Why the Burning Sun nightclub scandal is about more than just K-pop

South Korean flag with a silhouette of a woman against it
Samantha Patten/Staff

Content warning: Sexual violence and sexual harassment

When speaking with Korean friends, we Korean-American women have heard safety advice along the lines of: “Do not order takeout when you are home alone,” “have a pair of men’s shoes outside your door,” and “watch your drink when you go clubbing.” Such precautions have become common sense among Korean women, passed along as necessary wisdom through word of mouth or internet forums as if women are solely responsible for avoiding the danger that sexual assaulters or harassers pose. It’s not so different from the refrain: “Don’t go out at night alone. Don’t wear provocative clothing” here in the United States. The advice, as well as its inherent misogynistic lilt, rings all the more sinister after the Burning Sun story broke.

In January 2019, Burning Sun — a popular nightclub in Seoul, South Korea — gained international media attention after a man’s claims that he was assaulted by club employees and police after trying to help a woman who was being sexually harassed. In mid-February, after further inspection into the dealings of the club, the currently ongoing investigation uncovered evidence of suspected drug trafficking, police corruption and prostitution. Certain K-pop idols, both directly and indirectly partaking in and condoning these illegal activities, were linked to the case.

At the epicenter of the scandal is K-pop star Seung-hyun Lee, professionally known as Seungri. South Korean police confirmed that he, a shareholder of the club, arranged prostitution services for potential business investors. Recently, nearly four months into the investigation, more news on the scandal has surfaced, creating a breathless atmosphere in which the public waits for the next big name within the entertainment industry to be exposed.

This scandal, however, is part of a larger issue of the misogyny and corruption rampant in South Korean society.

One facet of how this scandal demonstrates the rampant dehumanization of Korean women within society lies in its highlighting of the trend of spycam porn production, or molka. Several of the most prominent stars who are linked to Burning Sun have been exposed as suspected perpetrators of the trend during the scandal. In addition to Lee, popular male stars such as Joon-young Jung and Roy Kim were involved in a chat room in which Jung shared videos of himself having sex with women that were recorded without their consent and knowledge — a crime he later admitted to. In the group chat, Jung and other male K-pop celebrities bragged and joked about drugging and raping women.

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The spycam phenomenon has been prevalent for a long time. Videos featuring sexual acts or nudity, often recorded without the consent of the women involved, are uploaded and consumed on pay-per-view websites with overseas servers to dodge authorities. The epidemic affects not only intimate sectors of women’s lives, but also their daily movements in public. Hidden cameras have been found in public bathrooms, changing rooms, motel rooms and more public spaces. These operations largely target women, with videos being distributed as pornography in such circles as Jung’s chat room or sold on the black market as well as being used as blackmail material or revenge porn by former lovers.

Grace Jang, a campus sophomore and international student from South Korea, described herself and her friends feeling uncomfortable and afraid when they ride subways or even when going upstairs because of the ubiquity of spycams.

“(Women) know they are vulnerable targets as women living in Korea.” Jang said.

In April 2018, the South Korean government established a hotline for molka survivors. According to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 2,300 survivors came forward for help, more than 90 percent of whom were women. More than 5,400 people were arrested for spycam-related crimes in 2017, but less than 2 percent faced jail time. By South Korean law, those producing illicit images without consent can be punished with up to five years in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won (~$8,757). Those convicted of distributing these images for profit can face up to seven years in prison or a 30 million won (~$26,270) fine. Yet perpetrators are often not convicted or are let off lightly.

In July 2018, thousands of South Korean feminists gathered to protest and demand greater punishments for spycam pornography. They unified under the slogan: “My life is not your porn.” The prevalence of sexual assault and spycams have robbed the women of privacy and dignity, both fundamental rights.

The epidemic affects not only intimate sectors of women’s lives, but also their daily movements in public.

The existence of such a trend is symptomatic of a misogynistic culture that encourages sexually objectifying women and treating them as conquests. A spycam video can tarnish a woman’s reputation, resulting in derogatory labeling, damage to her social and personal life, losing her job or in the case of some victims, suicide from shame. In addition, women who come forward to accuse their tormentors or rapists and ask authorities for justice, especially against powerful figures, are often discredited, dismissed or blamed for the wrongs done to them.

The alleged police collusion in the Burning Sun scandal as well as cases of corruption in the legal system, government and media create conditions under which perpetrators, high-profile or not, are rarely held accountable. It makes it difficult for survivors to come forward or seek justice. The spycam epidemic is also only one problem linked to many, including rape, date violence and domestic abuse.

The Burning Sun scandal — with its roots so deeply embedded in criminal and morally unjust activity — reveals the extent to which these issues involving the treatment of women in Korea are interlinked. And this is not the first time there has been public outrage over injustices endured by women in everyday situations. Korea’s own #MeToo movement gained media attention in January 2018 as prosecutor Ji-hyun Seo stepped forward on cable television to accuse a senior justice ministry official of sexual assault. Since then, more women in various industries have come forward to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment as well as call out their abusers.

As a result of the Burning Sun scandal, previous cases involving high-profile figures, sex scandals and possible police collusion have been reopened by President Jae-in Moon. Actress Ja-yeon Jang’s suicide, in particular, is gaining new media attention for its thematic resonances with the present nightclub case. In March 2009, Jang killed herself at the age of 29. She left a seven-page letter in which she claimed she was forced by her agent, Sung-hoon Kim, to serve and consume drinks, act as an escort at golf matches and provide sexual favors for 31 high-profile individuals including media executives and CEOs. Though Kim was found guilty, none of the others mentioned in Jang’s letter were investigated.

The spycam epidemic is also only one problem linked to many, including rape, date violence and domestic abuse.

Moon, in a press conference, called for a thorough investigation from the current leadership of the prosecution and police to regain the public’s trust. He added that failure to clarify the truth of these cases would undermine the standard of justice within South Korean society.

The more frightening implications of these cases are that the problem does not end with the punishment of a few individuals, K-pop stars or not. The problem is systemic, with the root of exploitation and misogyny permeating throughout the upper echelons of society. Though stricter laws may be put into place and justice belatedly doled out, there is still the matter of the gender inequality that is rooted in Korean culture as well as the corruption that impedes justice.

The common warnings issued to women living in Korea are part of a systemic plight that does not accord women’s lives the same weight as it does men. The Burning Sun scandal, which has received widespread global coverage, is ultimately only a symptom, not the disease.

Yet the traction of the movement in protesting and abolishing these misogynistic practices, as a whole, has also been disappointing. While the nation is slowly coming to terms with its cultural and societal plights when it comes to misogyny, progress remains just that — slow. The commodification of sexuality is entangled with that misogyny.

One reason for the prevalence of these issues may be that women face an imbalance of power in the workplace. According to a 2017 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  report, working women in Korean earn only 63 percent of what men earn. 56.2 percent of women are employed. Underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, a male-centered corporate culture and the precarity of temporary workers — most of whom are women — create conditions that enforce hierarchy and leave women vulnerable to the abuse of power, sexual harassment and exploitation.

The problem is systemic, with the root of exploitation and misogyny permeating throughout the upper echelons of society.

UC Berkeley sociology professor John Lie noted that changing systemically entrenched issues such as gender inequality, corruption and labor exploitation would take more political movement and involvement as well as a transformation in attitudes and culture. The resulting nation would also likely look very different.

The solution seems so simple, and yet so daunting: Change the culture and so will society. Whether the K-pop industry or other areas of South Korean society will make good on the expectation of justice and reform remains to be seen. Past treatment of idols and companies with such scandals certainly don’t leave the public with cause for optimism. Neither do the warnings about safety we hear, which have become more urgent and commonplace in the wake of the scandal. In the meantime, though, citizens congregate in movements, dreaming, protesting and fighting for a more righteous society — perhaps a country that is vastly different from today’s South Korea.

Contact Kris Shin and Sophie Kim at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dcweekender.