Day 6

K-pop performers' tragic deaths put a spotlight on South Korea's mental health challenges

The recent deaths of three K-pop stars have put South Korea's heavily-regimented music industry under international scrutiny. But K-pop expert Patty Ahn says the country's broader struggles with mental health are a key part of the picture.

'There's an international fan base paying attention and it's becoming a global conversation,' says Patty Ahn

K-pop star Goo Hara, far right, poses with her idol group Kara in Seoul, South Korea in 2015. Hara was found dead in her home on Nov. 24, 2019. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

In under two months, three young South Korean performers have died, putting the country's lucrative entertainment industry under scrutiny.

On Wednesday, actor and former Surprise U group member Cha In-Ha was found dead inside his home. The circumstances surrounding his death have not been made public. 

Cha's passing came on the heels of the apparent suicides of two prominent K-pop stars, Sulli and Goo Hara, who died in October and November respectively.

Industry followers say that the spate of deaths are being viewed as a moment of reckoning for K-pop, which is known for pushing its performers to the limits.

But Patty Ahn, who studies K-pop and South Korean pop culture at UC San Diego, is calling for a broader conversation about mental health stigma and gender inequality in the country.

Here is part of Ahn's conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

We don't have a lot of information yet about the death of Cha In-Ha. But tell me a little bit about these other two performers who died by suicide in recent months, Sulli and Goo Hara. Who were they?

Both Sulli and Goo Hara were part of fairly prominent girl groups. Sulli was a member of a girl group called f(x). 

They were signed with SM Entertainment and they were known as being sort of a punchy, rebellious girl group. Sulli, in particular, was a fairly outspoken feminist and women's rights activist within the group. 

One sort of scandalous media event that happened around her is when she posted a picture of her on an Instagram account and talked about how she doesn't wear a brassiere.

And that sparked a sort of outrage and internet attack against her, and that was being cited as the start of a long string of bullying against her. And it ultimately led to her suicide just a couple months ago.

A member of f(x), Sulli died by suicide in October. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

And she was known to have mental health struggles prior to her death. What do we know about those challenges?

I think her mental health struggles were largely tied to many years of cyber bullying. 

She did talk about her struggles with mental health issues. I mean, many idols are fairly public about them. 

In terms of how labels or the industry itself responds to those issues, they're not as supportive, I don't think, as their fans, of course. 

In the case of Goo Hara, she was apparently a victim of domestic abuse. How prevalent is that problem in South Korea?

Goo Hara had been surviving a long relationship of violence with her ex-boyfriend, and it's not an uncommon thing to hear about this in relationships in Korea. 

Domestic violence is more or less a normalized thing that happens there — also within diaspora Korean-American communities in the [United] States as well. 

Singer Goo Hara died by suicide in November. In the years leading up to her death, she faced cyberbullying and domestic abuse. (Wong Maye-E, File/The Associated Press)

So it wasn't particularly surprising, and there has been a pretty intense public movement in the last year that's sort of piggybacking on the #MeToo movement in the States. 

She took her [ex-]boyfriend to court ... and it didn't do a whole lot. It did impose a restraining order on him, but the biggest issue was that he had been threatening to release a sex tape of them and threatening revenge porn. 

The court did not rule that it was extortion or a case of revenge porn, and so that was, I think, a pretty damning and devastating outcome of that.

So these two tragic instances are high profile because these are both avatars of K-pop, but they're not isolated cases. 

In South Korea, they have one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, particularly among women. What can you tell us about that broader crisis?

I think the bottom line is gender violence, misogyny. These are just embedded within Korean culture. 

As a woman who grew up in a very kind of traditional culturally Korean family, it's something that I've had to survive and sort of experience and find a way to understand in order to be able to have a voice and a sense of confidence. 

This has been a longstanding part of Korean society, but I think in particular, in post-war Korean development, it's become more acute as the economy has become increasingly competitive and unforgiving. 

I think women have borne the brunt of the rapid economic development that South Korea has undergone in the last three or four decades.

Cha In-ha is the third Korean pop star to die in the last two months. The deaths spark concerns about the nature of the K-Pop industry and a toxic fan culture in Korea. 1:46

Many in the international media, especially, have reacted to these womens' deaths by pointing a finger at the K-pop industry ... What do you think [of] some of the biggest criticisms that are being levied at the industry right now?

Obviously the K-pop industry is notoriously punishing for its idol trainees, for the men and the women. 

The common lore about how trainees come up in their systems — they recruit them at a very young age, they put them through a really sort of aggressive, gruelling training process where they have to dance and learn how to sing, and they're in the studio practicing anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a day. 

There's a very strict diet regimen that they have to abide by. And the system itself is deeply hierarchical. So, you know, the lower you are on the ladder, the less voice you have or sort of room to push back on the system. 

It sounds gruelling. Do you think that the international scrutiny of the K-pop industry is warranted or do you think that it misses the larger picture of mental health and suicide in South Korea?

I think it absolutely is warranted; I think it's a huge issue. I don't think any other training system really looks as intensive as it does in South Korea. 

What some folks tend to miss is that K-pop is just one part of a larger economic system in South Korea — and that a lot of labour sectors across the country look like this. It's hyper-militarized, it's punishing to men and women, but especially to women. 

And this has been decades that industries have looked like this ... it's not just K-pop but it's the automotive industry, it's the electronics industry, it's the textile industry. 

So I think that we sometimes miss the point that K-pop belongs to a broader system that needs to be critiqued overall.

More and more K-pop stars have been speaking out about the pressures that they face in their careers ... Do you think there's a sign now that the conversation around mental health in South Korea is starting to shift?

I certainly hope that it is a sign; I do think it is.

And I actually think one of the great things that's coming out of these really tragic events is that because there's an international fan base paying attention and it's becoming a global conversation, the idols themselves are starting to feel a bit more emboldened to speak out and take the rest and health breaks that they need.

It's hard to predict the future, but ... I do think that there's something particular about the critiques that are being lobbied against the K-pop industry that might push a broader shift.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast or click Listen above.


  • An earlier version of this story included a statement about continued harassment of Goo Hara that CBC was unable to verify. It has been removed.
    Dec 07, 2019 9:59 AM ET