The Legalities of Gender, Police Collusion, and Drug Usage in South Korea’s K-Pop Prostitution Investigation
By Lydia Kim
Lydia Kim is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Economics and Cognitive Science.
Any entertainment industry is highly visible—if not ostentatious —and for South Korea, music has become one of its largest exports as an over $5 billion industry . Largely made up of “idol groups” comprising of young acts that perform as a unit, South Korea (and more recently, the world at large ) looks to Korean pop culture (K-pop) and these glamorous celebrities to set trends, push consumer innovation, and represent sociocultural norms. CedarBough Saeji, an expert in Korean culture at the University of British Columbia, states that for K-pop stars, “their every public moment is a product to be consumed as representative of the nation, representative of ideal behavior, and representative of performative talent." Many large Korean music management companies are also publicly traded stocks, so this close-knit link between the economy and entertainment makes for a symbiotic relationship. As a result, "scandals involving drinking, drugs or even dating not only make waves in the entertainment news section but also the finance news section” . In early March, however, one scandal created ripples beyond the entertainment and finance sections. South Korea doubled over as it became embroiled in one of the largest scandals in quite some time : colloquially, the K-pop Prostitution Investigation.
After allegations were made against K-pop stars Seungri and Joon-Young Jung that they, respectively, attempted to provide prostitutes to business investors and illegally filmed sexual behavior, investigations began to explore these claims . Seungri’s Burning Sun nightclub in Seoul then faced allegations “of bribery, violence against customers, securing prostitutes for VIPs, rape, drug trafficking and drug use,” according to the Seoul Metropolitan Police, with multiple witness testimonies to back the claims . According to the Burning Sun whistleblower, women were allegedly given gamma-hydroxyButyrate (GHB), a date rape drug that disorients the user and causes memory loss, at the Burning Sun so VIP customers could commit sexual assault . Seungri was allegedly involved in coercing these events. Over the next few days, chat history between these celebrities was released by Jung-Hyun Bang, Attorney at Law, to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission on behalf of a whistleblower who detailed secretly filmed sex videos and encouragements to make client-prostitute arrangements . After Joon-Young Jung’s admission of guilt and a call for continued investigation, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s Provincial Special Detective Division submitted requests for arrest warrants to the court by the prosecution.
This overwhelming turn of events has undoubtedly shed a negative light on South Korean pop culture, and many lament over the unprecedented downfall of these young stars. But the arrest of these individuals unearths a story far greater than individual acts of indiscretion. Broadly, it uncovers a narrative of how the corruption of authorities and gender roles come into play in the legal system. Note, however, that this case is not only an overt reflection of the rampant sexual crimes against women and the gendered nature of legal repercussions—but also the increasing awareness surrounding such issues.
To understand the premise of the investigation, it makes sense to first set the stage in terms of South Korea’s sociocultural norms for gender equality, drug usage and prostitution law as well as the consequent impacts on the legal system. Prostitution is nominally illegal, but the sex business continues to thrive underground in massage parlors and bars as heightened police crackdowns eliminated traditional red-light districts from the country in the early 2000s through the Korean Anti-Sex Trafficking law . In fact, prostitution is more than a $13 billion industry today: roughly 1.6% of the country’s GDP . It is evident that, while illegal, prostitution is still prevalent. Gender inequality is just as daunting. Past legal rulings have historically furthered the gender gap by reducing sentences for young men with “potential” and offering little protection for the young female victims due to gender politics (see: “Miryang gang rape”) . This lack of legal and legislative protection hasn’t sat well with many.
In such a climate, South Korea has found itself battling an epidemic of “spy cam porn” where hidden cameras are placed in normally private areas (i.e. bathrooms and changing rooms) and then the secret footage is uploaded online . While by law such actions can lead to a five-year prison sentence or a less-than-30 million won (approximately $26,420) fine—even greater for the distribution of such content—most perpetrators rarely receive the full sentence, and President Jae-In Moon has even gone as far as to say that the crime has become “part of daily life” .
In light of these incidents, women in South Korea have begun to step out and protest their violation of rights through more active women’s movements and public protests under the slogan “My Life is Not Your Porn” and a more proactive culture of calling out sexual assault with the #MeToo Movement .
Drug laws in South Korea are also extremely strict, and the country is known for its stringent laws on possession and usage. Despite being a country of more than 51 million people, the Korean Statistical Information Service reports that only around 8000 drug-related arrests were made in 2017—conveying the rarity of usage .
These gender- and drug-related laws play a significant role in the current investigation sweeping the K-pop industry. The Burning Sun scandal—particularly the claims about date rape, drug usage, and secret filming—comes at a time where, according to Saeji’s interview with CNN, such issues “are being faced by society more directly than ever before” . This feeds into the publicity for this story as the public sees an opportunity to shed more light on societal issues and the case “resonates with an ongoing reckoning with attitudes in South Korea towards women and legalities,” says Saeji. Many paint this case to be the simmered-over pot for gender and legal issues after years of tragedies like the spy cam epidemic and the lack of solid legal protection.
But even more importantly, we see a case with a clear lack of law enforcement in gender- and drug-related cases.
According to a report by Transparency International, four in ten Koreans believe that most or all of the police are corrupt . The public generally believes in the integrity of their local police departments. In light of this, the current accusations against high-ranked police officials in this investigation come as a general surprise (and a source of outrage). More specifically, it was revealed that a former police officer, Kang, had been arrested by warrant from the Seoul Central District Court because “there's risk of destroyed evidence and escape. Kang denies all allegations against him but the Burning Sun co-CEO changed his statement and admitted he gave Kang 20 million won as a bribe” . Jung-Hyun Bang also mentions how he specifically sent the evidence he had to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission instead of an investigative agency like the police precisely because of suspicions of police corruption:
“After going through the data, he found several conversations suggesting ties with the police … when a situation comes up, someone would say, “I contacted [the high-ranking official]” or “I did [so-and-so] with [the high-ranking official] and resolved it” .
The arrest of Kang and the suspicions put on other high senior officials uncovers a law enforcement system that fails to keep up its integrity and record.
Predictably, the multifaceted nature to this investigation is nuanced. Jenna Gibson, a Korea expert at the University of Chicago, says that "this level of scandal goes beyond anything we've seen in recent memory" . As a result, it’s important to be aware of how this case may be misconstrued. This case is painted as a “K-pop scandal,” but the most important point is that this isn’t merely a K-pop-specific issue. The exposure of Seungri and Joon-Young Jung, who as K-pop stars are “presumed to represent the best role models for young Korean men,” is simply skimming the surface of a deeper level of corruption and social inequality that resonates across the globe .
But even more importantly, this investigation is a spark for change. The anger that has erupted on internet portals and conversations in South Korea are indicative of the shifting attitudes and rising intolerance for societal corruption. Police chiefs actively working to expand corruption investigations on businesses all across the country is indicative of the increased effort to redeem the integrity of nationwide law enforcement . The Gangnam Police Department and the Court have been publicly clear in their intentions to punish those responsible for wrongdoings, regardless of status. The South Korean public as a whole is using this as an opportunity to elicit positive social and legal change and root out inequalities that have simmered for decades.
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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