claimed the lives of their parents. You can imagine the depression and stress of a massive celebrity in the public limelight, but this 26 year-old Korean beauty was not simply pressured by the media. What happened behind the scenes was what pushed her off the edge. Her sister could not get a hold of Jang for the rest of the afternoon, so she finally decided to go home to check on her. Four hours after their last phone call, Jang’s sister came home to find her body hanging from the stairway banister. It is suspected that she committed suicide only an hour after they spoke.
The Significance of Jang Ja-yeon
Jang was the star of Korea’s most popular soap opera, “Boys over Flowers,” and her death shocked the country. Around one million fans visited her website in the 48 hours after her death. But it was not only the shock of her death that spurned the media into a frenzy; it was the seven-page tell-all suicide note that named names. This launched the police into an investigation of her agent, Sung-hoon Kim, among others.
In her note, Jang accused Kim of beating her and forcing her to have sex with a slew of directors, media executives, CEOs, etc. Unfortunately, this is practically a normal part of being a Korean celebrity today. Stars often meet VIPs who hint at supporting their lifestyles or casting them – always behind closed doors, of course. Jang was also forced to be an escort to golf matches, and serve and consume drinks. Kim said the suicide note was all part of a campaign by Jang’s former manager to ruin his business. When police raided Kim’s office, they found a “secret room” on the third floor, which contained a shower and a bed.
At the end of 2008, Kim had fled to Japan after he was asked to come in for questioning in allegations of sexually harassing a male model, a totally unrelated incident. After overstaying his visa, Kim was arrested in a June 2009, at a hotel in Tokyo. He admitted that he “committed a crime in South Korea and [was] overstaying in Japan to avoid being arrested.” He was soon allowed to make bail. Though most of the others named in Jang’s suicide note were never charged, Kim and another ex-manager, Jang-ho Yoo were finally sentenced to 12 months in prison, 24 months of probation, and 160 hours of community service each, at the end of last year. Kim was charged with embezzlement and assault; Yoo was charged with defamation.
Just yesterday, the Seoul Broadcasting System had been given 230-pages of letters written to Jang’s friend, surnamed Jeon, which a handwriting analysis has confirmed that she wrote. Jeon had been in prison at the time Jang wrote to him for an undisclosed reason. She named 31 people in the industry, saying she had to host them over 100 times. “Even on my parents’ memorial day, I was forced to host. Since I made a list, avenge me to the death. Even if I die, I will take my revenge to the grave.” Police have reopened the case and will now investigate further.
[Update: Early handwriting analyses suggested the letters above were valid, but a few days after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, forensic analyses contradicted this, saying the letters were in fact fabricated by Jeon. According to Korean police, not only does he have a history of mental illness (such as schizophrenia) but he told his brother-in-law in 2009 that the letters were put together from various articles. In fact, around 300 newspaper articles of Jang were found in Jeon’s cell when it was searched. It’s suspected that he had studied her handwriting through printed examples, and practiced forging it. While it appears as though citizens are taking it amongst themselves to try to investigate further, it does not appear that the police will reopen the case unless new evidence is revealed.]
Jang’s suicide made film and TV audience more aware of the abuse in which Korean celebrities are involved. But as Eun-sim Lee of South Korea’s Sexual Violence Relief Center says “Jang’s death was the tip of the iceberg.” Ominously, there were six other Korean celebrities who committed suicide in the six months prior to her, but it was Jang’s case that specifically made people start to wonder whether these others were also victims of abuse, not just the pressure of fame.
Unlike in the West, where the typical route of a musician is to independently demonstrate their talents in local bars, clubs, and small theatres before being signed to a bigger company, a newcomer’s path to stardom in the East is mostly influenced by an agency’s investments. Therefore, most of the biggest Korean entertainment companies try to include terms in their contracts that heavily impede on celebrities’ personal lives. For example, iHQ required clients to ask permission to travel abroad; Fantom and Olive9 required their clients to report their current location at any time they were asked; JYP required their clients to consult in advance their choice of schooling, friends, monetary transactions, transportation, social events, etc. Other terms by various agencies included requiring clients to perform for free when/as they were asked, using the artist’s songs in any way they desired, or stating that a breach of a contract would mean the artist could never sign onto another company ever again without facing an immediate lawsuit. The watchdog group Korea Fair Trade Commission disallowed all these terms and more in 2008.
Lawyer and former head of the Korea Entertainment Law Society, Jung-han Choi, explains that celebrities are basically “made” into stars by their agencies. “These young artists need to be ‘invested in’ for at least 10 years.” For successful cases (which are certainly a minority) the contracts will be extended. So the mentality is basically that the stars owe their success to their agencies. From a Western standpoint, it seems rather that they aren’t afforded much of an opportunity to prove otherwise. Therefore, the phenomenon of trapping clients via their contracts has been called “slave contracts.”
Blogger PopSeoul remarks: “Is K-Pop really CORPpop, or do these singers just need to understand that this is what they wanted?” While it’s true that this is a tough business like anywhere else, the question of fairness has to be considered. “To cash in on stardom and wealth, young people do whatever their agents say,” says Myoung-jin Lee, a sociology professor at Korea University in Seoul. “There are people out there taking advantage of the situation. It’s a tragedy.”
K-pop as a Male-Dominated World
Media critics say that Korean society is so sexist that people still have very little respect for their female artists. Film critic and university professor Gina Yu said “Men who have power and high rank seem to think their power will be bigger if they have sex with popular female entertainers in secrecy. This malpractice and wrong perception about women is so prevalent that men would not even recognize it as a human rights problem, generally.” The sentiment is lost among the words of Woon-gyu Na, a famous actor and filmmaker who in 1937, according to Korean news source Chosun Ilbo, said “movie directors should become like pimps to treat actresses as if they are prostitutes.” Whether or not this is the current mentality is unclear, but it sounds familiar. Maybe it’s just that no one was talking about it so explicitly until the 90’s, when a number of actresses started committing suicide over the stress of Korean celebrity life.
A survey conducted by a human rights group in April 2010 found that 60% of South Korean actresses polled said they had been pressured to have sex to further their careers. Interviews with over 350 actresses or aspiring actresses found that a fifth were forced or requested by their agents to provide sexual favors, about half said they were forced to drink with influential figures, and a third said they received unwanted physical contact or sexual harassment. This type of underworld scene does not seem to be common outside of Korea (though of course it could be happening in secrecy elsewhere). One Japanese comic book called “Chase of Fabricated K-pop Boom” criticizes the Korean entertainment industry, with its excessive bribes, suicide, and sex services. Many Koreans, however, refute these depictions as unrealistic and only focusing on the negative aspects of the industry.
Women have no Monopoly on Victimization
What had truly brought such binding contracts to the public’s attention was the July 2009 lawsuit of three of the five members of the boy band TVXQ – Micky, Hero, and Xiah. This group was apparently inducted in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2008 for the “largest official fanbase,” and in 2009 for being the most photographed celebrities in the world. When the lawsuit was announced, the agency’s stock price dropped 10%. TVXQ signed with SM Entertainment for 13 years, but the three were fed up with their “life-long slave contracts.” Their contracts included terms that they must have approval of days off (any days not agreed on would be added to the contract), and receiving only 2% of the album sales, to be split among each 5 members. As of a few weeks ago, the three won their case, and were officially released from their contract. The group had already split up, and the five members of the boy band decided to go solo, except for the three litigants, who also formed their own group called JYJ. They now have a restraining order against SM Entertainment to prevent any potential interference.
August 2010 was also a big victory for “contract slaves.” Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of 22 year-old Sung-hyun Woo, now a member of the boy band U-kiss, who had signed a 10-year contract in 2006 to Ssing Entertainment. He sued the agency in 2008. His contract stated that performances cancelled for health reasons or mandatory military service would not count as part of the 10 years. Any breach of the contract would cost the singer a penalty two or three times the company’s investment in him. The decision was later upheld by an appellate court. As a result of this lawsuit, the Fair Trade Commission set a maximum length of contracts at seven years, along with more restrictions on agencies controlling their clients’ private lives.
In December 2009, Hankyung, the only Chinese member of the boy band “Super Junior” filed a suit against SM Entertainment, demanding his 13-year contract be terminated as well. He won his lawsuit and is now focusing his career in China. In fact, JYJ has focused their careers outside of Korea as well; first concentrating on the Japanese market, and then getting an English-language album produced by Kanye West and Rodney Jerkins. So not only may these contracts negatively affect the economy, and everyone involved, but they can also affect the culture. If living in a cage doesn’t appeal to Korean performers, they may just take their talent elsewhere.
Recent Women in the Spotlight
Last year in August, Taiwanese singer Estrella Lin claimed that she was asked to sexually entertain investors in exchange for her Korean debut. She soon published a book detailing her 3-year “prison life” in the Korean pop scene, including how she was asked to provide sexual service, and was treated inhumanely. “I practiced dancing five hours a day and had to take painkilling shots every two weeks to relieve the pain in my knees.” Lin also remarked that the majority of South Korean stars (actors, singers, models, etc.) sell their bodies as an unwritten rule in Korea ’s entertainment industry. Indeed, the second ever Korean-born model to get into playboy, Pani Lee, was once asked to have sex with an influential figure for money and fame.
The most recent lawsuit came last month from one of Korea’s biggest girl groups, Kara (who are pictured at the top of this post). Three of the members sued their agency, DSP Media, on February 11 in order to get out of their contracts. Kara’s legal representatives, Landmark, spoke on behalf of the group. “Without prior compromise, the agency deducted promotional fees from our income without our consent, which is classified under embezzlement. From January through June of 2010, we brought in $410,000 USD in income, while the promotional expenses amounted to $390,000 USD.” DSP Media disputes this.
They also contend that the members of Kara were given much more than the reported monthly $140 USD after the success of their single “Lupin,” which was another allegation of unfair wage distribution. On February 17, DSP Media’s legal representative, Sang-Hyuk Im, stated that the group was given a $1 million USD to distribute five ways for a total of $200,000 each. It should be noted that Im was the lawyer who represented the three litigants from TVXQ against SM Entertainment. He says that these are different cases in various ways, so maybe Kara won’t win this case. However, there’s also the notion that Kara were tricked into signing a contract in Japanese under false pretenses, and were not allowed to receive a copy of the contract after having signed it.
This court case will surely be under the eyes of the Korean media until the next exploited star gets pushed far enough to resist, or unless there’s a major change in the industry. Until then, Korean stars have to work under the watchful eyes of the Fair Trade Commission, who certainly have been helping greatly.
Searching for the Elephant
As if this story wasn’t disturbing enough…
Jang’s last film, Searching for the Elephant, is inadvertently ironic because Jang plays the role of a girl who is forced to have sex with various men. The movie came out 8 months after her death – apparently the release was delayed a bit for some editing, but basically every sex scene with Jang was untouched, because it was apparently integral to the story.
Oh, and at the end of the movie, she kills herself.