In November 2019, K-pop star Goo Hara attempted suicide in her house in Seoul, South Korea. Beforehand, she posted a picture on Instagram with the concerning caption “goodbye.” She also disclosed her struggle with depression before she passed away later that month on November 24.
As an isolated incident, her passing and struggle with mental health is, of course, deeply saddening. Being driven to take your own life is never something to take lightly. However, Hara’s death was not an isolated incident. Her death followed the suicides of many other K-pop idols. Kim Jong-hyun, Ahn So Jin, Lee Hye-Ryeon, Lee Seo-Hyun, Park Yong-ha, and Jang Ja-yeon are among others who have been lost in the last two decades. Just a month before Hara’s death, her friend and fellow K-pop star Sulli was another casualty. In response, a devastated Goo Hara wished that Sulli might live “as she pleases” in heaven.
The Korean music industry has turned being a celebrity into a science. Public figures in the industry, including Goo Hara, have spoken out about the impossible expectations and limitations of that world. Some reports alleged that the stars could be punished for something like failing to smile or refusing to get plastic surgery. Hara was treated for her own depression, and when that became public she felt the need to apologize for it, saying she was “sorry and thankful.”
“[K-pop figures] have to be careful with our private lives more than anyone. We suffer from things that we can’t even tell our friends and family,” Hara revealed in an Instagram post. Through this pain Hara said, “I will try to overcome and show a better and positive side of myself,” apologizing for her wellbeing.
K-pop has risen rapidly to global popularity. Often K-pop stars begin training for the road to fame during adolescence, years before they start making music.
Being South Korea’s primary cultural export, the music — and its artists — are heavily commercialized. With the investment in their success taking place before they’ve even hit puberty, the stars are under tremendous financial and emotional pressure. K-pop idols are manufactured to be products, and their humanity suffers because of it.
Management agencies decide which people meet the standard. Life as a K-pop idol is brutal, with 10+ hour days on average. Performers push human limits so far that hospitalization from exhaustion is typical. The heavy dietary restrictions do not help either. All idols must possess a specific body type. Agencies will terminate an artist’s contract if they are displeased with the number on their scale. Every idol is encouraged to get plastic surgery to attain the perfection ordered by talent managers.
There is no more room for individualism in the work than in how idols look. Songs will only be produced if they fit the mold and artistic freedom is not welcomed. Rather, the agencies control every minute and detail of an idol’s life on and off screen, with the exception of a few independent groups like Seventeen and Pentagon.
Ranked as one of the most popular genres of music in the world, K-pop has a steadfast and loyal fan base. When Hara committed suicide, fans mourned the loss of someone they had worshipped. Hara died for conforming to stereotypes of her industry. Instead, fans should reevaluate the industry they worship. The K-pop industry has turned human beings and their talent into a product, and the culture and expectations that it creates is killing idol after idol.