A North Korean propaganda site calls K-pop acts ‘slaves’ and says they ‘suffer miserable lives.’
The report with the headline, “South Korean youth singers owned by big companies, forced to live miserably.” The propaganda used the moniker ‘youth singers’ to refer to K-pop acts like BTS and Blackpink. The article references the exclusive contracts signed with large South Korean companies like SM Entertainment. Many South Korean K-pop stars get their start at a young age, becoming teen idols.
Another allegation is that large companies “suck most revenues out of the singers under a nominal purpose of using the money to train them.” The article alleges that female K-pop stars are forced to “sexually please politicians and industrialists. The article references suicide among K-pop singers and says they leave “suicide notes saying it was hard to go on like this.”
Is there any truth to these allegations in the K-pop industry? Yes and no. Here’s the complicated truth.
The modern K-pop era began back in 1996 with the foundation of SM Entertainment. Founder Lee Soo-man’s mark on the South Korean music industry is still felt today. He oversaw an era of creating new ‘pop idols’ to dominate the local, South Korean markets.
The system pioneered by Lee in the South Korean market is simple – find talent young, train them, and debut them as part of an idol group tailored to popular culture. This formula still exists in creating new K-pop acts today at its most basic level. BTS is tailored towards the boy band trend, while Blackpink is a girl rap group.
K-pop is responsible for helping break censorship barriers in South Korea. That’s an important reason why North Korea is highlighting the darker side of the K-pop industry. So-called ‘slave contracts’ were (and still are) common in the K-pop industry. In order to maintain the image of the label and the persona crafted for idols, these contracts are especially harsh.
K-pop idols often sign contracts that stipulated their labels controlled everything about their lives. From their diets to their relationships and social lives. Teens as young as 12 and 13 sign these contracts for an extended period, often ten or more years.
During the early years of K-pop, groups would often speak about their ‘debt’ owed to their label.
Many idols had celebration parties when they were finally ‘debt-free,’ meaning they were earning money for themselves. For popular idols, it’s relatively easy to pay off the debt; for lesser-known stars – it could last their entire contract.
Slave contracts have started to see some backlash in South Korea as fans demanded better treatment. South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission eventually looked into the practices of these big labels. One of the changes they made was outlawing the morality clause to cancel trainee contracts. Trainees who are indebted but never debut must pay back the debt to the label.
The concept of ‘slave contracts’ was exposed globally when K-pop group TVXQ sued SM Entertainment in 2008. The South Korean FTC responded in 2009 with a rule to limit contracts to seven years. In 2017, these policies were reformed to stop labels from pressuring idols into renewing their contracts once they expire.
Despite the changes made to avoid slave contracts, K-pop idols do endure controlling labels. BTS and Blackpink may not be subject to these ‘slave contracts,’ but there is still drama around who is dating whom.