BTS. Blackpink. EXO. The K-pop industry is flourishing, making its way onto the international stage and defining a new genre of music with its own personality. These K-pop groups are well known for the synchronicity of their dance moves, photogenic looks and catchy tunes. It is exquisite, idealized and clean. But when an industry works so hard to seem unblemished, it only makes me more skeptical of what is hiding underneath. 

From the fame to the perceived wealth, everything about becoming an “idol,” someone with the ability to model, act, sing and dance, is enticing to the young performers in South Korea. Companies prey on this ambition for their own profits, cultivating them into paragons of the music industry while denying basic human rights and freedoms. Idols are forced to endure “slave contracts,” relinquishing all aspects of their lives to company control. Simply being called an “idol” signifies an unspoken burden of perfection. Whether on social media, stage or in public, K-pop stars are nurtured to maintain a facade of physical aesthetic and pure morals. 

In recent years, corruption, mistreatment and exploitation stories have slowly come to light. Unfortunately, in wake of the exposure, there has been a lack of substantial action and change. These issues necessitate greater reflection on talent labels’ blatant disregard for idols’ well-being, molding them into money-making machines and treating them like nothing more.

The life of a trainee

All K-pop idols start as trainees, participants in a rigorous training program where they dedicate their lives for the chance to debut. Typical expenses for a trainee can top $50,000 per year, though the industry’s opacity makes calculating that figure with any certainty very difficult. Often, idols themselves do not know what they must pay until they are told to pay up. In some cases, the whole process, from becoming a trainee to releasing a debut album, can cost up to a million dollars. However, this number can vary as every label and contract is different.  

Trainees live and practice together, only leaving the building to attend school. On a typical day, they wake up at 5 a.m. and often do not sleep until 1 a.m. the next day. They follow strict rules, including no dating and no phones. Anyone who is openly gay is ostracized. All trainees are constantly monitored, and their 24-hour days are divided between exercising, practicing or sleeping before beginning their routine again.

K-pop idols are bred from tense, competitive environments. Trainees are sorted into groups based on talent and physical attractiveness, and they practice for weekly showcases – anyone who cannot keep up could be dropped.

“[Trainees] could train for years and years and never know if they would actually ‘debut,’” said Euodias, a former K-pop trainee. 

Even those who survive training sometimes make nothing for years. Revenue is split disproportionally between managing companies and their stars, with labels often receiving 90% of all profits from album sales and tours, while just 10% goes to the artists. Additionally, most K-pop groups must split that 10% among themselves, most of which goes toward their training debt. For instance, after five years in the industry, FIESTAR’s Cao Lu was living off $450 each month. Including his trainee debt and living expenses, Henry Prince Mak from JJCC concluded last year that he was only making $1 or $2 per day. Unwilling to abandon their dreams of an illustrious career, many continue with their labels until they lose everything.

“Once, I needed to sell my belongings, [including] my laptop and beloved piano, to survive,” wrote Way, a former member of Crayon Pop, in an email to Insider.

If their incurred expenses exceed their bands’ earnings, stars must pay them back. As a result, some of them work multiple jobs just to get by. The intensity of their lives never seems to cease. Where American artists often spend a year recording an album and then take a year or two off, the downtime for K-pop is at most a couple of months. They live on packed schedules, going from training to promotional events and interviews just to make a name for themselves – leading to countless stories about extreme sleep deprivation and exhaustion. 

A life of perfection

Idols climb a never-ending ladder toward beauty, fame and excellence — presenting a product of harsh discipline and a life of toil. As such, their high expectations are not limited to performance but extend to body image as well. Record companies rule with an iron fist, euphemizing eating disorders, glamorizing the job and working to prevent the ugly truth from ever getting out.

Labels often ask their trainees to undergo plastic surgery; some idols will even do so beforehand, knowing their physical appearance is just as crucial, if not more so, than their talent. To maintain slim body figures, idols are subjected to restrictive diets and intense exercise regimen. Once forced to lose 7 kilograms in one week, Momo, a member of Twice, only ate one ice cube while keeping up with exercise and training. Many idols have also fainted during concerts, only to be carried off stage by managers who expect them to resume the same intensity of activities after recovering. 

Another popular practice in South Korea’s entertainment industry is exchanging sexual favors for job opportunities or media exposure, which is known as sponsorship. After actress Jang Ja-yeon committed suicide in 2009 upon being forced to act as an escort, the National Human Rights Commission found that 60.2% of South Korean actresses have been asked to provide sexual services to politicians or businessmen and that 6% were victims of sexual crimes. The epidemic of sexual assault within it extends far beyond the scope of this article. 

Both male and female K-pop groups have also been subject to incidents of violence and sexual harassment. Former K-pop stars, such as Han Geng of Super Junior and EXO’s Lu Han and Kris Wu, have filed lawsuits against former record labels en masse, citing mistreatment, unfair contracts, extortion and sexual assault. Han claimed that SM Entertainment’s refusal to give him a day off in over two years caused him to develop gastritis and kidney disease. Members of The East Light claim that, as trainees, they were beaten by their producer for four years and that the agency chairman was aware of it. The power structure within managing companies is clearly defined and reinforced by the cultural notion of “not biting the hand that feeds you,” shielding labels from being implicated in mistreatment or abuse of their artists and causing much to go unreported.

So why don’t they stop? Often because the possibility of becoming an idol is better than the alternative: chronic unemployment. About 11.3% of youth aged 15 to 29 in South Korea are unemployed. Despite their hard work and commitment to high academic achievement, the younger generation is constantly confronting systemic economic hardships — perhaps it is worth it to chase one dream than to fall victim to reality.

From encouraging fasting to paying idols poorly to ignoring allegations of sexual assault and abuse, the industry reveals a haunting reality underneath K-pop’s neatly glazed image. It is a factory-like industry, churning out talented artists until they reach their expiration date, only for new blood to step into their shoes. While this may be true, I also look to idols’ achievements with admiration. They relentlessly work toward their dreams, unhindered by decades of seemingly infinite extortion. Unfortunately, this hard work is undercut by an industry more focused on profit than individual creativity. 

Social media harassment

An idol’s primary goal is to please fans. In accordance with the label’s marketing strategy, K-pop stars are marketed as emotionally available and forever single to appear more accessible to their fans; it corresponds to an increase of profits for the group and label.

“This is also why K-pop groups are either all-male or all-female, too – so fans don’t suspect band members are dating each other,” wrote Komeil Soheili, a journalist for Insider. 

But promoting popularity solely through their fans has created subsections of fans who harbor the perverse idea that they now play a major role in the idol’s actions and lifestyle. On one side of the spectrum exists “sasaeng fans,” who obsessively stalk and harass their favored idols for personal information. The infatuation drives these fans down extreme paths. In 2014, a sasaeng fan sold the underpants of Doh Kyung-soo, a member of EXO.

“You can check the DNA on it,” the sasaeng fan said. “I also have his socks. Don’t criticize or attack me.”

Record labels do not condemn this behavior and instead view it as a symbol of loyalty, popularity and revenue.

On the other end of the spectrum are anti-fans, who harbor animosity against certain idols, determined to ruin their reputation. Anti-fans have sent knives and death threats and have attempted to poison idols. But apart from physical actions, K-pop idols are also subject to the pressure of cyberbullying. In 2019, Sulli, a former member of f(x), Goo Hara, a former member of Kara and Cha In-Ha, a former member of Surprise U, all died within three months of each other. Though the reasons behind Cha’s death are unclear, it follows a dark pattern that alludes to the lack of protection of celebrities and a cultural stigma against mental health. Both Sulli and Goo also experienced sexist abuse and cyberbullying from online haters over their appearance and conduct. Leading up to Sulli’s suicide, she was harassed with repeated messages about her dating life and her support of the no-bra movement. 

Kim Jong-hyun, a former member of SHINee, was one of the few stars to openly admit battling depression and criticize Korean society. Tragically, due to the pressures of fame and his feelings of inferiority in the industry, Kim committed suicide in 2017.

It is impossible to pinpoint one reason for someone to commit suicide, nor should we chase after one — but the Korean entertainment industry must bear partial responsibility for its continued abuse and exploitation. 

Slow-moving progress

In 2011, the Korea Creative Content Agency started a support center for artists, and in 2017, the Korea Fair Trade Commission ordered the industry to end slave contracts. In 2019, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Korea amended the Adolescence Mass Culture Artists Standard Agreement, in which agents must try to guarantee the rights of artists, such as personality freedom and sleep rights. However, many such policies are so intangible that proper enforcement is almost impossible. Idols themselves find that pushing for their rights only causes them to lose their opportunity — after all, there will always be a crowd of trainees straining to take their place. 

Though labels have stopped forcing slave contracts, stars now face potential backlash from their fans. In particular, abolishing the “no dating” clause should have allowed idols to regain some semblance of control. Instead, after getting rid of the clause, fan groups asserted their own power. In one instance, some fan groups threatened to boycott Super Junior if one of its members, Lee Sungmin, was included in a comeback tour, citing residual anger from his marriage. Other idols who revealed their relationships have encountered similar reactions, leading most couples to break up and apologize to their fans. With the “idol” title comes an expectation that your group and fans must be prioritized over your own needs, but no fan has the right to dictate the lives of idols or pressure them into making certain choices.

It is time to see the industry for what it is: a shameless perpetrator of severe mental illness. Idols are plagued by demands of nonexistent, unattainable attitudes of perfection. They are forced to be consumed in the way society wants; any rejection or retaliation of that social image elicits a never-ending barrage of media attacks. Industries have no right to treat idols as commodities. They are not tools or robots. They are human beings.

Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.