The Dark Side of K-pop – Slave Contracts, Abuse, and Overworking

By Carla Calderon

The K-Pop Industry

One of the rising genres in the U.S. music market today is K-Pop. Growing up with K-Pop, I have been able to see many ups and downs in their industry. The industry itself is different from the U.S.’s. It’s not as easy to become an idol. You can’t just form a group with your friends, work hard, and hope to make it big.

Most idol groups are formed by entertainment agencies with a catalog of trainees. Trainees audition for these agencies in hopes of getting in. Then they go through a rigorous training process for at least a few years before being put into a group.

Idols endure mental and physical abuse during the process of becoming an idol. They spend every minute of the day, preparing for their debut. With little to no pay, they work hard and hope to make it on stage.

Their companies have high expectations of them to be their absolute best on and off stage. These pressures only continue to get worse once they debut.

9 Muses of Star Empire

Nine Muses, or 9 Muses, debuted in 2010 and was formed by Star Empire Entertainment. Their original concept was that the girls were made out to be like the nine muses from Greek mythology. The entertainment company specifically wanted girls that fit their concept—tall, skinny, and beauty that was “Godlike.”

In this 2012 documentary from BBC, we follow 9 Muses on their journey to stardom. It’s a year-long chronicle that portrays the girls’ everyday lives. We see all of the ins-and-outs as they candidly talk about their struggles and successes as they prepare for a comeback.

While the group recently disbanded earlier this year, the documentary is still relevant. It does a good job of showing the company’s business point of view and the girls’ personal lives. We’re able to see firsthand the sacrifices they have to make to get into the industry. Watch the full documentary here.

Henry Prince Mak

Henry Prince Mak debuted under the group JJCC in 2014. The K-pop group was formed under the management of Jackie Chan Group Korea. As the name suggests, the group was created by the famous and beloved actor, Jackie Chan. While it’s unclear when he officially separated from the group, he made a video on his own YouTube channel in late 2017 explaining he wanted to pursue in solo activities, such as acting.

Mak has been very open about his experience as an idol since he made his departure.

In the video above, Mak perfectly explains how idols are essentially drained and left with nothing by the end of their contracts. He breaks down how “famous, half-famous, and not famous” groups face different experiences in the industry. Half-famous idols, as he says, “are the worst” and experience “the full meaning of slave contract.”

“A slave contract is usually about 10 to 15 years average. They have terms like no dating, dieting, some even have plastic surgery, and also no holidays. You could be working, you know, 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week—if there’s work, you have to do it. That’s a ‘slave contract.’”

He uses himself as an example of this. On a regular day, Mak would wake up at 6 a.m., run for two hours, go to dance practice, then attend any show or performance schedule their group had. If their schedules ended early, he would go back to dance practice. He explains he would stay there until 1 a.m. Only after that would he be able to go home, shower, and sleep.

“Imagine doing that for 10 years,” Mak says, “for maybe like zero dollars a day—two dollars a day if you’re lucky, for ten years.”

The East Light’s Lee Seokcheol and Lee Seunghyun

The East Light debuted in 2016 and was formed by Media Line Entertainment. In 2018, the group’s leader and member Lee Seokcheol opened up about the physical and verbal abuse from their agency’s producer, Moon Youngil and CEO, Kim Changhwan. It was reported that members of the band began suffering from abuse a year before they debuted.

In a press conference, Lee Seokcheol stated,

“As the leader of The East Light and as one of the K-pop artists who lead Korean culture, I could no longer tolerate the pain that our members were going through. We decided to hold a press conference in hopes of eliminating child abuse and violation of human rights in the K-pop industry.”

The issue became a bigger deal as all members of the group were minors at the time. According to the idol, his younger brother, Lee Seunghyun, is still feeling trauma from the assault to this day.

“My brother was locked in the recording studio and the producer hit his head, thighs, arms, and buttocks so many times,” Seokcheol explained, “His head had bloody wounds and bruises.” His younger brother also continues to “says things like ‘Please save me’ during his sleep.”

Lee Seokcheol during the press conference

The idol shared that the producer Moon threatened to kill the members if they ever told their parents about the abuse. Since the press conference, Moon has been arrested and is currently being held on charges of continued assault. On the other hand, Kim was indicted without detention for charges of child abuse and aiding in child abuse.

Recently, the Lee brothers filed a request for arbitration against their former agency. The lawyer representing the two stated, “Lee Seok Cheol and Lee Seung Hyun did not receive any payment during their promotions from 2016 to 2018. We filed a request for arbitration to check if there were any problems with the payment process.”

The Underlying Problem

While I’m a big fan, I have to admit there’s a huge underlying problem in the K-Pop industry. To boil it down, K-Pop idols are expected to endure all sorts of physical and mental abuse. From the moment they sign their contract, they are giving away their freedom. You could argue that some idols are treated differently, sure, but most aren’t.

Many idols are constantly overworked, often fainting and getting hospitalized for exhaustion. It has happened so often, it has become weirdly become the norm. They’re expected to put on their best face after all they go through and most of them can’t openly talk about it.

Only some idols are brave enough to openly talk about their struggles. I commend them for doing it—because it is hard. In an industry, that tries to sweep their problems under the rug, we need people who are daring enough to open up. People like them can lead the conversation to make progressive changes and better the faulty industry.

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