Ahn Sojin was only 22 years old when she tragically jumped from a ten-story balcony and ended her young life only last week. Distraught fans immediately turned to social media and each other to console themselves about this young woman’s upsetting death. Although news reports have decided to place a temporary restriction on speculation, anyone involved with the South Korean entertainment industry must now acknowledge the growing elephant in the room: Sojin’s suicide was most likely a result of her fight with depression. We at Critical KPop extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to Sojin’s family and friends. However, we can no longer be silent about this epidemic and feel that now is the most appropriate time to start seriously talking about suicide.
South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates among the developed countries of the world. North American countries, such as Canada and the United States, have recently begun to challenge their cultural attitudes and perceptions about suicide. The taboo has eased slightly as media campaigns have started to erase much of the stigma and shame, but this is still a very difficult uphill battle since cultural perceptions are deeply ingrained and inherent. I cannot speak for the cultural attitudes of other countries that I am not a part of, but I can speak from my experience as an external observer and as someone that continues to fight with depression and suicide. It is not my place to suggest how cultures should approach these issues, but I suggest instead that attitudes around suicide need to be challenged, especially as they relate to Kpop and its sometimes troubled presentation.
Kpop and the Hallyu Wave have recently garnered immense popularity worldwide. The Korean Culture and Information Service estimates that there are nearly 3 million KPop fans worldwide. This amount is staggering on its own, but we must also remember that the majority of these fans are young people who are between the ages of 13-16. Being at an age between childhood and adolescence is a difficult time at best without the influences of outside media and interpersonal relationships, but being actively involved in the sometimes perilous culture of Kpop may negatively aggravate feelings of confidence, self-worth, and identity.
Kpop idols are strictly controlled to represent an idealistic image that is sold to consumers; they have restrictive diets, unhealthy exercise routines, and “personality training” to eradicate any negative traits such as smoking or swearing. If an idol is “caught” dating another, they must issue a public apology to their fans for ruining the image of a perfect, innocent, and available “oppa” or “unnie.” This notion is troubling because idols are obviously human and capable of the same faults as all of us. What happens when an idol singer of a very popular group says to the media “I'm sad, I feel hopeless, I feel worthless. I have no way out,” especially when this could be a fault of the very system that created them in the first place? What happens when the inescapable pressure of success becomes too unbearable for many young trainees and idols? (We briefly wondered about the mental state of ZE:A's Lee Hoo as he battled his agency, and Park Bom was reported to be taking medication for a traumatizing event—both stories were quickly swept under the rug and have since gone silent.)
There are countless reports of the Kpop “manufacturing system” and its ill effects on the mental health of its participants. The long hours and ridiculous amounts of trainee debt are saddled onto young people who have literally given up their chances of obtaining higher education for the sake of joining the entertainment industry. If they do not make it as rich, successful, and popular idols, they have few other options. However, suicide is not restricted to young people. Here are two heartbreaking examples: the ex-CEO of Block B's original agency, Stardom Entertainment, was found to have committed suicide by authorities after a highly publicized lawsuit from the group over missing wages. Furthermore, in October of last year, a South Korean government official responsible for public safety took his life after 16 people were killed at an outdoor 4Minute concert.
I have previously discussed how South Korea has relied on strict isolationist policies and refused almost all international imports for the better part of the last decade. When economic markets began expanding at breakneck speeds, it left significant gaps in the welfare system and governments scrambled to prevent people from falling through the cracks of unemployment and poverty. Extreme development meant that South Koreans now had the fastest internet speeds in the world, but were stumbling to catch up to the cultural standards of the rest of the “developed” world. Market goods, such as clothing, became an overnight status symbol, and a new importance was placed on the representation of image and success. Anybody who's anybody is now expected to live in Gangnam, which makes Psy's hit song a little more grim. Students are supposed to achieve high marks in school and enroll in top universities to gain employment that will make them wealthy and grant them an affluent social status. Coupling this immense cultural pressure for success with limited social resources and a damaging idol-making system can be utterly disastrous.
Ahn Sojin was a contestant on the reality program, “Kara Project,” which sought to replace two members of Kara. Participants had to sing, dance, and showcase their personalities in order to secure their place in the girl group. Sojin lost to a younger competitor. One month ago, DSP revealed that they had terminated Sojin's contract, which not only eliminated any opportunity for her to be a part of Kara, but also prevented her from debuting in DSP's upcoming girl group. Sojin was reported to have said that participating in “Kara Project” was her last chance to become successful due to her age (22) and pay back the debt incurred since she began training (17). Her father strongly disapproved of her career choice, because he believed she could not achieve the success that many young South Koreans strive for.
For someone like Sojin, who spent the majority of her young life training and preparing for a career in the entertainment industry, where else can she turn when her opportunities fade away? Without a formal education, her options for employment were grim and the shame associated with beginning to attend a university when most of her peers would have already graduated could have been suffocating. I cannot advocate for suicide, but it becomes understandable why Sojin felt as though she had no other way out and chose to end her own life. What else can be said for the dozens upon dozens of trainees that do not become famous, or for idol groups that simply do not achieve any commercial success? Perhaps the number of suicides is much, much larger than we think.
Depression can and does happen to anyone, be it through clinical or situational factors. Understandably, Kpop would lose much of its appeal if idols spoke about troubling events or depression while in the public light. We can afford to have a better sense of humanity when engaging with idols and their music. Most importantly, however, the discussion about suicide needs to take place with a healthy approach to what it is, and why it can happen. The shame associated with suicide, either personal or through association, needs to be eliminated through a broader sense of understanding. With better intervention and respect, tragedies like that of Ahn Sojin and the countless others we have lost can be eliminated.
This article is part of a series examining suicide and depression in Kpop. If you or someone you know is in need of help, there are many positive and confidential resources out there. You are not alone.