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“Slave” Contracts and Mental Illness: The Grave Problem With The K-Pop Industry

A discussion about the dangerous issues running rampant in the Korean entertainment industry.

Girl with Micro Braids

FEBRUARY 3, 2020

Warning: Discussion of suicide and assault. Discretion is advised.


If you’re anything like me and many others in the past three years, you’ve fallen down the vast and seemingly endless rabbit hole of K-Pop. From dominating the charts, to stealing every top five trending spot on Twitter, K-Pop has grown from something assigned to a particular type of person - to something anyone can participate in. We live in a world where Jungkook is now a household name and people who’ve never even heard of Twice are learning their choreography on TikTok.


K-Pop is a very unique genre specifically in how it is created. It’s formulaic, a team effort. Artists are not often self-made or even self-produced like the illusion American pop would like us to believe. They are hand-picked from hundreds of auditionees and placed in a “trainee” program to begin intensive study for the following 3-5 years - simply for the possibility of debuting. That’s right, even if you make it through the rigorous audition process and begin training, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get to debut. They sign what has become known as “slave contracts”, a term that has been coined over the last few years after many idols came forward about their lack of compensation for work and their mental and physical duress due to the rigorous nature of the career. The competition is incredibly fierce, and young performers will put their futures on the line simply for the small chance of debuting. As trainees and debuted performers, often their entire life is controlled by their company from phone use, to friendships, to how they spend their time. Most are not allowed to date, and some aren’t even allowed to have a cell phone. This can make young artists feel isolated and closed off from the outside world. This heavy amount of control can easily lead to an abuse of the power companies hold over trainees and groups.


The abuse of artists in the music industry is no secret. For years, we’ve heard about lawsuits, catalogue disputes and countless cases of musicians being taken advantage of by management or record companies. However, in K-Pop, the extreme imbalance of power makes it all too easy for performers to have their careers held over their heads by those higher up. Many idols have come forward with confessions of their rapidly declining mental health, risking heavy criticism and judgement to discuss their issues with depression, anxiety, and self-esteem, all of which are often caused by their place in the spotlight. Over the last few years, some have even succumbed to their state of mind, choosing to end their lives rather than go on in an industry that would rather sweep them under the rug than acknowledge the issue.


An investigation was recently reopened on the suicide of actress Jang Ja-yeon. In 2009, it was announced that she had committed suicide in her home, but in 2019, the heavy investigation into the Burning Sun Scandal caused a reopeneing of her case. It was suspected that Jang Ja-yeon’s death was not so sudden or coincidental. When the investigation reopened, it revealed remnants of a seven page suicide letter listing the names of significant men, alongside documents containing her signature, fingerprints, and social security number, similar to a courtroom dossier. From the testimony of a friend and fellow actress, the names listed in her final letter were all men who had sexually assaulted Jang Ja-yeon, as well as countless others from her company. She revealed that her manager had beaten her and forced her to have sex with a number of directors, executives, and CEO’s, as well as serve as an escort and hostess at private golfing matches. Jang Ja-yeon was just 29, having only begun her career as an actress three years earlier, in 2006. For someone so young, barely halfway through her life, to turn to such an end shows the severity and intensity of this issue in the Korean entertainment industry.


For many young artists in the K-Pop industry, doing whatever it takes to reach the top means they often don’t realize what it means to be in the spotlight until it’s too late. Unfortunately, the high price many performers are having to pay for their dreams is their dignity and self-worth. Something urgently needs to be done to prevent this abusive imbalance of power.


Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Suicide Prevention

CREDIT TO: COURTESY OF ARTIST

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