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The Great Seungsby

What do an embattled K-Pop star and Fitzgerald's Jazz Age antihero reveal about South Korean society?

Seungri holds up a wineglass, standing against an art deco background with poker cards and money flying in the air. Artwork by Annie Zhang

South Korea’s music and entertainment industry, better known as K-pop, is a global sensation that many people love, know, or at least have heard of. Those who wouldn’t consider themselves among the millions of avid fans following the music genre still recognise the worldwide popularity it has amassed over recent decades. This is of course unsurprising as K-pop is now one of South Korea’s largest exports, and is often seen as the country’s number one cultural ambassador. Known for its flashy bubble gum coloured music videos, its songs where lyrical catchiness reigns, and the suave choreography that often accompanies these it all, it’s easy to see why the industry has garnered such an intense fandom.

But since late January this year, K-pop has been witnessing a snowballing sex scandal. At the centre of this story, which continues to unfold today, is Lee Seung-Hyun. Better known by his stage name, Seungri, he is the youngest member of one of K-pop’s most popular boy bands, Big Bang. The group has often been referred to as K-pop legends, and they boast numerous impressive accomplishments, including their fifth EP, Alive, being the first Korean album to chart on the Billboard 200.

Seungri has often been referred to as Korea’s Great Gatsby, or Seungsby, due to the affluence he has gained from his business empires. Seungri himself has relished in this label on several occasions, entitling a 2018 solo album The Great Seungri for example. In 2015, he even hosted a Christmas party inspired by the Great Gatsby film. The popular use of this epithet is not unearned as the parallels between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s anti-hero, Jay Gatsby, and Seungri are in fact quite striking.

Like Gatsby, who lived an impoverished childhood, Seungri himself is known to have come from rather humble beginnings in South Korea’s Gwangju. Both figures rose to extreme wealth through their businesses, and with it, they heavily indulged in lavish lifestyles. Much like Gatsby, Seungri is known for hosting glittery parties. In 2017, his exclusive two-day party made news headlines as he hired out the whole of Palawan island in the Philippines to celebrate his birthday. The party saw celebrities, business people, politicians, socialites and social media stars from all over the world as guests.

However, after examining their respective lives more deeply, it becomes clear that Seungri perhaps was not aware of what the Gatsby tale truly entailed.  While their similarities in wealth and success are obvious, the parallels between the two resonate deeper, and more eerily. It seems that Seungri failed to see past the glamour, and missed the cautionary echoes of Gatsby’s name. Gatsby’s opulent lifestyle was gained by illegal bootlegging enterprises. Similarly, the recent K-pop sex scandal has exposed the illicit schemes that formed part of Seungri’s own riches

The facts of the scandal can be summarised like this: As an entrepreneur, Seungri has been known to have numerous other business ventures, including being one of the executive directors of a popular nightclub, Burning Sun, in Seoul’s Gangnam. The club became embroiled in massive controversy after a male patron was assaulted, alleging he had been attacked by an employee of the club after attempting to help an intoxicated woman who was being sexually harassed. Such was the immensity of the scandal that it prompted South Korean president Moon Jae-In to launch an official investigation.

Leaked chatrooms on the popular Korean messaging app KakaoTalk then uncovered the bigger and darker picture. One chatroom, consisting of Seungri and other men, including celebrities, featured secretly filmed footage of women during sex. The videos were captured and sent into the chat by singer and television personality, Jung Joon-Young. In some videos, women were unconscious or heavily intoxicated. Along with these clips were a string of highly misogynistic comments and discussion revolving around the use of date rape drugs. Separate chatrooms have exposed Seungri’s attempt to bribe potential foreign investors at the Burning Sun with prostitutes. On one occasion, the star even promised investors women too intoxicated to be aware of what was happening. In South Korea, where prostitution and drug supply are considered serious crimes, this expose sent giant shockwaves across society.

Since the discovery of these chatrooms, Seungri, who retired from the K-pop industry on 12 March, is being investigated for sexual abuse, sex trafficking, sex bribery and drugging female customers at his nightclub. Jung has been charged for secretly filming and sharing explicit tapes. Other male celebrities involved have confessed to, or are being accused of, watching or sharing these secretly filmed videos. The apparent blind eye officials paid to some chatrooms due to the connections of those in it, the accusations of Burning Sun bribing the police, and the alleged attempted destruction of evidence has also sparked investigation into the seemingly cosy ties between some of these celebrities and authority figures, taking the scandal beyond K-pop and into wider concerns of political corruption.

However, because the scandal has involved big celebrity names such as Seungri, many South Korean news outlets have been heavily focused only on the individual idols, failing to adequately address the more systemic and institutionalised issues. Many media have in fact been playing the game of ‘who’s next?’ by almost dramatizing the scandal. This question does, of course, have to be answered for light to be shone on the truth. However, there is plenty more to turn our attention to.

While this scandal is heartbreaking and necessitates justice for the victims involved, it is simply a K-pop version of the wider realities that permeate Korean society more generally. Just like how Gatsby is reflective of the flaws characterising the then American society of the 1920s, Seungri is representative of South Korea’s own set of deep problems.

The country’s entrenched gender inequality and misogynistic attitudes lie at the forefront of it all. Within recent years, South Korea has been experiencing what’s been termed a molka epidemic. The portmanteau combines the Korean word mollae, which translates to secret, and the English word camera. It describes the mass proliferation of spycams in public transportation, bathrooms, change rooms, bathhouses, hotels or even in the victim’s own home for pornographic purposes.

The term also encompasses the act of secretly filming someone during sex, meaning that many perpetrators know their victims, raising issues of revenge porn. In 2017, the country saw over 6,500 reported cases of molka incidents, and according to official statistics, 98 per cent of the perpetrators were men and more than 80% of the victims were women.

This fuelled a large part of South Korea’s own #MeToo movement. In October 2017, thousands of women took to the streets of Seoul in protest, chanting the highly circulated hashtag ‘mylifeisnotyourporn.’ And while the rise to fight against such gross invasion of privacy is both necessary and courageous, the molka epidemic, where women are reduced to objects of voyeurism, without a doubt exposes the misogyny that is deeply rooted in South Korea.

In Jung’s official apology he wrote, “I admit to all my crimes. I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a social media chatroom, and while I did so I didn’t feel a great sense of guilt.” This very absence of guilt, confessed in almost a nonchalant way, is probably the attitude held by spycam perpetrators and viewers.

Instances like this sex scandal can essentially be seen as microcosmic representations of the wider patriarchal oppression that South Korean women face. South Korea has consistently ranked as one of the lowest ranking countries for gender equality, placing 115th out of 149 countries in last year’s World Economic Forum’s report on the global gender gap.

A last look at the analogy drawn between Gatsby and Seungri may give clues on how the remaining parts of the scandal will unfold. Much like how the upper-class Buchanans escaped the fate Gatsby was colliding into, as Seungri begins to face the consequences of his crimes, it may just be that those powerful but equally involved players, such as the anonymous foreign investors, will avoid punishment. It will not be long before we know whether life can sometimes truly imitate art.