Korean Star Latest to Attempt Suicide in High-Pressure K-Pop World

South Korea's pop girl group KARA's Goo Ha-ra arrives for a press conference in Singapore, Tuesday July 10, 2012. KARA is scheduled to perform their one-night concert here as a campaign to launch their own line of perfume fragrance "K5J" or "K 5 Jewel". (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

South Korean pop star Goo Ha-ra reportedly survived a suicide attempt Sunday amid an increasingly messy legal dispute with an ex-boyfriend, who she has accused of physical assault and attempted use of revenge porn to silence her. He also pressed charges against her for alleged domestic assault.

The talent agency representing Goo, Content Y, dropped her from their roster in January as she and ex Choi Jong-bum prepared for trial. Goo’s original band, Kara, broke up in 2016.

The world of Korean pop music, or K-pop, is notorious for putting intense pressure on its stars from a very young age, when record labels recruit them for music “boot camp” to become “idols.” The agencies reportedly force the children into hours of intense physical training and dangerous dieting regimens while distancing them from family and friends. They tend to have low tolerance for anything approximating a scandal, resulting in the early retirement of many stars.

Goo’s attempted suicide recalls the recent death of Kim Jong-hyun, lead singer of the superstar K-pop group SHINee, in 2017. Known more commonly as “Jonghyun,” the star was found dead in his apartment at age 27. He left a suicide note lamenting his global fame.

Rumors circulated in September that Goo had attempted suicide then, but her management claimed that she was instead suffering from a sleep disorder. If the rumors were true, this weekend’s was Goo’s second suicide attempt in less than a year.

The Korea Times reported Sunday that Goo’s manager had called her and not received a response, so made his way to her apartment in Gangnam, a wealthy neighborhood in Seoul. He found her lying unconscious in her apartment and called a local hospital. Singapore’s Straits Times reported that some Korean media outlets claimed that the manager found her apartment flooded with smoke, suggesting she intentionally attempted to asphyxiate herself.

Reports available Monday morning concur that Goo appears to be in stable condition, but still hospitalized.

The singer reportedly posted a message on her Instagram account reading “Goodbye” on Saturday night, though that message no longer appears on her account. The Korea Times did not specify if the message was a post, which remains on the account permanently, or part of a “story,” which automatically erases in 24 hours. The Straits Times noted that it was far from the first message indicating that Goo was suffering. Among the more recent messages Goo reportedly posted, one read, “it feels as if I am starting to break into pieces inside.”

Goo has been embroiled in an ongoing legal battle with ex Choi Jong-bum since September. Both sides agree that, that month, the couple had an intense argument that ended with both of them suffering some physical damage. Choi filed charges for domestic assault, claiming she attacked him because he sought to end the relationship, and went on a media tour showing television and newspapers what he claimed to be wounds sustained during the fight. Goo responded by telling police that Choi kicked her and threatened to hurt her more during the argument.

The Straits Times identifies Choi as being 41 years old, though other outlets in Korea have reported that he is 27 or 28.

A month after the altercation, Goo sued Choi for allegedly attempting to blackmail her with revenge porn, a charge that triggered a new wave of accusations and what her management agency considered bad publicity. Choi faced charges for corecion, threats, and sexual assault, police told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Goo’s attorneys claimed that Choi sent her sexually explicit videos of herself with the threat, “I will end your career as an entertainer.”

Choi admitted to sending her the video, but claimed in an interview, “I sent it to her with the intention of ending our relationship. I thought she should keep it since it was her idea.” He insisted that he did not participate in making the video. Among those publicly questioning his explanation was his own roommate.

South Korean media reported in September that Goo had attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills at the time, but her management said in a press release that she was in the hospital being treated for a sleep disorder.

Goo’s suicide attempt recalls the stunning news in late 2017 that Jonghyun of SHINee, one of K-pop’s most successful bands, had taken his life. Jonghyun reportedly killed himself via smoke inhalation using cooking coals. Like Goo, Jonghyun had left a trail of messages suggesting he was severely dissatisfied with his life. Following the 27-year-old’s death, family and authorities found notes repeatedly asserting that he did not enjoy being famous and could not understand how he had found himself in his current situation.

“It wasn’t my path to become world-famous. Why did I choose this path? It’s quite funny now that I think about it. It‘s a miracle that I endured through it all this time,” his alleged suicide letter read. “It is easy to say ‘I‘m going to end it.’ It is very difficult to actually go through with it. I’ve been struggling through the difficulty.”

In a final text message to his sister, Jonghyun reportedly wrote, “please let me go, tell me I did well.”

The path to become a K-pop “idol” is one of “punishing training, intense competition, unrelenting scrutiny via social media,” as Canada’s CBC reported last year. Management agencies invest in children whose parents are seeking their stardom, forcing them to learn dance routines for hours and pushing them through grueling selection processes that often give preferential treatment to better-looking candidates.

Male K-pop idols also have to contend with the inevitable postponement of their career through mandatory military service. South Korea forces all men to serve in the military, allowing them to defer until age 28. The typical service lasts around two years, often forcing entire pop groups to disband. BIGBANG, for example – one of the most popular K-pop groups in the world – has not released an album since 2016. Four of its members, including breakout star G-Dragon, are set to complete their military service this year, while fifth member Seungri is scheduled to begin his service this year. Seungri left the band, and show business, in March after becoming ensnared in a prostitution and illicit sex tape scandal.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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