In February 2018, one of the biggest celebrities in South Korea opened a nightclub in Gangnam, Seoul’s most exclusive neighborhood. It was the kind of club that didn’t bother with a sign; a pedestrian would have no idea of the bacchanalia inside. But even though entrance fees on a Friday night started at 10 million won (about $8,245), with an auction determining who would gain access to the most coveted private rooms, business was brisk. Nearby lesser clubs—where customers had to line up and paid cover charges with single bank notes, and pretty girls weren’t literally showered with vintage Champagne Armand de Brignac—soon shut down.
The club that ate the others was called Burning Sun, and the celebrity co-owner was Seungri (pronounced “soon-nee”). Seungri is 28, and until recently was a member of the boy band Big Bang. There’s no American equivalent to his level of fame. As, arguably, the most attractive and charismatic member of what for many of the last 13 years has been K-pop’s biggest band, he was Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake and maybe even Justin Theroux rolled into one. (K-pop is made up of a diverse set of musical genres, but what its stars have in common is that they are coached from an early age to become accomplished all-around entertainers.)
There’s no American equivalent to Seungri’s level of fame.
But even that amalgam of Justins isn’t quite right. Hallyu, or “Korean wave,” refers to the results of the South Korean government’s efforts, since the late 1990s, to build up soft power via cultural exports.
“The dictatorship suppressed the rise of popular culture [in order] to control the people’s desires,” said Dr. Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, a professor and cultural critic in the School of Global Communication at Kyung Hee University, referring to South Korea’s years of autocracy following the Korean War. “After democratization,” which came in the late 1980s, “popular culture suddenly took on a big role, symbolic to the idea of the nation. We don’t have a distinction between high and low culture, and even to academics like me, popular culture is the mark of an advanced civilization.”
As a result, K-pop’s breakthrough acts are idols in the truest sense of the word. “K-pop stars are considered representatives of the nation, who have a responsibility to show Korea in a good light,” said Dr. CedarBough Saeji, a postdoctoral fellow in Korean studies at the University of British Columbia, well-known in academia for her expertise in K-pop and the music industry. “That’s the payment they have to give back for public love and adoration.”
The Highest Levels of Korean Society
Seungri, though, didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. Burning Sun shut a few months ago; Seungri has resigned from his band. He is now under investigation for running a prostitution ring at the club, as well as distributing sexual videos—some of which were apparently filmed there—to other major celebrities in online chat rooms. (Seungri has denied these charges but does admit to paying for sex, which is illegal in South Korea.) The facts of the case have been slow to come out. This is, in part, because the local police are thought to be in cahoots with the club proprietors. Investigative reporters, especially those on the news program Straight, which airs on the MBC network, have uncovered these and other ties, including Burning Sun and Club Arena (on which Burning Sun was modeled) regulars from the highest levels of Korean society. Notably: senior officials at the National Tax Service (which would explain why the Korean people weren’t getting any dividends on all the expensive alcohol sold there); prosecutors; and children of some of the country’s richest and most powerful families.
Through the murk of the cover-up, a disturbing picture emerges. With funding likely coming from Japanese and Taiwanese sources, Burning Sun and Arena ran on prostitution and sexual assault. “Women rarely have sex in the club by mutual consent,” said a V.I.P. customer on Straight with a pixelated face and his voice disguised. He went on to outline the clubs’ business model: first, so-called M.D.’s (hosts or hostesses) recruited wealthy customers, or V.V.I.P.’s, with the promise they would be given girls. (Some were under-age, Straight reported.) Whisked away to “special spaces,” including an adjacent studio apartment that resembled a lounge bar, the women were drugged with GHB and assaulted. Afterward, an “incinerating team,” summoned by code in a text message, would clean the room and burn the evidence, including drug paraphernalia, on gas stoves.
What role did Seungri play? Allegations include that he solicited sex himself and deployed prostitutes to entice investors. (It was reported last week he has been issued with an exit ban by Korean police over allegations he violated the foreign-exchange law to secure gambling money from the U.S.) “[Korea’s] masculine business culture is closely tied with the so-called seong jeopdae, or sexual service, which often includes pimping,” wrote Stephanie Choi, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose dissertation is about K-pop, in an e-mail. “Seungri’s case should be contextualized not simply as a K-pop problem but as a social problem of Korean society in general.”
By many indicators, South Korea is an exceptionally difficult place to be a woman. Its gender pay gap is the highest in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; last year, the “Escape the Corset” movement involved women destroying their makeup and cutting off their hair to protest the country’s stringent beauty standards. The group chats, in which videos of assaults were shared among celebrities, were shocking for every reason except novelty. Using hidden cameras to film women is so common in Korea that it, too, has a name: molka.
The Great Seungtsby
Still, Seungri’s superstardom remains an inescapable part of the story. The public’s response to the revelations has been informed by a collective sense that Seungri had never really tried to hide his true character. When the other, older members of Big Bang left the music industry for a time to perform their mandatory national service, Seungri re-invented himself as an entrepreneur. At first, the pivot was impressive. “He opened restaurants everyone wanted to go to,” said Jenna Gibson, Korea columnist for the Asia-Pacific-focused digital newsmagazine the Diplomat. Gibson said he was also given a lot more responsibility within his record company, YG. “Prior to going on hiatus, the band members were all known for this tough-boy act”—the band’s music was more hip-hop than bubblegum pop—“but when they were gone, Seungri got a bit more of a clean-cut image.”
After his initial success in business, Seungri adopted the moniker “Seungtsby,” after the Great Gatsby. The nickname was debuted in the music video for his 2018 solo release, “Where R U From,” as the headline on a fake cover of Time magazine. (Why does that sound familiar?) Seungtsby caught on, but Gibson doubts Seungri actually read Fitzgerald. Instead, she said, “people associate the Great Gatsby with that scene from the movie where Leonardo DiCaprio is getting drunk at the party. It’s become a reaction GIF, a sign that I can do whatever I want.” Like, maybe, renting an entire island resort for one’s 27th birthday. That’s what Seungri did in 2017 at Amanpulo, in the Philippines, inviting 150 guests who flew business class and a bevy of beautiful young women in economy.
There was also evidence of Seungri’s issues in plain sight. In 2012, a Japanese-news report about a woman who claimed that Seungri had choked her during sex was silenced. Last year, he starred in a reality-TV show that Dr. Saeji describes as “a spoof on The Office,” in which “part of the laugh was that people would say horrible things about what a bad person he was. Everyone just thought they were poking fun at a celebrity.” Saeji recalled one scene, especially chilling in retrospect, in which a member of Black Pink, a major girl group operated by the same label as Big Bang, looked at the camera and said she’d been told never to be alone with Seungri. “Were we laughing at that because it was funny?,” Saeji asks. “Or because we didn’t think it was true?”
“Koreans are very angry at this, both because of the crime but also about the damage to our national image by these criminals,” said Dr. Lee, the professor at Kyung Hee University. In the end, the fall of Seungri is another devastating story of the #MeToo era: a successful man keeps offending because he can, held up by a vast swath of people who should not only know better but evade their professional responsibilities to do so.
Amelia Lester is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL