25-Year-Old Singer Latest to Commit Suicide in Korean Pop’s Human Rights Crisis

Singer Sulli attends Tory Burch Spring 2016 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Tory Burch

South Korean police ruled the death of 25-year-old Choi Jin-ri, known by her stage name Sulli, a suicide on Tuesday after announcing the discovery of a note in her apartment, where her brother found her body on Monday.

Sulli was a member of the blockbuster Korean pop, or K-pop, act F(x) until 2015, when she left the group to pursue a solo career. She began her entertainment career as an actress at age 10 and had a long documented history of depression and mental health struggles.

Sulli’s suicide follows the failed suicide attempt of Goo Ha-ra, a former member of the K-pop girl group Kara, in May and the suicide of Kim Jong-hyun, vocalist for the boy group SHINee, in 2017. Goo apologized profusely to her fans after surviving her suicide attempt and has faced, like most young Korean entertainers online, abuse for years.

Other Korean pop stars have faced a host of allegations of improprieties and concerning behavior, most prominently Seungri, a former member of one of Korea’s most popular groups, Big Bang, who is currently facing charges of having arranged prostitution services at a night club in which he had ownership.

Multiple reports documenting the K-pop industry since it became an international sensation in the late 2000s and early 2010s document grueling lifestyles for the children who grow up into the pop industry, many tethered to over-decade-long contracts that control nearly every aspect of their lives. The children study and practice singing and dancing skills for long days at training camps before being launched into “idol” superstardom.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child designates an obligation to state parties to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.” South Korea ratified the convention in 1991.

According to South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo, Sulli’s brother, who also managed her career, found her body in her home on Monday afternoon local time. On Tuesday, police revealed they had found what appeared to be a suicide note; authorities did not provide the text of the note, noting only that she stated in it that she was “suffering” and left “negative messages.” Her brother confirmed that Sulli had endured “severe depression” for years. Police have not identified a cause of death.

A lifetime in the spotlight had apparently contributed to her depression. She began her career as a ten-year-old actress in a Korean soap opera before joining F(x) at age 15, meaning she did not participate in the customary K-pop “boot camp” childhood that many others do before joining a group.

The Jakarta Post noted that, upon her departure from the group in 2015, she said that she “did not know why I had to do certain things,” apparently alluding to her entertainment career, and that “at some point, I realized [that this was not fit for me].”

Sulli reportedly faced severe online verbal abuse for attempting a bolder personality upon leaving the girl group, dating men older than her and taking photos while not wearing a bra. Much of the criticism against her would target her feminist stances and seemingly liberal (for Korea) personal lifestyle.

Following her suicide, Korean outlets revealed, citing anonymous sourcing within the industry, that Sulli had demanded her record label take legal action against online bullies.

Sulli and F(x) had a contract with SM Entertainment, one of the largest record labels in the country. SM reportedly did attempt to take action, but was unable to identify many of the individuals using anonymous accounts to post online.

Online accounts began posting antagonistic messages on the social media accounts of Choiza, a rapper who dated Sulli in 2014, following her death, blaming him for her suicide and asking him to “die.” Some responded criticizing the vitriol, and some celebrities posting tributes to Sulli used the opportunity to condemn the pressure placed on young performers.

“Even in harsh conditions where young people cannot eat properly or sleep properly, more and more adults are demanding that they wear a bright and healthy smile. You must be sexy, but you cannot have sex; you must be tough, but you cannot fight with anyone. This is what is required of them,” Dongwan, a former SM Entertainment talent, wrote on Instagram.

“Many hoobaes [young artists with less experience in the industry] are currently fighting a battle within themselves, debating how much sickness can they bear in their hearts and continue to work, all for the sake of the sweetness that money and fame provides,” he concluded.

Goo Ha-ra, who survived her own suicide attempt in May, left a tribute message on Instagram for Sulli, who was a friend. Goo similarly received online vitriol amid a dispute with an ex-boyfriend she accused of attempting to use revenge porn against her. Goo wrote “goodbye” on Instagram before she was found barely clinging to life in her apartment and revived. Her handlers denied a similar scenario in September 2018, claiming she suffered an illness and not a suicide attempt.

In response to antagonism online, Goo apologized upon resurfacing following her suicide attempt.

“I am sorry for causing concerns and a commotion … I had been in agony over a number of overlapping issues. But from now on, I will steel my heart and try to show up healthy,” Goo said in a statement. “I will show a brighter and healthier side of myself.”

Jonghyun, the pop group SHINee member who committed suicide in 2017, left a note explicitly blaming his entertainment career for his death.

“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.”

The path to K-pop superstardom is often littered with what the BBC has referred to as “slave contracts,” which keep stars bound to record labels for a decade or more on occasion and require intense training throughout childhood. The training often keeps the children from a normal life at school and separates them from parents and other related adults who can supervise their development. Artists have complained that the contracts also deny them a significant chunk of the profits of their work.

“Behind the bubbly bling and superficial glamour of their glossy photographs, formulaic song-and-dance routines and insipid TV melodramas, the reality is a depressingly dystopian existence,” Yonden Lhatoo, a columnist for the South China Morning Post, lamented of Korean entertainment in 2017. “Many are literally owned – mind, body and soul – by their unscrupulous and abusive agents and studio bosses who project them as role models for youth while treating them as slaves and sex dolls.”

“Would-be K-pop stars, while still underage, are regularly locked into unbelievably unfair contracts and incarcerated in gruelling boot camps for training, a good decade before they get to even record a song, let alone become famous,” he continued. “The ones who are lucky enough to make it end up paying off debts and earning a pittance for years.”

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