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Death of Korean pop star Sulli highlights South Korea’s toxic fan culture

Sulli was one of the few Korean pop stars who had found the courage to break out from the confines of traditional roles for female artistes in Korean pop music and actively spoke on issues that she felt strongly about.

Written by Neha Banka | Seoul |
Updated: October 15, 2019 8:35:11 pm
South Korean pop star Sulli (Photo credit: Newsis/Associated Press)

Sulli, one of the biggest K-pop stars, was found dead in her home near Seoul on Monday evening by her manager. Local police are still investigating the cause of death although they believe the 25-year-old may have taken her own life.

Sulli was one of South Korea’s most visible Korean pop stars with an international fan following, including on social media, and was known for her singing and acting skills, having played lead and supporting roles in several Korean dramas. Sulli, whose real name is Choi Jin-ri, was a member of the K-pop girl group f(x), and began her professional career as a child actor when she was 11 with the Korean drama ‘Ballad of Seodong’. In 2009, then 15 years old, Sulli made her debut as a member of f(x). She had trained under SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s biggest entertainment companies, for years prior to her official debut as a K-pop artiste.

Sulli was one of the few Korean pop stars who found the courage to break out from the confines of traditional roles for female artistes in Korean pop music and actively spoke on issues that she felt strongly about, especially feminism and women’s rights and equality, for which she faced online abuse and malicious comments. After undergoing immense stress due to constant rumours about her personal life, Sulli went on hiatus in 2014 and 2015. She left her K-pop group, to focus on her solo singing and acting career. She was openly critical of cyberbullying in South Korea and faced a barrage of abuse online in May 2016 from social media followers after she posted photos on her personal Instagram account where she was not wearing a bra. The incident dubbed the “no-bra scandal” in certain sections of South Korea’s media, generated controversy in an intensely patriarchal and conservative Korean society.


View this post on Instagram


오늘 왜 신나?

A post shared by 설리가진리 (Sulli) (@jelly_jilli) on

Last month, during a live stream on Instagram, Sulli’s breasts were accidentally visible, an incident where she was again subjected to vicious comments.

In 2019, Sulli joined the cast of ‘The Night of Hate Comments’, a South Korean variety programme, as a host where Korean celebrities were invited to read and discuss the hateful, malicious comments and cyber-bullying that they had encountered. In one episode of the variety show in July this year, Sulli said, “Going braless is one’s freedom. When I upload my photos without a bra, people talk about it a lot. I could have been scared. But I [wasn’t] because I thought it would be nice if more people could discard their prejudices.” Her co-hosts proceeded with their taping of a new episode for the show on Monday, unaware of Sulli’s death.

In April this year, Sulli published a live broadcast of a “drinking party” and some users demanded answers to private questions to which Sulli replied, “You do not have to worry about me. I hate people who ‘gaze rape’ me.”

Singer Jonghyun. (Photo credit: Reuters)

Sulli not the first K-pop star to end life

Sulli is not the first Korean pop star to end her life. In December 2017, singer Jonghyun from superstar K-pop boy group Shinee, was found unconscious by local police and later died due to a cardiac arrest possibly brought on due to carbon monoxide poisoning, leading to speculation by police authorities that he had taken his own life. After his death, local media outlets reported that Jonghyun had been struggling with depression, possibly caused due to challenging circumstances surrounding work as a K-pop artist.

Korean pop stars are heavily scrutinised for every action, their looks, their gestures and conduct in public and private by Korean media and social media users. Some fans go to extreme lengths to cyberstalk and physically stalk and harass artistes in a bid to know every detail about their lives. Social media users routinely gang up on artistes and even bloggers, critics, writers and journalists whom they do not agree with and use digital platforms to urge and recruit other social media users to engage in similar behaviour, directing a flood of abuse against their targets.


Entertainment companies for whom these Korean artistes work under a contract for at least 6-10 years, force the artistes to bow down to public pressure, social media pressure and pressure from fans and engage in censorship and control for financial profits. The artistes also face pressure regarding the kind of content they post on their social media platforms from their fans who expect specific conduct that is an extension of their professional identity as Korean pop stars. When this harassment and abuse gets extreme, some Korean entertainment companies and sometimes the artistes themselves put out statements condemning such behaviour and also file legal complaints against malicious social media users and stalkers. To evade local authorities, many also post abuse using VPNs to mask their IP addresses, making it hard for authorities to pin down their addresses to follow up on legal action and the cycle continues. The filing of official complaints does not always happen and the artistes are often left to grapple with the emotional and psychological impact of the abuse on their own.

“Moon Hee-joon (leader of 90s K-pop band H.O.T.) was the first to sue for malicious comments. He met the (writers of the comments) at the police station and was shocked to see that they were elementary school students,” says Byung Kee-suh, a writer based in Seoul who has written extensively about K-pop for over 30 years. Some people behind the malicious comments online are surprisingly in their 40s. “This is common,” says Byung. The reason behind the vitriol online against Korean pop artists may be linked to the easy access to cell phones, computers and internet connectivity in South Korea. “So we have an immature online culture (in South Korea) and it is based on smartphones, computers and social networking sites,” explains Byung.

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In her Instagram broadcast, Sulli said “I’m not a bad person.” (Source: Sulli Instagram)

In one of her last Instagram video broadcasts, Sulli was seen crying and saying, “I’m not a bad person.” Her death has highlighted the toxic fan culture in Korean pop music that is rapidly increasing as more people, especially children and young teens around the world discover the music, the culture of Korean pop music and the complex fandom universe of the music genre.

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First published on: 15-10-2019 at 05:53:18 pm

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