The demise of Goo Hara has become the latest in a troubling string of incidents that have put the K-pop scene under additional scrutiny.
Police are now investigating the cause of her death, which came roughly six months after she was found unresponsive at her home, following an apparent suicide attempt.
At the time, Goo Hara was involved in a legal fight against a former boyfriend who had allegedly threatened to circulate sex tapes of her. The 28-year-old apologised to the fans shortly after the incident, saying she “had been in agony over a number of overlapping issues”. Since then, she had spoken publicly against online bullying.
Goo was a former member of the girl band Kara and a thriving solo artist. Kara, now disbanded, were one of the first K-Pop acts to achieve international success.
Goo’s death comes weeks after the apparent suicide of her close friend, Sulli, an ex-member of the superstar girl group (f)x, aged 25. Sulli was said to have been suffering from severe depression.
In 2014, she was forced to suspend her music career due to what was described at the time as “stressed-related pain”, thought to have been provoked by speculation about her personal life on social media.
Sulli (real name: Choi Jin-ri) was also targeted by cyberbullies for refusing to wear a bra in public and speaking openly about her mental issues and relationships – in defiance of conservative attitudes towards young women and the norms of the South Korean pop music industry, which demands the artists have an innocent and clean-cut image.
She had also advocated against online abuse, and many fans blamed it for her death. One of her last public appearances was on a show where she read malicious comments she had received out loud.
A bill in memory of Sulli is expected to be proposed next month, urging the major portals that allow users to comment anonymously to force those users to reveal their identities.
Another K-pop superstar, Jonghyun, took his own life at the age of 27 in December 2017. The lead singer of the group SHINee was found dead in a rented apartment where police discovered burned coal briquettes on a frying pan.
Fellow singer Nine published a note purportedly written by Jonghyun, in which the latter complained about a “depression that was slowly devouring [him]” and not being able to live in the public eye.
Junhyup Kwon, a journalist who has interviewed many K-pop idols, has noted that depression is a common problem among them.
He recalled in an article published last month: “Many shared how they felt depressed and how often their minds created extreme thoughts. Some talked about seeking help with medical professionals. Often, PR managers politely asked us journalists to delete these parts.”
Younger performers, he said (especially those signed with bigger labels), tend to be more secretive about personal issues.
Another high-profile death that has ravaged the K-pop scene was that of Seo Minwoo, the lead singer of the boy band 100%. He was the eldest member of the band, which was formed in 2012, and remained in it until his death except for a 21-month stint for mandatory military service between 2014 and 2015.
Seo was found unconscious at his home in Seoul in March 2018. He was 33. His agency said in an official statement that the artist died of cardiac arrest, although unconfirmed media reports linked his death to drug overdose.
Singer Chae Dong-Ha, a former member of the trio SG Wannabe, committed suicide in May 2011. Speculation emerged following the traffic news that he was battling with depression stemming from the suicide of his former manager two years prior.
Charles Park, also known as Seo Ji-won, was one of the first South Korean pop artists to take his own life. He died in 1996, when he was just 19 years old – shortly after his debut album became a national breakthrough. He was said to have written in a suicide note that he had concerns over the unexpected success of his debut album, and over whether its sequel, released posthumously, would be as successful.
A troubled industry
Cyberbullying and depression aside, the world of K-pop has been marred by several major controversies in the past years.
Lee “Seungri” Seung-hyun, a member of the influential boy group Big Bang, retired from the $5 billion K-pop industry in March this year over allegations of procuring drugged sexual partners for the customers of a Seoul nightclub that he managed.
An investigation into Seungri also found that he was part of a group chat on a Korean messaging app that circulated sexual video clips of women filmed without their consent.
The case also involves some of the industry’s biggest names; Seungri has reportedly admitted to some of the charges.
Another problem is the extreme diets that the artists follow – either on their own or at the behest of their agencies – in pursuit of the perfect look.
For instance, Sojung of Ladies' Code has admitted that an intense diet made her hormone levels drop to “those of a menopausal woman”.
Singer Park Bo-ram, a one-time contestant on the popular TV show Superstar K2, has seen her vocal range reduce dramatically after losing 32 kilograms.
Stephanie ‘Tiffany’ Young Hwang of Girls’ Generation reportedly confessed in 2014 that with a weight of 48 kilograms and a height of 162 centimetres, she was the heaviest of the band members, who would tease her for being a “pig”.