The wholesome veneer of the South Korean K-pop phenomenon was shattered on Friday with the conviction of two of the country’s leading stars in a sexual abuse case that has shocked the country.
Jung Joon-young and Choi Jong-hoon, both 30, were handed jail terms of six and five years, respectively, for raping women in 2016. Jung was also found guilty of distributing explicit sex videos.
“The defendants used their celebrity status to collectively assault women sexually. Their group chat showed that they just viewed women as objects of their sexual pleasure,” said Judge Kang Seong-soo. “Strict punishment is inevitable as the nature of their crimes is very serious.”
Complaints over sordid and illegal activities in the country’s entertainment industry have been made for years. But the case only came to light after local reporters began digging into an altercation at Burning Sun, a popular nightclub in Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam district last year. South Korean news outlets published online chats in which celebrities and their friends discussed date rape and shared explicit videos.
The Burning Sun scandal has gripped South Korean society for much of this year and has fuelled a women’s rights movement. Younger women, in particular, have been outraged and have become increasingly outspoken over misogyny, a lack of culpability and halfhearted prosecutions of sexual abuse cases.
Both men denied the rape charge. Jung admitted to filming women and sharing the videos.
The pair’s prosecution was seen as a test of whether South Korean courts would take seriously the women’s plight, or continue a trend of showing leniency towards men.
Demands for greater action over sexual abuse, both physical and online, grew louder in recent weeks after the suicides of Goo Ha-ra, 28, and Choi Jin-ri, 25, who was better known as Sulli. Both women had suffered immense pressure from online attacks, including in Goo’s case over the release of a video with sexual content by her ex-boyfriend.
Lee Na-young, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University, said the sentence was “nonsense”.
“It is very light. If it were the US, they would be sentenced to life imprisonment,” she said.
Ms Lee conceded, however, that given public figures had in the past escaped conviction in similar cases, jailing the pair was “meaningful”.
Choi Jin-nyung, a lawyer at law firm Ee-gyeong, noted that the judge was constrained by South Korea’s light sentencing guidelines for sexual abuse cases.
“It is a strong sentence that will ring an alarm bell for sex offenders,” Mr Choi said.
Hyun-joo Mo, a researcher in South Korean youth culture at the University of North Carolina, said that while young women would take some “assurance” from Friday’s conviction, there were still “many other cases [where suspects] have not been charged, including in the online cases of Sulli and Ha-ra”.
The scandals come against the backdrop of the rapid rise of South Korean music and culture, or K-pop, on the global stage. The industry, which boasts stars including groups BTS and Blackpink, has gained worldwide recognition and provided a significant boost to the economy. Researchers have estimated that BTS alone brings in about $3.5bn annually.
But attention on the industry’s dark side has raised questions for stars’ devoted fans as well as investors in the management and entertainment groups who control and profit from the artists.
Lee Seung-hyun, another former star better known by his stage name Seungri, has been investigated for allegedly hiring prostitutes for his business investors.