DANIELA GUEVARA WRITES — Known as an ultra-competitive and highly technologically advanced society, South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in developed nations. And this month the even higher stresses in the country’s profitable K-pop industry took their toll on a K-pop star. After hearing the tragic news that Sulli, the 25-year-old K-pop singer and former member of girl group f(x), had died from an apparent suicide earlier this month, many fans and supporters rushed to social media with posts celebrating her artistry and career. Many praised the star for her outspokenness on the hardships singers face in the entertainment industry as well as her unapologetic stance on feminism for issues such as being pro-choice and the free the nipple movement.
While the North American music industry is no stranger to shocking behind-the-scenes horror stories, what’s so tough about K-pop life? A much darker reality lies beneath the glitz and glamour of the K-pop industry—cutthroat competition, unrealistic beauty standards and punishing treatment of performers making it understandable that performers end up leaving the industry. Every detail and action of a performer is dictated and measured with regard to hairstyle and clothing as well as what they eat and how to behave. Sulli cited stress as the reason for her departure from f(x). The former K-pop performer often spoke about online harassment and bullying she experienced and did not sugarcoat the struggles she faced. In doing so, Sulli was moving against the current of a Korean society which still maintains a stigma around speaking out about mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Kim Jong-Hyun, a 27-year-old lead singer of hugely popular boy group SHINee, rocked the K-pop world in 2017 after taking his own life in a hotel room in Seoul. A written note was left in his room describing the depth of the struggles he faced with depression and living in the public eye, bringing into light the dark side of K-pop. Many K-pop stars face tremendous pressure to look and behave perfectly in an industry powered by fans who work hard in getting their favorite groups to the top of the charts. In return, the performers are expected to work in an industry where today’s most loving and crazed fans can be tomorrow’s most vicious and unforgiving critics, should their idols fail to live up to their expectations.
However, celebrity suicides are only a small fraction of South Korea’s wider social problems which include cutthroat competition amongst students in education. Korean students are often pushed to the extreme in terms of school and studying as a way to prepare for the CSAT, the College Scholastic Ability Test, which determines their acceptance to Korean universities. Preparation for this exam begins in high school, where students are faced with classes starting from 8 a.m to 4 p.m, followed by extra studying sessions from 5 p.m to 10 p.m— often required by most Korean high schools. The academic pressures and highly competitive education system have led many Korean students to develop depression and anxiety. unable to According to 2015 OECD data, there are approximately 30 suicide ruled deaths per 100,000 people in South Korea; Japan, Hungary, and Slovenia follow with nearly 20 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.
Slowly but surely, the stigma involving mental health in South Korea has been decreasing with outspoken stars in the K-pop industry leading the charge. Many have come forward to discuss their hardships and urge others to seek help. South Koreans can only hope that systemic action will provide broader access to mental health care as well as continuously tackling the pervasive stigmatism surrounding mental health issues.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255