Two Stars' Suicides Draw Scrutiny To Pressures Of K-Pop Industry, Fans The deaths of singers Sulli and Goo Hara within weeks of each other are putting a spotlight on mental health, cyberbullying and social issues in South Korea.
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Two Stars' Suicides Draw Scrutiny To Pressures Of K-Pop Industry, Fans

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Two Stars' Suicides Draw Scrutiny To Pressures Of K-Pop Industry, Fans

Two Stars' Suicides Draw Scrutiny To Pressures Of K-Pop Industry, Fans

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO")

HARA: (Singing in non-English language).

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fans of South Korean pop music are reeling from the deaths of two K-pop stars within just the past couple of months. Choi Jin-ri, also known as Sulli, took her life in October. And this past Sunday, Goo Hara was found dead in her home from what police called a suicide.

Jenna Gibson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. She writes about Korean politics and social issues for publications that include The Diplomat and Foreign Policy. She joins us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

JENNA GIBSON: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You've also written for NPR. What's the reaction and public outpouring been like?

GIBSON: It's been a really hard couple of months for, you know, obviously, the friends and family of these two stars who were lost far too young and, of course, for fans, as well. You know, as you said, people are reeling. They're kind of not sure what to do next - you know, how to make something so that this doesn't happen again.

SIMON: What is it that you think might be, at some point, contributing to suicides?

GIBSON: I think it's really important to remember that K-pop, as with any entertainment industry, is reflective of the culture. Obviously, K-pop stars are under enormous pressure having to be on at all moments of the day. So, yes, there is that added stress, for sure. But there are certain systematic and societal issues that are definitely at play here - mental health and stigmatization of getting help for mental health issues, as well as the extra scrutiny that female stars and women in general in South Korea are facing.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that, if you could.

GIBSON: Sure. One of the main things that experts have said is necessary is to get rid of a stigmatization of getting help for depression, for anxiety, for these issues that are genuine medical problems but that are not necessarily recognized as that in Korea but also around the world. So Korea does have the highest suicide rate among advanced countries. And that goes for young people, as well as they actually have a very high elderly suicide rate, as well.

SIMON: And what about the relentless scrutiny of being a K-pop star? And I know that we have our analogies in American popular culture. But these are a bunch of stars that are under constant scrutiny. I just don't mean in public. But I mean they share their private moments on platforms.

GIBSON: That's definitely true, I think especially with the advent of, of course, social media. We have YouTube. But there's also some platforms that are used, especially by K-pop stars, to kind of show their off moments or their, quote-unquote, "off moments," which fans love. I mean, it's really great to see all these different sides of your favorite stars. But it does create a situation in which they don't really have those private moments or it's really hard to take a break.

SIMON: I wonder if in addition to almost unprecedented adulation there's - are there K-pop stars also vulnerable to bullying?

GIBSON: Absolutely. That is a really huge issue that came up, especially in the case of Sulli. Before her unfortunate death, she actually was on a TV show. She was starting a new TV show as one of the hosts, one of the panelists. And the entire point of the TV show was kind of like the "Mean Tweets" segment that Jimmy Kimmel does.

SIMON: Yeah.

GIBSON: That entire show was, you know, people reading these mean comments and having the guest come on to kind of reclaim their reputation. And she was talking about that on that show about how, you know, she just wants to live her life and not be scrutinized for just doing things that are her and her personality. And so after her death, a lot of people were going back to that show and saying this cyberbullying has to stop.

SIMON: Even recognizing that the society as a whole might figure into what's happened, is there any kind of push in the K-pop music and celebrity industry - and I guess they're combined - to take care of their stars a little bit better?

GIBSON: Absolutely. I think one of the biggest pushes is to tackle some of this online hatred and the cyberbullying. So for example, I think it was just yesterday that an association that represents singers in Korea officially released a press release asking for the biggest platform - the biggest online portal site in Korea to remove comment sections from entertainment news stories because they're not productive, and they are places where this hatred gets spread and starts spiraling.

There's also pushes from the government side, as well as petitions from fans, to institute Real ID laws. So you would have to log in with some sort of, you know, actual - whether it's a social security type of a number or whatever in order to post a comment so that if you are engaging in harassment, police could actually see who you are.

As far as cutting down on the amount of work and the amount of scrutiny, I think that's going to be a lot harder, but I do think there has been a little bit of a good push. You see BTS, for example, which is, you know, by far the largest and most popular group. At the end of this summer, they came out and they said, we're going to take a couple weeks off. That was really great, especially seeing one of these big groups leading the way. And hopefully we'll see more of that, as well.

SIMON: Korean studies writer Jenna Gibson, thanks so much for being with us.

GIBSON: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARA SONG, "HELLO")

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