Seungri of Big Bang, cover photo retrieved from Billboard.com. 5-minute read.
A big-time sex scandal has been shaking the South Korean K-pop and entertainment industry since the beginning of this year.
The news broke in the midst of the country’s own #MeToo movement that included the largest female protest in South Korean history to speak out against molka, nonconsensual filming in private places, also known as “spycam porn.”
The scandal began in January after news broke about an incident at Burning Sun, a nightclub in the Gangnam district. In November last year, a man was thrown out of the club and allegedly beaten by staff after trying to protect a woman from sexual harassment.
The story sparked an inquiry into Burning Sun, which spiraled into a full-blown investigation that revealed allegations of sexual assault, sex trafficking, drug distribution, illegal spycamming, tax evasion, and police corruption thriving in the nightclub district. At least four singers from different pop groups have retired, with many more men involved in coverups, bribery, drugging girls, and sharing illegal videos in an infamous messaging chat room.
Seungri and Burning Sun
At the heart of the scandal is not just Burning Sun, but one of the club’s directors, Seungri, the youngest member of the boy band BIGBANG. Seungri is not only a celebrity in the music industry, but also as an entrepreneur with an extravagant lifestyle earning him the nickname “Korea’s Great Gatsby.”
After the first news story broke prompting further investigation, Burning Sun was raided by police and closed two days later. Seungri denied all allegations of hiring prostituted persons, but text messages between him and the CEO of Yuri Holdings, the company established to manage the singer’s restaurant and entertainment businesses, implied they were hiring women to “entertain” foreign investors.
As officials dug deeper, it became more evident that Seungri and Burning Sun weren’t just hiring adult women, but also underage girls. The club’s co-CEO admitted to bribing a policeman to allow the entrance of a minor into the club.
In March, Seungri announced his retirement from BIGBANG, but his troubles did not end there. Fourteen Burning Sun employees and three of the club’s promoters were arrested that month for the distribution and usage of drugs, and nine suspects accused of distributing a date-rape drug allegedly used to allow VIPs to sexually assault women.
Closely tied to Seungri is singer and TV personality Jung Joon-young, known as a key contributor to a sexually explicit chatroom. Jung admitted to secretly filming himself having sex with women and sharing the videos to the group chat. He retired from the entertainment industry and was later arrested.
The chatroom was made up of eight people, including Jung, Seungri, Choi Jong-hoon from the band F.T. Island, the CEO of Yuri Holdings, a Burning Sun employee, and three other noncelebrities. Other chats seem to have splintered from there involving Lee Jong-hyun of pop group CNBLUE, Yong Jun-hyung from HIGHLIGHT.
One translated conversation reveals the employee writing, “I gave her sleeping pills and did her.” Jung responds, “You raped her, lol.”
Burning Sun’s CEO defended Seungri and the chatroom, saying, “If Seungri’s messages from three years ago are a crime, aren’t all Korean men criminals? They were just joking, and it’s not like actual prostitution took place.”
Except that it did happen, with videos of at least ten female victims to prove it. But after the first three months of the police investigation, there was little to show. A Korean women’s group called the efforts by the police “dismal” and said:
“None of the allegations, including those of cozy relations between police and nightlife establishments, illegal filming of women and spreading of such clips, have been resolved. The police should not regard the Burning Sun scandal as an illegal act at one club; they should make a thorough investigation to eradicate the industry exploiting women and female sexuality.”
Even more shocking than Burning Sun, is the idea that other clubs were involved in similar acts. Korean writer Joo Won Kyu spent six months working in the Gangnam night district to research his next book, and according to Joo, Burning Sun is the tip of the iceberg. He witnessed drug parties and police collusion more severe than reported, and claimed he saw countless cases of underage prostitution, what we know to actually be sex trafficking. Joo mentioned one girl was as young as 12.
The culture of entitlement
Building on Joo Won Kyu’s portrayal of Gangnam, the BBC reported a culture of entitlement where powerful men have women drugged so they can rape them in glamorous nightclubs spread further than Burning Sun.
The BBC corresponded with club-goers and employees who said the abuse of women is pervasive throughout the district. They heard from victims, including underage girls, who all said they were recruited to have sex with paying customers. They were told elite clients would pay thousands of dollars to have a woman drugged and taken to a hotel nearby. The abuse was often captured on camera.
The Burning Sun scandal and rampant abuse throughout Gangnam have all the elements of sexual entitlement found in porn culture. In such an extreme case, it tragically led to sex trafficking, spycam porn, and rape.
This idea that a guy can have any girl he wants and that she’s always up for sex is a toxic lie straight out of popular porn films, but as the Burning Sun story proves, this is a myth. If a man drugs a woman so he can have sex with her, then she is not ready and willing. She has no ability to consent or make her own choice.
The experience is not shared, but transactional. Not only is this an extreme example of sexual entitlement—prioritizing one’s needs over the wishes of another—it is rape. If the woman is in actuality an underage girl and money is changing hands, then it’s sex trafficking.
Of course, we are not suggesting porn is the sole cause of sexual entitlement and sex trafficking, even though it’s a key part of this global issue that’s often ignored. Most people agree we should fight against sex trafficking, sexual assault, and spycam porn, but they still believe porn is a harmless or even healthy pastime.
If there is a sliver of good news from stories like this, it is that we can change the future. Every click on spycam porn keeps that category alive. Every view of “teen” porn that may or may not be an actual teenager drives the demand for sex trafficking. No clicks and no views sends a strong message that you won’t stand for this exploitation.