‘Why Did I Choose That?’: South Korean Pop Star Regrets Fame in Suicide Note

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 17: Jonghyun of South Korean boy band SHINee attends the 'SHINee World IV' press conference on May 17, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Han Myung-Gu/WireImage)
Han Myung-Gu/WireImage

South Korean authorities confirmed on Monday that Kim Jong-hyun, the lead vocalist of superstar pop group SHINee, better known by stage name Jonghyun, committed suicide in his apartment. He was 27.

Jonghyun texted his sister that he had lost the will to live and reportedly left a suicide note that appeared to question why he had chosen a career path that made him famous.

“Becoming famous was probably not my life. They tell me that’s why I’m having a hard time … Why did I choose that? It’s funny that I’m able to endure this much,” the note read, according to a translation by South Korean newswire service Yonhap.

SHINee is one of the most successful pop acts signed by S.M. Entertainment, South Korea’s largest record label, which also maintains elaborate training facilities to educate young children in song, dance, and artistic abilities before launching their careers as teen idols. Jonghyun’s suicide, and particularly his reported lament at being famous, highlights the potential pitfalls of a grueling young teen regimen that some have compared to “boot camp” and “slavery.”

Yonhap reports that police believe Jonghyun sent his final text messages to his sister – reading, in part, “please let me go, tell me I did well” – before burning coal briquettes on a frying pan and inhaling the fumes.

A friend of Jonghyun’s, fellow pop star Jang Hee-yeon, posted on Instagram what she said was a suicide note that Jonghyun had left her to publish after his death after verifying with family. According to various translations of the note, it read in part that Jonghyun had consulted doctors for his depression, who “blame your personality for the suffering in their calm voice.”

“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 letter reportedly reads.

“It wasn’t my path to become world-famous,” the letter continued. “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.”

The head of the record label that represents Jang confirmed to reporters that Jonghyun’s family had agreed to the letter’s publication but noted that she does not know when the letter was written.

The content of the letter and tragic end for the young singer contrasts significantly with the bubbly nature of SHINee’s work, a consistent output of the high-production, euphoric electronic pop music South Korea has become famous for.

SHINee released their fifth album, Five, in February.

The hugely profitable Korean Pop (K-Pop) industry relies heavily on highly competitive preparatory education provided by the nation’s largest record labels. SM Entertainment, for example, owns buildings used as schools and residences where children learn to sing, dance, enhance their appearance, and become all-around performers. They are expected to keep up with South Korea’s rigorous education system in addition to pursuing pop stardom.

“You have to take singing, dancing, acting, and even language classes to become a ‘global star,'” a feature on the industry in Rojak Daily explains. “Most of these trainees are still in school. So you have to think about juggling student life and trainee life. For those who are students, their daily schedules could start as early as 5am and end as late as 1am the next day.”

The “trainees” are also expected to maintain strict diets and some undergo plastic surgery pre-fame to enhance their appearance, the article notes.

“A trainee goes through the regimen for at least two years before they’re selected to ‘debut’ as an artist,” Universal Music’s Yvonne Yuen told Spin magazine about K-pop in 2012. “I’m not sure that other countries or other music labels have that patience. It’s teaching them discipline and caring for their craft. Every time they go out onstage, every time they perform a song, it’s got to be perfect, the way it was meant to be.”

As the leading record label in the country, SM Entertainment runs a particularly rigorous “boot-camp-style training” and has come under criticism for what some have called abusive contracts for its talent.

“Their business practices in the past have been questionable – contracts for young people who perhaps don’t know what they are getting into,” author Daniel Tudor told Forbes in 2013.

South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission ordered SM Entertainment, along with its largest competitors, to abandon what are colloquially referred to as “slave contracts” with their talent in March. Among the more concerning clauses found in these contracts were reportedly penalties imposed on young people who chose to abandon their careers; some of these individuals had contracts demanding between $86,200 to $129,000 if they chose to retire. The contracts also often feature “morality clauses” that allow the agencies to fire an artist for unspecified violations of company values. The companies often control artists’ social media output and have a say in their public romantic life.

SM Entertainment operates under the slogan, “Culture is the highest high technology.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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