The entertainment industry is everything in South Korea. Well, almost. It is the heart of the “Korean Wave”, the surge of worldwide interest in the nation’s culture, from television drama series, such as Winter Sonata and Jewel in the Palace, to its pop music, food and language. In 2011 these cultural exports generated $4.2 billion worth of revenue for the country.
However, there is an ugly side to this industry that concerns the nation’s celebrities and the infringement of their human rights. This was brought to media attention after actress Jang Ja-Yeon ended her life in March 2009, several months after her rise to stardom in the sitcom Boys Over Flowers. Her tragic death caused a national scandal when her suicide note revealed how she was physically abused by her agent and sexually exploited by influential men in the industry, all of whom she listed by name.
A survey of 351 actresses and aspiring actresses conducted by the National Human Rights Commission recorded that 60% of them have been pressured into providing sexual favours in order to further their careers. For a long time these cases were silenced by powerful agencies.
In October 2009, several members of a boy band called TVXQ filed a lawsuit against their managing agency for the right to disband. This brought the unfair and inhumane treatment of Korean celebrities to the public eye. Following this, the nation’s Fair Trade Commission investigated 20 domestic entertainment agencies, only to discover that almost 200 artists were trapped in “slave contracts”.
Under the clauses of these “slave contracts”, the artists are forced to work long hours for little pay without receiving royalties. They have little to no freedom over their schedules or private lives. In many cases, they are obliged to stay with their agencies for an unruly number of years. You may think one or two years is a long time to be bound to a contract; in South Korea, some could last up to 13 years. During this time, these artists are unable to retire unless they are prepared to pay the hefty compensation.
Agencies have tried to justify this by saying that they are protecting their investment in their “celebrity-making factory”, since newcomers would be taken in at a very young age, provided with years of rigorous training, strict diet regimes, and cosmetic surgery should this be deemed “necessary”.
At the moment it seems unlikely that there will be change. Jang Ja-Yeon’s case sparked uproar amongst her fans and feminist groups, but so far only two of her 30 abusers have been charged. Due to the conservative nature of Korea’s society, there are still many victims who have not stepped forward in fear of public humiliation. Likewise, the Fair Trade Commission has supervised the correction of unfair contracts and continued inspecting entertainment agencies. Sadly, the exploitative contracts are common and part of a system that suits the agencies so most refuse to change.
Improving the despicable situation requires the South Korean government to impose stricter human rights legislation. With any luck, more public pressure and global awareness would set this in motion.