The death of one of K-pop’s biggest stars reveals its toxic fan culture

Neha Banka
Price of fame: South Korean pop star Sulli. (Photo: Newsis/Associated Press)

Earlier this week came the shocking news of the death of Sulli, one of the biggest K-pop stars. The 25-year-old was found dead in her home near Seoul by her manager, and although local police are investigating the cause of death, they believe that she may have taken her own life.

What could have prompted one of South Korea’s most visible pop stars, with an international fan following, to take her own life? Sulli, whose real name is Choi Jin-ri, was known for her singing and acting skills, having played lead and supporting roles in several Korean dramas. She was a member of the K-pop girl group f(x), and began her professional career as a child actor when she was 11, with the Korean drama Ballad of Seodong. In 2009, Sulli was 15 when she made her debut as a member of f(x). She had trained to become a K-pop star under SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s biggest Korean entertainment companies, for years before.

Sulli was one of the few female Korean pop stars to break out of traditional roles and actively spoke on issues she felt strongly about, especially women’s rights and equality, for which she faced online abuse and malicious comments. After undergoing immense stress due to constant rumours about her personal life, Sulli went on a hiatus in 2014. She left her K-pop group f(x), to focus on her solo singing and acting career. She was openly critical of cyberbullying in South Korea and faced a barrage of abuse online in May 2016 from social media followers after she posted photos on her personal Instagram account, where she was not wearing a bra. The “no-bra scandal”, as certain sections of South Korea’s media called it, became controversial in the patriarchal and conservative Korean society.

Last month, during a live stream on Instagram, Sulli was involved in a wardrobe malfunction, and again subjected to vicious comments.

A K-Pop star idol shop in Seoul. (Photo: Getty Images)

In 2019, Sulli joined the cast of The Night of Hate Comments, a South Korean variety programme, as a host where Korean celebrities are invited to read and discuss the hateful, malicious comments and cyberbullying that they encounter.

In one episode of the variety show in July this year, Sulli had said, “Going braless is one’s freedom. When I upload my photos without a bra, people talk about it a lot. I could have been scared. But I [wasn’t] because I thought it would be nice if more people could discard their prejudices.”

In April this year, Sulli published a live broadcast of a “drinking party” and some users demanded answers to private questions to which Sulli replied, “You do not have to worry about me. I hate people who ‘gaze rape’ me.”

Sulli is not the first Korean pop star to end her life. In December 2017, singer Jonghyun from boy band Shinee, was found unconscious by local police and later died due to a cardiac arrest, possibly brought on due to carbon-monoxide poisoning, leading to speculation that he had taken his own life. After his death, local media outlets reported that Jonghyun had been struggling with depression, possibly caused by the pressures of celebrity.

Korean pop stars are heavily scrutinised for their looks and conduct in public and private by Korean media and social media users. Some fans obsess about knowing every detail in the stars’ lives. They go to extreme lengths to cyberstalk, physically stalk and harass artistes. Social media users routinely gang up on artistes and even bloggers, critics, writers and journalists whom they do not agree with and use digital platforms to urge and recruit other social media users to engage in similar behaviour, directing a flood of abuse against their targets.

Pop star Jonghyun committed suicide in 2017. (Photo: Reuters)

Entertainment companies, under whom these Korean artists work under contracts for at least six-10 years, force the artistes to bow down to fan pressure. The artistes also face flak for the kind of content they post on their social media platforms from fans.

When the harassment becomes extreme, some Korean entertainment companies and artistes put out statements condemning such behaviour and also file legal complaints. To evade local authorities, many fans post abuse using VPNs to mask their IP addresses, and so the cycle continues. Official complaints are often not filed, and the artistes are often left to grapple with the emotional and psychological impact of the abuse on their own.

“Moon Hee-joon (leader of 1990s K-Pop band H.O.T.) was the first to sue for malicious comments. He met the (writers of the comments) at the police station and was shocked to see that they were elementary school students,” says Byung Kee-suh, a writer based in Seoul, who has written extensively about K-pop for over 30 years.

Some people behind the malicious comments online are surprisingly in their 40s. “This is common,” says Byung. The reason behind the vitriol online against Korean pop artists may be linked to the easy access to cell phones, computers and internet connectivity in South Korea. “So we have an immature online culture and it is based on smartphones, computers and social networking sites,” explains Byung.

In one of her last Instagram video broadcasts before her death, Sulli was seen crying and saying, “I’m not a bad person.” Her death has highlighted the toxic fan culture in Korean pop music that is worsening, as children and young teens around the world discover Korean pop music and its complex fandom.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline 'Candle in the Wind'