Korea and Japan are two countries that have historically been at odds with each other. K-pop can be directly traced back to the cultural rivalry between Japan and Korea, they have always been trying to one up each other. The divide is entrenched so deep that calling a Korean person Japanese is considered a bigger offence than hurling a slur at them. J-Pop (Japanese pop music) was in the golden age in the 90's with record sales in the millions. Korea saw the opportunities of that boom as a phenomenal cultural force and also noted the flaws in the Japanese model; their inability to market J-pop globally. Korea sought to outshine Japan in this arena, but that is easier said than done.
The last K-pop star that charted globally in an organic manner was PSY, the man who invented the style of Gangnam. The Korean music industry sought to build a globe spanning empire, but doing that through conventional means isn't exactly a bankable business plan. The more sustainable business model is to groom the pop stars from scratch into a marketable sensation.
The Korean entertainment industry wanted an army of homogenous, picture perfect and interchangeable K-pop idols as products with the widest global appeal. Unfortunately, the most efficient way to manufacture K-pop idols is to take young, innocent impressionable children and put them through a brutal regime of arts and media training that churns out obedient, marketable and replaceable pop stars.
K-pop groups tend to range anywhere between 4 to 20 members. This is done on purpose, to raise the probability of fans identifying or becoming enamoured with one of the stars of said group.
The K-pop assembly line
Step one is finding naive kids who also fit the Korean beauty standard, this is not that hard to do as more and more children these days have dreams of becoming a youtube star as a life goal.
Step two is having the kids sign a slave contract that lasts until they become adults. Many K-pop trainees start at nine years old and it is not uncommon for them to sign contracts that last a duration longer than they have been alive.
An average K-pop trainee's contract can last anywhere between 7 to 13 years. The terms of the agreement are brutally harsh, and skewed hugely in the favour of the talent agencies. The trainees have to pay off the agency fully for their training before they even get to see a cent from their own earnings.
Step 3 is putting the kids through a three to five year long gruelling training regime – brutal diets, harsh exercise routines, etc. The trainees lose all semblance of normalcy in these training camps, every aspect of their lives are granularly controlled from what they eat and wear, to when they sleep, who they date and what leisure activities they do. Some of them are even pressured and coerced into getting plastic surgery.
Only 10% of K-pop trainees get to debut as singers or get placed in a group. And for those who do succeed, their lives actually get worse more often than not.
The dark depths of K-pop fame
Once a Korean artist manages to capture the spotlight, the severity of everything that has been aforementioned gets ratcheted up even more. Their lives become even more tightly regulated. One of the worst examples of this is the infamous 'paper cup diet' and is considered part of the norm of being a K-pop star. The plan is essentially being allowed to eat 9 paper cups filled with food, a day.
Unsurprisingly this takes a huge toll on some of the people in the industry. A lot of people develop body dysmorphia, eating disorders and severe mental illnesses. All of this can be directly attributed to the monstrous media practices of the Korean entertainment industry.
In 2019, Sulli, a K-pop star and actress, died at the age of 25, reportedly due to suicide. Weeks later, Sulli's friend and fellow K-pop singer Goo Hara was found dead at 28, with the New York Times later reporting it was a suicide.
K-Pop isn't a fad, phase or phenomenon. It is a carefully crafted and curated product that is being marketed expertly towards tweens and young adults. This industry has a high human cost and can rival the LA entertainment scene on its darkest days.
Korean culture and art is going through a global renaissance period with millions of fans and consumers engaging with it everyday. It helps to bear in mind that what meets the eye isn't exactly representative of how things are; and when it comes to K-pop, the industry has more in common with the film 'Parasite' than the group 'BTS'.