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K-pop suicides reignite online abuse debate

Second-largest internet portal disables comments on entertainment articles

A man pays tribute to the late K-pop star Goo Hara, who died by suicide in November.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea, the Land of the Morning Calm, is often anything but. Suicide is the number one cause of death for people aged nine to 24, and a 2017 report found that 45% of people aged between 13 and 24 suffered from stress, with more than a quarter of middle- and high-school students reporting problems with depression.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, mental health challenges are at their toughest in the country's successful but fiercely competitive entertainment industry, which was rocked in October and November by the apparent suicides of Sulli, a singer, actress and former member of the popular girl group f(x), and her friend Goo Hara, formerly of the chart-topping girl group KARA.

Sulli, 25, was not the first young star to take her own life -- Kim Jong-hyun of the leading boy band ShiNee did so in December 2017. But her death especially has focused fresh attention on the challenges faced by young people seeking to break into K-pop and other entertainment sectors.

These include years of practice to master dance routines, and the almost-military-style discipline demanded by the industry. There are strict rules on weight, appearance and social life, especially for female stars, and physical dangers such as "manager driving" -- the manic rush from one promotional event to another that has caused many car crashes and cost several lives over the years.

If that is not stressful enough, there is a lot more. Global concern has risen recently about the negative effects of social media portals such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which provide platforms for online abuse and "trolling," but South Korea's internet culture predates these international trends by some years. Cyworld, which allowed users to create pages inside a portal for posting pictures and online chatting, was up and running before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg even arrived at Harvard University.

Much of the online abuse of young entertainers takes place on portals such as Naver, used by about 40 million of South Korea's 50 million people, which accounts for 75% of the search market. Naver aggregates news and provides shopping, video on demand, blogging and a lot more besides. Not for nothing has South Korea been dubbed the "Naver Republic."

Some of this success is derived from comments on articles and blogs in online groups called "cafes." This interactivity, which dates back 20 years, boosts traffic but is also responsible for the persistent abuse leveled at some of the country's biggest stars.

Sulli, whose real name was Choi Jin-ri, had relatively outspoken opinions and an independent spirit. She attracted more abuse than most, and had been dealing with the hurt caused by online detractors for years. As long ago as July 2014 her management blamed the abuse for an enforced break from f(x) duties.

"Because she is suffering physically from her ailments and mentally from the malicious and untrue rumors that are spreading about her, Sulli has requested that she take a break from all entertainment activities," the management agency SM Town said in a statement at the time. One of her last public appearances was in June in a TV show called "The Night of Hateful Comments," in which stars discussed their online treatment.

After her death, her former f(x) colleague Victoria posted a plea on social media for users to take a step back. She criticized posts that started with phrases such as "I heard ..." or "It's likely that ... ." "Don't speculate," she wrote. "If you have time to come up with a story, what do you think about spending that time doing something more meaningful? Please don't let [commenting on social media] become your life. You can't find your identity in a world that's made up of falsehoods. Please don't waste your time."

Jung Ho-jai, former K-pop correspondent for Dong-A Ilbo, a leading South Korean daily newspaper, said: "The Korean entertainment system is based on severe competition from a young age, with trainees chosen at 15-19, before they are adults. They are positioned in hard working conditions and also socialized in this narrow society."

Sulli, left, and Victoria during an f(x) performance in 2011. After Sulli's death, Victoria posted a plea social media for users to stop spreading rumors.      © Reuters

"I think mentally, they are still children and are not fully socialized enough to compete in real society after their groups disband," Jung said. "They have a feeling of isolation that they struggle to overcome. They cannot easily go out, and making new friends is almost impossible. They also have serious struggles with dating or marrying."

Sulli's suicide and the subsequent death of Goo have added weight to calls for changes in how the internet works. One option would be to reintroduce a 2007 law that sought to boost online civility by forcing social media users to provide their real names when commenting. The law was reversed by a court ruling in 2012 that it was ineffective, hard to enforce and a violation of privacy. However, an October opinion poll found 70% support for reintroducing it.

KARA performs in Seoul in 2014. The recent spate of celebrity deaths highlights how the ready smiles and upbeat attitudes that K-pop stars display in public can mask inner anguish.

In another development, Daum, South Korea's second-largest internet portal, has disabled comments on entertainment articles. "The comment sections were originally aimed at offering a healthy place for public debate, but there have been some side effects," said Yeo Min-soo, joint CEO of Kakao Talk, which runs Daum.

"The level of defamation in online comments on entertainment news has been undermining the health of public debate," Yeo said. "We will attempt to advance technological aspects of the service, while coming up with stricter policies in dealing with online expressions of defamation and hatred."

Attention is now on Naver to see if the larger portal follows suit. If so, the latest K-pop deaths will have made a real difference to South Korean attitudes to online abuse of entertainment celebrities. It may take much longer, though, to foster wider understanding about depression and mental health issues in one of the fastest-paced countries on the planet.

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