Letter to the Editor: Jonghyun’s death is not a time to talk about the Korean industry, but Jonghyun himself

Re: "What the suicide of K-Pop's Jonghyun reveals about the industry"

Letter to the Editor: Jonghyun’s death is not a time to talk about the Korean industry, but Jonghyun himself

This letter is in response to the article regarding Kim Jonghyun’s death published under The Varsity’s Arts & Culture Section. I would like for you to respond to this letter, or at least acknowledge it, whether you decide to publish it or not.

The title of the article alone almost put me off. But I read it because I wanted to see what The Varsity had to say about a death that shook numerous fans — including me — around the world to their very core.

I was angered and saddened to find: not much.

As a K-Pop fan, I agree that the Korean entertainment industry is not without its problems, but there is a time and place to write about it.

Kim Jonghyun, before he was an idol, was a human. And when a human dies, we remember them for all the good they did, we try to comfort their loved ones, and try to come to terms with our own mortality. Never once in this article did the author mention Jonghyun’s support for his fans, for his colleagues, and for LGBTQ youth in Korea, or his achievements as a soloist or member of SHINee — an incredibly successful South Korean boy group. The author just wrote him off as “one of K-Pop’s greatest talents” and left it at that.

The author wrote that during discussions of Jonghyun’s death, “absent, however, was any degree of in-depth conversation about why it was that Jonghyun felt “broken from the inside,” as he wrote in his suicide note.”

The author apparently did not see the heartfelt letters by numerous K-Pop fans posted online that expressed regret upon not being able to help Jonghyun as much as he had helped them and encouraged those suffering silently that they were not alone. Neither did the author see K-pop fans urging each other to sign online petitions demanding Korean entertainment companies to give idols basic human rights as well as mental health support.

“Jonghyun identified fame as the specific reason he ended his life,” the author continued.

Jonghyun suffered from depression. He was incredibly open about it and while his hectic idol life as well as the stigma surrounding mental health may have caused his depression to worsen, to paint fame as the sole cause of his death is incredibly irresponsible.

The article exploring Kim Jonghyun’s death explained Jonghyun’s death in two paragraphs to get to its main point — how toxic and harmful the Korean entertainmemt industry is. This point is patronizing and Othering — yes, the Korean entertainment industry is toxic and harmful, but the author would be hard pressed to name one entertainment industry in the world that is not. Would it be appropriate for a Korean author to lament the dark side of Hollywood uponChester Bennington’s death? Upon Carrie Fisher’s death?

The author also cited “YouTubers Simon and Martina Stawski” as sources, who are poor sources. Both these Youtubers have been called out repeatedly for using Korean culture for profit; despite living in Korea, they allegedly didn’t even bother to learn Korean beyond basic phrases.

We absolutely need to have conversations about mental health and the stigma surrounding it in South Korea as well as the toxic nature of the K-Pop industry. Perhaps in a less Othering, less demonizing, less condescending way, however, that in no circumstances include the words “I would like to hope that something positive could come out of the death of Kim Jong-hyun“, and definitely not right when the wounds from Jonghyun’s untimely death are still fresh in the minds of fans and his loved ones.

All Jonghyun — and his fans — need to hear is that he did well.


Zeahaa Rehman

What the suicide of K-pop’s Jonghyun reveals about the industry

A conversation about K-pop's impossible standards and harsh conditions is long overdue

What the suicide of K-pop’s Jonghyun reveals about the industry


2017 was a banner year for K-pop. The genre, which might have been considered niche just a few years ago, now verges on the North American mainstream. For proof of this, please direct your attention to the group known as BTS, a Korean boy band. In 2017 alone, they performed at the American Music Awards, had their album reviewed in The New York Times, and became Twitter’s most retweeted celebrities.

Between 2013 and 2017, K-pop’s overseas revenue from CDs, concert tickets, music streaming, and band merchandise doubled. Last year may have been a dumpster fire for most of us, but it’s safe to assume that the execs at South Korea’s major pop labels are pretty happy with how it played out — their neighbours to the north notwithstanding.

This level of material success made it all the more jarring when, last month, a prominent K-pop star took his own life. The suicide of SHINee frontman Kim Jong-hyun, better known as Jonghyun, on December 18 shocked the Korean entertainment sphere and made international news. His death sparked a massive outpouring of grief, with fans all over the world flocking to social media to mourn one of K-pop’s greatest talents.

Absent, however, was any degree of in-depth conversation about why it was that Jonghyun felt “broken from the inside,” as he wrote in his suicide note. This is not surprising. Despite having the highest suicide rate of any country belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea is plagued by stigma surrounding mental illness.

Jonghyun identified fame as the specific reason he ended his life. “Becoming famous was probably not my life,” he wrote. “Why did I choose that? It’s funny that I’m able to endure this much.” Fame brings immense and international pressure, but in the context of K-pop, these lines point toward a darker side of the industry — one of which many new fans may be unaware.

In South Korea, being a celebrity mandates the total sacrifice of any semblance of personal life, more so than it does in the west. This is especially true in recent years, as new platforms such as Instagram, where idols post makeup-free selfies alongside professional headshots, have allowed the industry to construct personas for its stars that simultaneously broadcast relatability alongside untouchable, effortless perfection.

“K-pop stars are… products of [the] fantasy world,” said Professor Suk-Young Kim, a researcher from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in an interview with the podcast Radiolab last year. “They are not a creature of this world. They shouldn’t be.” Fantasy fuels fandom, and record companies go to great lengths to ensure their stars maintain a transcendental image. This includes forbidding idols to have romantic relationships — because it spoils the illusion. “Stars belong to the public,” said Kim.

Jonghyun himself ran up against this mandate in 2010, when paparazzi publicized his secret relationship with actress Shin Se-Kyung, and fans responded with furious accusations of betrayal.

At the same time, K-pop stars are also very much the property of their management agencies, bound by extraordinarily unfair contracts — aptly termed ‘slave contracts.’ YouTubers Simon and Martina Stawski have previously described how K-pop stars may be forced to go years without pay and to work without regard for their physical and mental health.

If a group is promoting a new release, they are likely to spend weeks on end being driven around the country, performing at several venues per day. Numerous stars have been injured or killed in car accidents, often because their exhausted drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel. What’s more, stars and trainees as young as 12 live in company-run dorms so that the agency can tightly control further aspects of their lives, including their diet.

Jonghyun was not the first K-pop star to die by suicide, nor is he likely to be the last. But even as K-pop spreads across the globe, there is no pressure on the industry to change. The current status quo is bringing in $4.7 billion USD as of 2016, according to Bloomberg. For the sake of emphasizing how meteoric K-pop’s rise has been, consider that the number was $30 million in 2009.

If working singers to the bone can increase revenue exponentially, that is what agencies are likely to keep doing. A further barrier is the fact that fans often respond to these abuses with praise for hard-working group members, not condemnation of the entertainment companies that force them to sleep on the floor. A boycott is not in the cards.

I would like to hope that something positive could come out of the death of Kim Jong-hyun, that this tragedy could spur the industry and its fans to look in the mirror and consider the costs of wedging human beings into moulds of impossible, fantastical creations. The truth is that K-pop’s burgeoning popularity likely means we’re just moving further away from that future.