SINGAPORE: As far as scandals involving South Korean celebrities go, the one involving former Big Bang member Seungri could possibly be the biggest yet.
The 28-year-old who calls himself “The Great Seungri” – after F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – is accused of being part of an online group chat that had shared sexually explicit videos of women, of supplying prostitutes to foreign investors at nightclubs in Seoul and of bribing the police.
Here’s how the Seungri saga unfolded:
The controversy began in January when Korean broadcaster MBC revealed footage of a man being assaulted by security officers at a nightclub called the Burning Sun, while purportedly attempting to help a woman who had been sexually assaulted.
Seungri was the executive director of the club.
In February, another broadcaster, SBS, revealed incriminating text messages showing his involvement in procuring women for business clients.
The Burning Sun’s staff are also suspected of drugging women to help their customers rape them.
Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, and Seungri faces up to three years of jail time if convicted. He has denied the allegations.
In March, it was revealed that Seungri and seven other people were part of a KakaoTalk group chat who shared footage of sexual encounters with women, some of whom could have been drugged.
Outside the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency on March 14, he told reporters that he was “sorry to the nation and everyone who has been hurt”.
The recent scandal is not Seungri’s first. In 2012, Japanese media had leaked photos of him with an unknown woman in bed together.
In 2014, the car Seungri was driving collided with the one in front of him, before hitting a rail guard and flipping over. Suffering minor internal bleeding, he skipped out on a YG company concert in Singapore.
Who else is involved?
Several other high-profile K-pop celebrities are involved in the growing scandal as well.
Singer-songwriter and television personality Jung Joon-young, 30, has admitted to illicitly recording women he slept with and spreading them online through the KakaoTalk chat group. Police said he recorded videos of at least 10 women without their consent.
“I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a chatroom, and while doing so I didn’t feel much guilt,” said Jung in a statement on March 12. He was questioned by the police on the same day as Seungri.
Other notable K-pop stars who were confirmed to be members of the illicit chat group include Choi Jong-hoon of FTIsland and Yong Jun-hyung of Highlight.
Yong, 29, posted an apology on Instagram, admitting that he had viewed and responded to footage shared by Jung.
Seungri, Jung, Choi and Yong have all announced their departure from their respective groups.
Another member of the chat group is Lee Jong-hyun, 28, from the band CNBlue. Broadcaster SBS reported on Thursday that Lee had also watched videos shared by Jung, and replied with lewd comments.
These revelations come against a backdrop of illicit “hidden camera” filming already plaguing South Korean society.
In July last year, tens of thousands of women participated in a large public protest to decry the filming “epidemic”, calling for better enforcement and punishment for perpetrators. They carried banners that said “my life is not your porn”.
Seoul authorities also mobilised some 8,000 workers to find and remove hidden cameras from public places, such as toilets and changing rooms.
Impact on K-pop industry
The face of the scandal, Seungri hails from Big Bang, one of the country’s biggest K-pop groups having sold over 140 million records and counting. The group was formed by YG Entertainment, one of the “big three” entertainment agencies in South Korea, alongside JYP Entertainment and SM Entertainment.
“For the K-pop industry, the scandal is significant as it involves a member of Big Bang, the A-list K-pop group for the past decade,” said Assistant Professor Liew Kai Khiun from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, who teaches classes on the Korean wave.
Forbes Korea ranked them as one of the most powerful celebrities in the nation in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. Amassing 1.5 million concert-goers during their 2015-16 world tour, the quintet also made history as the most attended tour headlined by a Korean act.
In 2017, Bloomberg reported that the K-pop industry was worth around US$4.7 billion. With a member from one of its biggest groups entangled in such a scandal, South Korean stocks have already taken a hit.
Notably, YG’s stock price plunged more than 14 per cent on March 11, the largest ever drop for the agency since it was first listed on Korean stock market KOSDAQ. The stock price continued to decline on March 12 and in just two months, YG had lost 652.9 billion won between Jan 2 and March 12.
“For South Korea that has been projecting its soft power presence globally through K-pop, this scandal may blemish its global branding,” added Prof Liew.
“The question would be whether cases like Seungri are just individual crimes, or an integral part of the economy of K-pop in which artistes are made to participate in?”
More to this scandal
The scandal has also brought to light matters pertaining to police corruption and collusion among the authorities.
Chosun reported that the chat messages in question came to light when Jung took his mobile phone for repairs and the technician leaked them to lawyer Bang Jung-hyun and SBS reporter Kang Kyung-yoon.
Bang then sent in the data to South Korea’s Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission instead of the police. In a radio interview on broadcaster CBS, he explained that “there are areas that raise suspicions of collusive ties between the participants of the chat rooms and police”.
Messages in the chats suggested that the group members regularly turned to high-ranking officers for help when they run afoul of the law.
In March 2016, when singer Choi was caught drink-driving, the chat messages also hinted that he solicited police favours to keep the incident under wraps from the media.
Prof Liew said that there was a possibility of corruption among certain bodies of authority with celebrities.
“While I do not think the state’s involvement is institutionalised, given the high stakes of this burgeoning K-pop industry, corruption is highly possible when industry players need the complicity of law enforcers to cover up misdeeds before they are made public,” said Prof Liew.
Other K-pop scandals
Seungri is not the only member of Big Bang who has been in the news for the wrong reasons.
- In May 2011, vocalist Kang Dae-sung, 29, was charged over the death of a motorcyclist in a speeding accident. The charges were ultimately dropped as the prosecution was unable to determine whether Kang had caused the rider’s death.
- In July 2017, the group’s rapper T.O.P, or Choi Seung-hyun, 31, was handed a two-year suspended sentence for smoking marijuana.
- Similarly in Oct 2011, leader G-Dragon, or Kwon Ji-yong, 30, tested positive for marijuana. But he was let off with a caution.
Scandals among other celebrities are also not uncommon.
- From 2014, popular singer-actor Kim Hyun-joong, now 32, was embroiled in legal battles with his ex-girlfriend over assault, blackmail, fraud and other charges. Kim was acquitted of all charges in 2016. Separately, he was charged with drink-driving in April 2017.
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