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Boy and girl bands in South KoreaThe dark side of K-pop

"There aren't many people I can trust and talk to about personal matters."

Jonghyun, the lead singer of the up-and-coming K-pop group Shinee, committed suicide in late 2017. He can no longer withstand the pressure. Lee Seok-cheol, star of the South Korean band Eastlight, doesn't let it get that far. In October last year, he publicly made serious accusations against his agency: "Since 2015, members of Eastlight have been beaten by our producer in a practice room, he has even mistreated us on the roof with a baseball bat and a metal scrubber. And he kept threatening us with it kill when we tell our parents about it. "

Future plans impossible

And another reported in a documentary on Australian broadcaster SBS: "I was jealous of my younger sister who went to a normal school. She had plans for her future, something I never had."

Author Lee Jong with her book about the ups and downs in K-Pop

Lee Jong-im knows many of these statements. The South Korean is an expert on pop culture and has written a book about the dark side of K-pop. During her research, Lee Jong-im had the feeling that the young people were really excited to tell about their lives: "Appearance is the most important thing for K-Pop stars. So they have to keep a diet. Some of the students told me that their agency or academy required a maximum weight of 50 kilos, no matter how tall they were. They had to undergo cosmetic surgery and had no private life. Their cell phones were confiscated. "

Singles sell better

The fans make an important contribution to success. They are one reason why K-pop stars are often not allowed to have a love affair. Singles just sell better. How good can be seen up close in a multi-story house in Gangnam, Seoul. SM, one of the largest entertainment companies in South Korea, offers all the fan articles of "its" K-Pop groups on several floors - including some from the late singer Jonghyun.

SM, one of the largest entertainment companies in South Korea, offers all fan articles on several floors (Kathrin Erdmann)

The 20-year-old Hyeon Yeji likes the boy group NCT - "They are so pretty ..." She follows her idols in the relevant social networks. She doesn't want to trade. Hyeon Yeji, 20, student: "I feel sorry for you because you are still young and have no free time at all, cannot sleep enough and are constantly stressed." Like many other young women, she has a favorite in the band - and if he had a girlfriend now ... she thinks for a long time: "I would be really devastated if he met someone, but I would still try to support him. "

The 23-year-old boy wouldn't want to swap with a K-Pop star either: "Oh no never!" Too little private life - but that, from their point of view, they should have quiet. But there are the fans: "They are often really intrusive, secretly follow them everywhere, take photos, sometimes they even break into their house."

A billion dollar business for the corporations

Both women regularly buy promotional items from their idols - K-Pop is a billion-dollar business for corporations and one of South Korea's most important export items.

Costumes of the K-Pop stars (Kathrin Erdmann)

They are trained in the sand factory in Seoul, among other places. The private academy offers dance, singing and acting classes. In a room a young man with dyed brown hair and a ring in his ear is rehearsing a song. The academy divides its students into nine categories - the singer is more in the upper area - one room further, however, there is still a lot to do. A pupil should raise his knees to the rhythm of the music and move his arms - the rhythm is right, the movement is not - he should straighten his chest further.

Kim Min Syk is managing director and vocal trainer at the Sandfactory: "On the one hand there is the sound of the voice. Then we also see how humorous and bright someone is. And of course the face plays an important role, even if we of course don't change anything about it can."

Love relationships are contractually prohibited

Kim Min Syk, who runs a K-Pop agency himself, frankly admits that life as a budding star demands a lot of compromises from young people: "The contracts of one of our girl bands also stated that they weren't allowed to meet boys, but it was It is very difficult to stop them because they will try anyway. You have to control them, it costs a lot of money. Bigger agencies even let their managers sleep with them in the same room so that they don't do nonsense.

He knows of course that a love affair at the age of the budding stars is quite normal, but that is the price for success - a life for the show and, above all, for the fans: "We write a corresponding clause in the contracts because the fans I trained a singer, for example, who was under contract with YG, one of the largest agencies. When it became known that he had a girlfriend, he was fired. And these photos are still circulating on the net today. He can Forget about his career. It's like smoking. If this is known about someone, the fans will never forgive it! "

After all, some things have improved in the meantime. Large agencies had to remove certain clauses from their partly slave-like contracts under pressure from trade unions. In it, the K-Pop stars and asterisks were often obliged to work off the training fees through free appearances. Pop culture expert Lee believes that it is entirely possible that something bad will not happen behind the scenes. That's just the dark side of K-Pop.