On December 18th, Jong-hyun Kim, the 27-year old lead vocalist of K-pop group SHINee, committed suicide. This was heartbreaking news to the K-pop industry, but more so, it has brought attention to both the immense pressure put on South Korean pop stars and the lack of mental health awareness in South Korea.
Korean music and television has taken over the U.S. From Korean dramas to Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and the surging popularity of boy group BTS (who made history as the first K-pop group to win a Billboard Music Award), South Korean celebrities have found an incredible fan base in the U.S. and an even larger, more dedicated one in their home country.
Korean pop groups present amazing stage presence through their singing, dancing, and stage costumes, creating a glamorous illusion for the public to fawn over. Groups train for multiple years before they can make their official debut and practicing for hours to make sure they are perfectly in sync.
What lies behind these seemingly perfect individuals, however, is much darker. Korean pop stars are signed to strict contracts by large management companies that control nearly every aspect of their lives. Stars struggle with harsh diets (usually forms of starvation) and severe pressure to not only perform well but to keep up an image of beauty and propriety.
The pressure many Korean stars are put under is a tactic used by management companies to bring in as much money as they can. K-pop fans get the entertainment they desire and the companies make their profit, all while the mental and physical health of K-pop stars is forgotten. Kim’s death and revealing suicide note serve as a wake-up call to the K-pop industry and its huge following.
In his final letter, Kim wrote about his struggle with depression, stating, “the depression that gnawed on me slowly has finally engulfed me entirely.” It is clear that his life in the public eye and the pressure the industry put on him played a huge role in his depression. He wrote, “Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be known to the world; I’ve learned that’s what makes [my life] difficult.” These statements showcase Kim’s struggle and also expose the lack of help he received for his mental health.
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, but people rarely receive help for mental health issues. Dr. Hyung-soo Kim, a psychologist and professor at Chosun University in South Korea told the New York Times, “Talking openly about emotional problems is still taboo [in South Korea]. With depression, the inclination for Koreans is to just to bear with it and get over it.”
“Getting over it” should never be an approach to depression or any mental health issue, but that is exactly what Kim had to do for the sake of the industry. The pressures of the K-pop industry along with the larger cultural stigma in South Korea can be crippling for the Korean stars.It is easy to get lost in the fantasy and beauty of K-pop and all the perfection it represents, but the difficulties behind that perfection, and the debilitating effects it can have on someone’s mental health, should be discussed and given more attention.