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K-pop & Korean Culture: The Dark Side We Aren’t Told About

by Kareena Dodeja
K-pop & Korean Culture: The Dark Side We Aren’t Told About

February 17, 2021

The Korean wave, or the Hallyu wave, began decades ago. But it has seen aggressive growth only over the past few years. Korean culture has a considerable impact even on our country today. With the gigantic community of Korean pop culture fanatics, it has created a name for itself. But there's more than what meets the eye.

Most labels employ a system where the musicians, idols and stars have to earn back their training cost, including singing, dancing, living expenses, and other facilities. They have to sign contracts with the agencies to maintain the “idol-celebrity” image.

The agencies take care of everything under the sun for them- from diets to social lives. Aspiring heroes have to sign the contracts as young as 12 or 13 years old, and the deal lasts for ten years or more. This system is referred to as ‘Slave contracts.’

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Picture showing Slave contract.

Behind the Scenes of K-Pop

The evolution of k-pop started with Lee Soo-man when he founded SM Entertainment in 1996- this move birthed numerous k-pop idols. The first k-pop idol group was the visionary Seo Taiji and Boys, which led to the Korean music industry revolution. More labels were established, such as JYP, YG, and BIGHIT, and thus it became a competitive field.

K-pop Artists Have to Sign "Slave Contracts"?

Most labels employ a system where the musicians, idols and stars have to earn back their training cost, including singing, dancing, living expenses, and other facilities. They have to sign contracts with the agencies to maintain the “idol-celebrity” image.

The agencies take care of everything under the sun for them- from diets to social lives. Aspiring heroes have to sign the contracts as young as 12 or 13 years old, and the deal lasts for ten years or more. This system is referred to as ‘Slave contracts.’

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Kpop artists have to sign a Slave contract.

Agencies Micromanage K-pop Stars

Agencies micromanage k-pop idols as they deal with their public image and private lives. K-pop has been growing its footprint all around the world. Its artists’ music videos are mesmerizing and offer the viewers a visual spectacle.

The success of BTS, EXO, Blackpink, and TWICE has changed the Korean music industry’s landscape. But, all these world-famous groups have to earn back the money their agencies invest in building their celebrity stature and be debt-free, by hook or crook.

This usually takes a few years, but if an artists or band struggles to make a mark, it could take much longer. The “slave contracts” have faced a considerable backlash in recent years when fans have demanded better treatment for their idols.

K-pop Idol's Not So Ideal Life

K-pop artists have, reportedly, gone through many sleepless nights, and barely eaten on account of not earning enough to pay back the agencies. These companies invade their personal lives. The labels were even pulled up for mistreatment by South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission (KFTC). As a result, agencies can no longer use the morality clause and other dubious reasons to cancel trainee contracts.

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K-POP artist's not so ideal life.

Way Too Rigorous Schedules

Trainees enter the highly regimented system and undergo years of training before their debut. They are encouraged to reduce weight through fad diets and fasting. These practices leave long-lasting repercussions on artists’ health.

There have been many cases of articles fainting on stage while performing. Their diets are strictly monitored, and their weight is checked at the beginning and end of the day- every day.

Many agencies make the artists and performers undergo plastic surgeries to be socially accepted in the industry. Some agencies require the models to give up on dating during their career, and their personal lives are monitored. The extreme isolation has caused mental health issues and even a rise in suicides in the industry.

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K POP training camp.

Vicious Cycle of K-pop Agencies

After the artists’ debut, their profits go towards clearing the debt to the companies. The concept of ‘slave contract’ blew up when the group TVXQ sued SM in 2008, stating that their contract was unfair. The group was popular and was not happy about what was happening behind-the-scenes.

The FTC established a new rule in 2009 that the contracts could only last for seven years. They also added some restrictions such as reforming the financial penalties for broken contracts. This made it difficult for labels to renew contracts with the idols. Despite this, the models are still subjected to unfair treatment.

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TVXQ is a famous K-POP duo.

Sickness, Starvation, and Invasion of Privacy in K-pop

The recent incident of 4Minute’s Hyuna and Pentagon’s E-Dawn being ousted by the agency Cube Entertainment for dating one another highlighted the aftermath of slave contracts. K-pop artists are also subjected to body dysmorphia and are forced to be of a specific weight limit. The suicide of SHINee’s lead singer, Kim Jong-hyun shocked the entertainment industry.

The industry should address the raised awareness about k-pop idols going through mental health illnesses. There are anti-fans, who obsess over the idol’s lives and troll them. This, along with online bullying, takes a toll on their mental health.

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Hyuna and Pentagon was kicked from the agency for dating one another.

Good Change in the Past Few Years

The conditions today have certainly improved from a decade ago. When they used to reveal their relationship, most celebrities had their contracts dwindled and news suppressed by the agencies back in the day. But now, agencies have accepted reality and have discontinued the practice of invading artists’ personal lives.

Moreover, artists are no longer bounded by the draconian rules of ‘slave contract’ now as the industry is changing for good. New artists have brought a fresh perspective in their contracts and ensured that fellow k-pop artists don’t get overworked, underpaid, and are given freedom.

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