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Probe into Gangnam clubs: How a sex scandal is engulfing K-Pop in S Korea

K-Pop sensation Seungri. Photo: Twitter
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South Korean rapper Psy put K-Pop on the global stage with “Gangnam Style.” Now, a sex and drug scandal at Gangnam clubs involving another K-pop star is battering the industry’s carefully crafted image.

Seungri, a member of the internationally acclaimed Big Bang boy band, is being investigated for facilitating prostitution and has been questioned by police. Although he has not been charged, the probe has set off a media and political frenzy that is rocking South Korea. The entertainment industry has become increasingly important as an engine of economic growth — one of the country’s best-known exports alongside Samsung phones and Hyundai automobiles.

The police questioned Seungri Thursday about whether he arranged prostitutes at one club in Seoul, according to a spokesman for the department. In addition, the country’s prime minister called for an investigation into reports alleging sex crimes, drug abuse and police collusion with Gangnam clubs.

“The deviations of some entertainers and wealthy people are shocking,” Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said on Thursday at a policy meeting. “Police should get to the bottom of it to bring justice.”

President Moon Jae-in, who last year praised K-Pop after BTS topped the Billboard 200 chart, hasn’t commented.

The scandal began in November when a guest at a club called “Burning Sun” was violently removed from the premises by staff. Seungri was an executive at the club and speculation over their ties has riveted the nation. Local broadcaster MBC reported last month that a club employee provided guests with drugs. The club has denied wrongdoing.

Then broadcaster SBS reported that Seungri told staff in 2015 at a club called Arena to treat Taiwanese guests with women “who give well,” a possible allusion to a sexual arrangement. SBS cited a lawyer who claimed to have obtained Seungri’s KakaoTalk messages. That prompted the police investigation. The lawyer did not return requests for comment.

Seungri, 28, denied all allegations of wrongdoing through his entertainment agency. He said separately on Instagram that he joined Burning Sun’s management to obtain more DJ opportunities and helped promote the club though he did not run it. He later said he was quitting his entertainment career. His agency, YG Entertainment, said Wednesday it terminated its contract with him and apologized for failing to “manage the musician more thoroughly.”

Nicknamed “Korea’s Great Gatsby” for his opulent lifestyle, Seungri was the youngest member of the five-man band formed in 2006 with T.O.P, Taeyang, Daesung and G-Dragon. Big Bang paved the way for the rise of K-Pop with a string of hits including “Fantastic Baby,” “Lies” and “Love Song.” The band helped turn South Korean music into a global brand with their appeal and charm.

“This sends shock waves through not only entertainers but the powerful and wealthy that have fed on their charm to advance their own interests,” said Kim Jung-soo, who teaches cultural polices at Seoul’s Hanyang University.

The scandal expanded further when SBS reported separately this month that another K-Pop celebrity, Jung Joon-young, shared a spy-cam video in a messaging chat room that showed him having sex with a woman. SBS said the chat room also included Seungri and other entertainers.

Jung, 30, shot to fame in an America’s Got Talent-style contest in 2012. He has been fired by his agency and apologized while acknowledging the allegations, Yonhap News reported. Calls to the Makeus Entertainment firm that represented him weren’t answered.

Seungri and Jung Thursday went to Seoul’s police headquarters for questioning, according to television footage. Neither commented on the allegations as they passed through columns of reporters.

Hundreds Protest

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of two Gangnam clubs tied to Seungri earlier this month, demanding the end of what they called a persistent culture that degrades women as sexual objects.

“The industry in Korea, just as much as anywhere else, is a boys’ club,” said Jang Yun-mi, a spokeswoman for the Seoul-based Korean Women Lawyers Association. “These celebrities are men in a patriarchal entertainment industry, and they get away with a lot when it’s a grave sexual crime.”

The scandal threatens to taint the lucrative glamor surrounding Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, which has fueled development of the entertainment industry in South Korea.

Amorepacific Corp., which hires top Hallyu celebrities to promote its cosmetics, has risen about 50 times in stock value since 2000. And the nation’s tourism industry also has benefited from the attention surrounding the bands, with the number of foreign visitors increasing almost 190 percent since the same year. Analysts say the Korean Wave has had direct benefits for tourism.

The music industry’s soft-power appeal clearly has boosted the nation’s brand. K-Pop was the word most associated with South Korea last year, ahead of North Korea, according to a report from the government-affiliated Korea Creative Content Agency. A city outside Seoul plans a theme park devoted to K-Pop, Korean soap opera and other content to attract foreign visitors.

Tapping into his popularity outside Seoul, Seungri has ties to foreign investors and launched an array of businesses, including a ramen franchise and a high-end champagne bar in Gangnam, according to local media reports.

With droves of agencies cranking out boy and girl bands, many South Korean entertainers are lucky to enjoy more than a flash-in-the-pan success and leverage their fame to keep the cash flowing long after they’re forgotten. Some strike pay dirt and others flop, sometimes running deep into arrears.

“The scandal is a bitter pill for an industry that has grown faster than it could deal with and needed a lesson,” said Kim at Seoul’s Hanyang University.

Source: Business Standard