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What The String Of Suicides In South Korea's Entertainment Industry Reveals, And Who We've Lost

The disturbing reports of many K-Pop and K-Drama stars taking their own lives begs the question: what needs to change?

Singer and actress Goo Hara, a member of the former K-Pop girl group KARA, died last November 24 at the age of 28.


Authorities who discovered her lifeless body in her home located in one of Seoul's richest, most exclusive enclaves speculate that she had taken her own life. She first attempted suicide in May, but lived.


Six weeks before, her fellow K-Pop singer and friend Sulli was also reported to have taken her own life.


Before Sulli, boy band SHINee lead singer Kim Jong-hyun took his life in December 2018, a week before Christmas day. 


All three celebrities were reported to have left notes or letters meant to be found. Each contained a common theme: they had suffered from depression and feelings of isolation for months, expressed loneliness from having no one to turn to for comfort, and felt trapped in their own lives, believing that there was no foreseeable end to their turmoil.


Goo Hara, Sulli, and Kim Jong-hyun are but three names in the growing list of Korean celebrities who are turning to suicide as an escape from the problems they face. The quickly rising suicide rate has sparked international interest over what might be fueling the crisis, leading mental health experts, fans, and families alike to all ask the same question: what needs to change to stop this?





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The question has led to several explanations: 


South Korea's entertainment industry is infamous for treating its stars like properties expected to return investments. 


Little was known about the inner workings of K-Pop stars' lives away from the camera before the genre had taken the world by storm. But when curiosity about seemingly perfect idols grew along with their fame, it was revealed that their lives are far less dreamy than what is portrayed. 


The truth is that stars' management or agencies have complete control of every aspect of their lives, from the way they dress, their romantic relationships, the way they speak, what they can post online, when they're allowed to spend time with friends and family, the pounds they're pressured to keep off—and sometimes, even the kinds of plastic surgery they should undergo, as previously reported by CBC.ca. Often, their daily lives are also scheduled by their handlers, leaving them little to no room to do as they please amidst hours and hours of singing, dancing, and acting, seven days a week. 


The lifestyle leaves K-Pop stars exhausted, without the freedom to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and in totality, may be unable to live at all. 



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South Korea has a culture that puts women second. 


Earlier this year, several male Korean celebrities were investigated for crimes relating to the abuse of women as stated by businessinsider.sg, some of whom were newcomers in the industry hoping to make it big. They were told that the only way to kick-start their careers and get noticed by top tier talent agencies was to engage in sexual relations with a male client (or group of male clients), or to perform other lewd acts with or for them without complaint. 


Being drugged, raped, beaten, filmed, and threatened with blackmail was sometimes part of the deal. 


Even when women were clearly the victims in situations like this, South Korea's culture of shaming women and considering them impure and damaged after an experience like this has discouraged them from coming forward and seeking justice. 


A female performer or actress need not be subjected to a similar situation to realize that the Korean justice system inherently disadvantages women, a topic discussed by time.com; female celebrities are essentially left to fend for themselves should they be in threatening situations or feel that their rights are being violated in any way, by any person—including the times when they feel like that they've been overworked, excessively monitored, or coerced into doing something as the only way to succeed (conversely, being cut from a roster of performers is what comes if they decline or fight back). 


In extreme situations, the end result is often saddening; women who have no escape from their shame resort to ending their own lives. 



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Mental health is taboo in South Korea.


Unlike many parts of the world that have acknowledged the importance of making mental health an integral part of overall well-being, South Korea has fallen behind this discussion and still considers it a taboo, a reality explained in detail by the BorgenProject.org.


You'll find very few groups openly talking about depression, anxiety, the need for support groups, therapy, and psychiatrist-prescribed medication to help manage these issues in the East Asian country. Those who do engage in activities like this and promote mental health awareness are likewise not met with open arms. 


That's because a perception of mental health issues equating to weakness is believed to exist in Korean culture; the pressure to succeed at all costs and remain "strong" in the face of challenges persists, and showing any signs of wanting to slow down, rest, or take a break can easily be interpreted as laziness and frailty. And the moment a celebrity exhibits any of these things, they're made to feel replaceable, too. If they can't handle it, hundreds and hundreds of K-Pop or K-Drama star hopefuls are ready to replace them. 


Success in South Korea, it seems, means there's no time to take it easy, even when it's for something as important as self-care.





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Laws governing the digital sphere are poorly enforced, or totally lacking. 


With fame comes the exposure to a barrage of opinions and comments, some good some bad, but almost always expressed anonymously online. 


With the inseparable role that social media plays in the lives of Korea's most famous, celebrities are exposed to fans and Internet trolls alike, with the latter being especially damaging. It's common for them to post criticism targeting anything from a celeb's face, wardrobe, performance, or character, but the situation becomes exceptionally intolerable when it turns into targeted cyber bullying that persists over an extended period of time.


Unfortunately, South Korean government has not prioritized the development or enforcement of legislation that protects individuals from online harassment, as stated on metro.co.uk. The Internet is free to turn into ruthless hunting ground for those seeking to bring down a celebrity for a myriad of reasons. 



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It's now clear to see how a combination of these factors can have dire consequence on those whose lives are deeply affected by them. 


And throughout the years, the world has seen more and more Korean stars give up on bright futures because of unhappy presents. To remember those we've lost, we list them down here and pay tribute to their contributions to the industry, several of which were shows that earned a following among Filipino viewers: 


Jang Ja-yeon: She is the actress most famous to Filipinos for her role as Sunny in the K-Drama Boys Over Flowers. She died in 2009 and an investigation of her death revealed that the CEO of her then talent agency would routinely force her and other young actresses to engage in sexual acts with him and the company's male executives. Her case paved the way for Korea's entertainment industry to be reexamined. 




Jeon Mi-seon: This award-winning dramatic actress' career spanned decades and crossed over from film to television and theater with ease, making her one of Korea's greatest onscreen talents. Sadly, she was found dead in her hotel room in June this year. In the days leading to her death, her manager had alerted the police that she had gone missing and had a history of depression. She's recognized by her Filipino fans for playing Lady Park in 2015's Love in the Moonlight. 



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Jeong Da-bin: She was 27 years old when she took her own life and had made comments on wanting to end her life as well as her unending depression on her blog prior. The actress who first made a name for herself in Taiwan eventually found fame in South Korea where she starred in 10 series and two films, most notably 2003's Attic Cat that aired in the Philippines. 




Jo Min-ki: He was an actor and photographer who also taught drama at a prominent university. However, rather than be on the receiving end of abuse, he was accused of raping and harassing several female students in his tenure. He eventually released a statement admitting to his crimes, but before legal action could be executed, he was found lifeless in the basement of his building. His show Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo was his last small screen project which was aired in the Philippines.






Park Yong-ha: Without a note to explain his suicide, it was speculated that the musician, singer, and actor took his own life due to his inability to cope with his father's cancer diagnosis, pressure to perform and keep up his fame, and depression. He was a bankable throughout Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, with projects like the Winter Sonata, the show considered to be the series that launched K-Dramas to worldwide popularity. 




Kim Jong-hyun: The SHINee lead singer sent a text message to his sister before his suicide, apparently telling her that he had been depressed for long enough, and that the time to end things had come. His boy band mates and friends from K-Pop group Super Junior carried his casket at his funeral. His death came as a shock as he was the group's lead member and had immense success from chart-topping singles and albums.




Sulli: In her home where she was found lifeless was a letter containing a handwritten explanation of the state of mind she had at the time of her death. Though it wasn't exactly a suicide note, it painted a picture of the consequences of Sulli's untreated mental health issues which included panic disorder and social phobia. She was a model, singer, and actress and a one-of-a-kind advocate of women's rights and freedom of expression. Her death has prompted the proposal of the "Sulli Act," a law meant to fight cyber bullying. She became popular for her starring role in To the Beautiful You (2012) which aired on ABS-CBN. Her latest project was a stint on K-Drama series Hotel del Luna which is curently being aired on the Kapamilya network.




Goo Hara: The singer and former K-Pop girl group member first attempted to commit suicide in May due to severe anxiety and depression. Her former flame had threatened to end her career with revenge porn when their relationship ended, and a CCTV clip of her on her knees begging him not to do so circulated online. Police found her body just two days ago as of this writing. She appeared in the K-Drama City Hunter with Lee Min-ho and Park Min-young; this series was aired on ABS-CBN.




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If you or someone you know are in need of counseling or experiencing depression, the following outlets can patch you through to trained respondents ready  to listen:


Hopeline

804 4673

(0917) 5584673 


Natasha Goulbourn Foundation

804-HOPE (4673)
(0917) 558 HOPE (4673)
2919 (toll-free number for all GLOBE and TM subscribe


In Touch Crisis Lines

893 7603
(9917) 800 1123
(0922) 893 8944


Photos from @sullihara