Inside the Private Pain Plaguing K-Pop

Music fans are in mourning again after the apparent suicide of former f(x) singer Sulli

By Natalie Finn Oct 14, 2019 6:45 PMTags

Nothing cheers you up, lifts you up, brings you life quite like pop music. Even when it's Harry Styles or Adele or Sam Smith or BTS achingly belting their despair into that cold, lonely night...songs that make you feel all the feelings are still songs that are taking you to new heights. There's nothing quite like a tune that hurts so good.

As we wallow, so do we celebrate.

In South Korea, the genre is known as K-Pop—a catchy moniker established in the 1990s that's catching fire around the globe—and all the hallmarks of the superstars of the Western world are present and accounted for: Charismatic boy bands, polished pop princesses, infectious chart-topping singles, carefully crafted images and tender-aged men and women who've inspired a level of fanaticism reserved for...well, almost no one besides pop stars these days. 

Music is the universal language, after all.

But for not the first time, the K-pop world is in mourning, this time in the wake of 25-year-old singer Sulli's death from an apparent suicide. 

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"We are sorry to tell everyone the sorrowful and sad news," her talent management agency, SM Entertainment, said in a statement Monday. "Sulli has left us. We cannot believe the situation and we are simply in a state of grief.

"Please refrain from spreading speculative articles or rumors in respect of the bereaved's family who are saddened by the sudden tragedy," the message continued. "We express our deepest condolences to the deceased, who went on their final path."

Keipher McKennie/WireImage

Sulli, born Choi Jin-Ri, was a member of South Korean girl group f(x) until July 2014, when, suffering from "stress-related stomach pains" that SM linked to salacious rumors circulating online about her personal life, she decided to take a break. Her departure from f(x) was officially announced in August 2015, six years after they released their debut single, "La Cha Ta." After taking an extended break from music, Sulli had resurfaced last year on Korean R&B artist Dean's song "Dayfly," and she released her own debut single "Goblin" this past June.

Moreover, she also appeared as a co-host in June on the TV show Night of Hate Comments, where they discussed the societal scourge that is cyberbullying—and Sulli had faced her fair share of online trolls.

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"There are so many unique types of people in this country with so much talent and I feel like they're wasting it by putting their energy into critiquing others like this online," Sulli said on the show, per Newsweek.

"this beautiful girls life just ended because of bullying," tweeted a fan going by the moniker k-idols in gay panic. "People need to start realizing rude comments you think are harmless, THEY HURT. This needs to stop, the hate, the ignorant comments need to end NOW. Rest easy Sulli, I'm sorry no one listened to you, you'll be missed."

A fan going by Cloud Sky shared on Twitter a translation of Dean's response to the tragedy: "your voice will remain throwing deafend [sic] questions at people for a long time. I'm seriously thankful and I'm sorry. I will remember you."

The devastation also poured forth on social media in response to the sudden death on March 25, 2018, of 100% singer Seo Minwoo after he reportedly suffered cardiac arrest. The actor and boyband heartthrob was 33.

TOP Media founder Andy Lee, the singer turned K-pop impresario who's behind the groups 100%, Teen TopShinhwa and UP10TION, expressed his condolences in a statement online, calling Seo a leader known for his tenderness and sincerity.

While American audiences may still be largely in the dark when it comes to the ins and outs of K-pop and its artists, our mainstream exposure fairly limited to Psy's "Gangnam Style" and, more recently, the emergence of BTS on the world stage, fans took to social media to share exactly what Seo meant to them.


"Seo Minwoo is my life mentor. He gave up everything for 100% and perfection. Words are not enough to describe how great of a person he is. How lovely, caring and talented he is. Seo Minwoo, my king... I love you," wrote Haya on Twitter.

She continued, "Seo Minwoo gave up is acting career for 100%. Fought Top Media over and over again (f*ck you tm) to keep 100% together. Everything he did he put his absolute everything in. He openly supported LGBTQ, did vlives often to talk with perfection about their concerns."

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Haya's pinned tweet at the time was from Dec. 24, 2015: "If 100% were a religion, I'd build them a church and dedicate my whole life and soul to them."

While that's a lot, it's indicative of the level of devotion that some K-pop stars have awoken in their fans.

A number of people tweeted that upcoming "selca days"—specific days each month on which fans post selfies with their favorite idols—should be canceled out of respect for Minwoo. 100%'s fandom is called Perfection.

And SHINee World could sympathize.

CHOI HYUK/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 18, 2017, SHINee singer Kim Jong-hyun (known as Jonghyun) committed suicide, baffling fans and even fellow K-pop stars who figured the 27-year-old was on top of the world.

"It was so shocking, because we had seen him so often at events," BTS' RM told Billboard. "He was so successful."

"My Poet My Artist My Jonghyun I miss you," tweeted w on March 28, 2018. In fact, there were so many newly posted photos and video clips of the young man on Twitter that, aside from the occasional mournful missive like that one, you'd be forgiven for not knowing that he's gone.

The account Jonghyun On This Day is also doing its part to keep his memory alive.

"My sincere condolences to Sulli's family, friends and fans," the account tweeted Monday. "My DMs are always open for anyone who needs to talk."

But Jonghyun's death—authorities found charred coal briquettes in a frying pan on the stove, which produced carbon monoxide—obviously rattled the music world at large on multiple levels. In addition to the personal loss felt alike by loved ones and fans who felt they knew him, mental health is not an issue that has historically received much media attention in South Korea—or in Asia overall. 

"To the South Korean government: Let #Jonghyun be the light in death that he was in life," tweeted Xavier on Dec. 18. "Recognize that suicide is an epidemic in South Korea and takes strides to ending the negative stigmas around mental health and to combat this issue. Don't let Jonghyun be another statistic."

A fan started a petition demanding that entertainment companies set up mental health support systems for their artists. More than 434,000 people signed it.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

After some discussion, his family agreed to make public the suicide note the singer and songwriter, who made his solo debut in 2015 with the well-received album Base, left behind. His friend and Dear Cloud singer Jang Hee-yeon, known as Nine9, posted it on her Instagram. She said she'd obtained the note two weeks before Jonghyun's death and was asked to publish it if he "disappeared from the world."

"I'm broken from the inside," the note read. "The depression that has slowly eaten away at me has finally consumed me, and I couldn't beat it."

It concluded, "The life of fame was not for me. They say it's hard to bump up against the world and become famous. Why did I choose this life? It's a funny thing. It's a miracle that I lasted this long...

"What else is there to say? Just tell me I did well. Tell me that this is enough. Tell me I worked hard. Even if you can't smile, please don't blame me as you send me off. Well done. You've really worked hard. Goodbye."

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In a sign that Jonghyun's death could help bring about positive change in the way mental health and depression are publicly discussed, the circumstances of his death continue to be a topic of conversation—one that Seo Minwoo's passing, no matter what the cause, only brings to mind all over again.

Also in March 2018, after Minwoo died, a fan tweeted, "Nine said on the last interview Jonghyun once told her that she brings comfort to him. She noticed his condition got worse after blue night and when he gave her the letter she told his family right away, tried to save him, to prevent the worst from happening...

"I really believe everyone around him knew about his condition and tried their best to help him. that's why it hurts so much, that even though he got help he still wanted to leave."

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In an interview with Billboard in February 2018, members of BTS said that they wanted to keep the discussion about mental health going.

"I really want to say that everyone in the world is lonely and everyone is sad," Suga, 25, said, "and if we know that everyone is suffering and lonely, I hope we can create an environment where we can ask for help, and say things are hard when they're hard, and say that we miss someone when we miss them."

Their most resonant message yet came in August, when BTS announced they were taking a break for a "period of rest and relaxation," their first bit of extended time off since they got together and released their debut album, 2 Cool for Skool, in 2013.

BTS fans (known as A.R.M.Y., Adorable Representative M.C for Youth) cheered the decision, with one tweeting, "Pls take care and stay safe. I'll miss you lots but this is what you need and deserve the most."

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Bucking national mores and the pressure to be upbeat or put up an artificially glossy front all the time, Jonghyun, who also hosted the long-running music radio program Blue Night, had spoken out publicly about his battle with depression—much like young American stars such as Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Zayn Malik and Kesha have been widely applauded for doing these days.

His last Blue Night broadcast was in March 2017 after three years behind the mic. He admitted to Esquire Korea that he didn't like traveling and considered himself a homebody—and the close confines of a radio studio, just him alone with some music, had been a perfect fit.

"It may be that I came running to radio in order to escape," he reflected to the magazine, per an English translation. "I don't really like going outside. And I don't really like having to meet a lot of people. I'm also afraid of trying new things. The radio now felt like my own personal space. It had become an escape hatch for me to greet new things without feeling awkward."

Jonghyun, who cited personal matters as the reason he was leaving the radio show, said it had become important to him to share his metaphorical scars with the world.

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"I'm fundamentally a pessimistic person," he said. "Ever since I was little I showed a lot of depressive feelings, and it's the same in the present. But I don't think I can keep living my life sustaining those depressive feelings forever. You might be able to go through the early-to-mid-part of your life with that kind of melancholy. But if you want to grow, you can only survive if you throw those feelings away.

"Unless you want to get trapped within yourself and die, you have to grow no matter how much it hurts—but if you stop because you're afraid, in the end it's inevitable that you'd remain in an immature state of mind. I chose the path to transform myself. To reveal myself to the public. To attempt to make my thoughts understood. I have to make people aware that this is the kind of person I am, and I can only be on the defensive if I know that they know."

The translator noted that she avoided using the word "depression," because Jonghyun didn't use what amounted to that word specifically. Even in talking about it, those feelings of sadness remained a beast with no name.

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

When Jonghyun died, his SHINee band mates and members of the group Super Junior (both groups under the SM Entertainment umbrella), all clad in black, carried his coffin from Asan Medical Center in Seoul to a waiting vehicle. His sister headed the procession, carrying a photo of her late brother.

The funeral was private, for friends and family only, but hundreds of people lined up to see the coffin leave the hospital.

A statement from SM Entertainment read in part (according to Rolling Stone), "The deep sorrow cannot be compared to ones of his family who had to let go of their loving son and brother but the employees and artists of SM Entertainment, also in deep shock and sorrow, are offering condolences. Jonghyun was the best artist who loved music more than anyone and always worked hard for his performance. We ask you to refrain from making rumors or assumptions based on reports in respect of his family who are in deep sorrow from the sudden news. As his family wished, his funeral will be carried out in the quietest manner with his family members and co-workers."

But Jonghyun's death was hardly the first time the punishing pace of the K-pop machine had come under fire.

In addition to being expected to tour and crank out albums, sometimes in multiple languages (SHINee had also recorded in Japanese), the artists often appear on a never-ending stream of competition TV series in addition to doing talk shows, photo shoots and public appearances to keep the fans both sated and hungry for more. 

But despite the seeming glut of artists and groups to remember (there are so many selca days), truly breaking through as a star remains an elusive concept—and standing out in South Korea's youth-obsessed culture can feel like an insurmountable challenge. 

And then there's the appearance factor. "If a girl has a bad face and a good body, the problem can be fixed with plastic surgery," Kim Min-seok, a former trainer with YG Entertainment (considered along with S.M. and JYP as the "Big Three" agencies), told Broadly. in 2016.

Moreover, the litany of groups also tend to be carefully managed, meticulously packaged pop confections, with a management company pulling the strings behind the scenes. Those who hope to make it big are expected to dedicate their lives to that goal, and that's basically what signing a contract entails.

In January 2015, NBC News cited a survey of South Korean pre-teens: When asked about career aspirations, 21 percent said they wanted to be K-pop stars.

"I am thinking only one thing—our song keeps being played," 20-year-old Sowon, a member of the girl group GFriend, which had an international hit at the time with their debut single "Glass Bead," told NBC News. "I hope to perform anywhere, anytime, even if I can't sleep or I am tired."

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On Feb. 24, 2015, aspiring K-pop star Ahn So Jin died after falling 10 stories from an apartment building, with police concluding that her death was a suicide. The 22-year-old had made a splash the previous year after making it to the finals of The Kara Project—a competition show held to find girl group Kara a new member after two girls had left.

"It has to be this, or nothing," Sojin said on the show's premiere. "I can't miss this." She had been a K-pop trainee with Kara manager DSP Media for five years but her contract had reportedly ended the month before her death.

Kara disbanded for good in January 2016.

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Jang Ha-Jin, a 23-year-old university student who had once been a trainee with S.M. Entertainment after winning a talent competition, told NBC News in 2015 that she wasn't allowed to have a cell phone while in the program and the competition to earn a coveted slot in an actual girl group was fierce—and stressful.

"The most difficult part in fact was when I saw myself and felt like I didn't grow up," she said.

The loss of individuality isn't limited to K-pop, either.

In 2013, Minami Minegishi of Japan's AKB48—a group with over 100 rotating members who appear in different configurations at different events—shaved her head and tearfully apologized in a video confession after she spent the night with her boyfriend, an apparent infraction of a no-dating rule.

"I don't believe just doing this means I can be forgiven for what I did, but the first thing I thought was that I don't want to quit AKB48," Minegishi said, according to the BBC. AKB48's manager said Minegishi, an original member of the group when it formed in 2005, had been demoted to trainee status.

Her fans, more appalled by the self-flagellation than anything else, rallied around her, insisting she not be punished for just wanting to live her life.

In 2015, the BBC reported that members of Japanese boy band SMAP somberly dressed in black and publicly apologized on their weekly show SMAPxSMAP after they attempted to leave their longtime agency Johnny & Associates. 

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The K-pop scene doesn't sound quite so rigid these days, with managers and producers perhaps not wanting to alienate coveted Western audiences with oppressive behavioral strictures, but it still demands a level of old-fashioned poise and accommodation from its artists.

"If you go to the agency, every young trainee will give you a very polite bow and there are notices with the company rules on the wall to remind them how to behave," K-pop industry expert Mark Russell told the BBC in 2016.

In June 2014, Taeyeon of Girls Generation and Baekhyun of boy band EXO apologized to their respective fan bases for the "disappointment, anger, hatred, frustration, and dejection" they presumably felt when they found out that Taeyeon and Baekhyun were dating (a coupling that would seemingly send their fans over the moon, Jelena-style).

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In June 2017, T.O.P. of the group Big Bang was hospitalized for several days after overdosing on prescription medication, the incident occurring a day after he was charged with smoking marijuana—a crime punishable by up to five years in prison in South Korea. According to Today Online, when he was caught smoking in October 2016, he issued a handwritten apology letter stating, "I deserve punishment for hurting the (BIGBANG) members, agency, public, fans and family. I'll regret this for tens of thousands of years."

T.O.P. was found guilty and received a suspended 10-month prison sentence because the judge determined that, although he had admitted his guilt and "disappointed his family and fans," he seemed sufficiently remorseful.

"I'm truly sorry that I disappointed my fans and the public," the 29-year-old, whose real name is Choi Seung-Hyun, told reporters after his sentencing last summer. I will do my best to make a fresh start and not to make such a mistake again with what I've learned from this lesson,"

In August 2017, management company WM Entertainment announced that JinE of Oh My Girl was taking a break from the group while she sought treatment for anorexia, stating, "We will wholeheartedly support JinE while she rests and receives treatment. We apologize once more for bringing this sudden news to fans and ask that you continue to show Oh My Girl unchanging love and interest." JinE's permanent exit from the group was announced in October.

It was impossible not to note a hint of concern over past K-pop tragedy and the pitfalls of fame in this otherwise cheerful birthday greeting sent on March 30, 2018 to Cha Eunwoo, or Eunwoo, of the six-member boy band Astro, which Billboard named one of the 10 best new K-pop groups in 2016.

"Mr. Cha Eunwoo Happy birthday to our sweet and sparkling fluff. AROHA are so lucky to have you," wrote Ashlyn Akiko (who changed her handle to #happychaeunwooday for the occasion). "Stay happy and healthy."

And these devoted fans continue to speak out on behalf of the living and the dearly departed.

Today, Namjoon_Yoongi, who also is a devotee of BTS, tweeted, "Hope that you both are resting peacefully, #Jonghyun and #Sulli we love and miss you so much."

(Originally published March 29, 2018, at 3:07 p.m. PT)