|BTS, on top, performs during the KIIS-FM Jingle Ball concert on Dec. 6, 2019, in Inglewood, Calif. BLACKPINK, on bottom, performs a livestream concert in collaboration with YouTube on Feb. 7. AP / Courtesy of YG Entertainment|
By Ko Dong-hwan
A North Korean news website reported earlier this month that K-pop idols in South Korea were being treated like "slaves" by large companies and living a "miserable life," raising questions about why the isolated state made such claims.
North Korea's propaganda website "Arirang-Meari" on March 13 updated its "Arirang News" section with a report headlined "South Korean youth singers owned by big companies forced to live miserably," according to NK Economy, a South Korean online news outlet that first reported the news.
The report, claiming to have cited South Korean news outlets, referred to K-pop artists in general as "youth singers" and, mentioning BTS and BLACKPINK as examples, said most of them sign exclusive contracts with large companies such as SM Entertainment at early ages and receive education to become pop stars.
The report said the companies strictly separate the singers from the outside world and put them through harsh training while allowing them to sleep only two or three hours a day. It further said the companies "suck most revenues out of the singers under a nominal purpose of using the money to train them."
"In addition to their harsh trainings, they suffer inhumane humiliations and treatments," the report said. "Young female singers are even forced to sexually please politicians and industrialists. Many youth singers suffer mental and physical pains and are in a living prison. Some of them even took their own lives, leaving suicide notes saying it was hard to go on like this."
The report claimed that South Korean and Western news outlets also condemned major entertainment companies because the singers have been "living under incarceration forced by unbelievably unfair contracts since early ages." It blamed "evil, corrupted presidents of arts companies who enslave them by robbing them of body, mind and soul."
The report's mentioning of SM ― out of various other K-pop labels ― raised questions, since the company sent its girl band Red Velvet to Pyongyang as part of South Korea's 160 "cultural ambassadors" under the South Korean government's peace-driven initiative in 2018.
NK Economy screen-captured an image of the report. It said the North Korean site "magnified part of the existing problems in training and managing K-pop artists in South Korea to penalize the whole."
"It appears such penalization derives from the state's effort to prevent fanning of K-pop artists' popularity throughout its own citizens," NK Economy said.
The Meari report drew cynical responses from South Koreans. One of them said online: "(North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un must be an avid K-pop fan. Maybe he doesn't want to reveal that so he wants his people to distance themselves from K-pop while he can enjoy it secretly?" Another quipped "K-pop must be on fire in North Korea right now, mesmerizing North Korean youths and all."
BTS and BLACKPINK have built international reputations unprecedented in hallyu history, with the former having performed and been nominated at Grammy Awards earlier this month for the first time among K-pop acts, while the latter keeps accumulating record-breaking clicks and followers via YouTube and Spotify.
Meari was launched in March 2016 by North Korean "civic organization" Arirang Association. North Korean online mouthpiece Uriminzokkiri reported about its founding in February that year, saying Meari was launched "to share various news that can contribute to reconciliation and union of two Koreas."