Abuse in K-Pop in Spotlight Again After L.A. Hotel Altercation

The members of the K-pop group Omega X seemed to be riding high a few weeks ago when their first international tour ended with a successful concert in Los Angeles.

But that feeling of triumph was short-lived.

After the October show, an executive from their management agency yelled at the group in a Los Angeles hotel and pushed a band member to the ground, footage of the encounter appears to show. The band members then flew home to Seoul at their own expense and then took their entertainment agency to court.

In a hearing on Wednesday, a South Korean judge will consider the request of the 11 group members to be released from their multi-year contracts with the agency Spire Entertainment. Lawyers for the gang have said the executive’s behavior in Los Angeles was the latest episode in a year of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. The executive, Kang Seong-hee, resigned last month but has denied any wrongdoing.

“I took care of all of them like they were their mother,” Kang told The New York Times in a phone interview, adding that Kim Jaehan, 27, the band member who fell in the hotel, collapsed on his own. He said that he hoped the band would resume normal activities with the agency.

K-pop insiders say the band’s allegations against their agency, if true, would be consistent with other stories from industry insiders and whistleblowers. They say some management companies, especially smaller ones, routinely exploit young artists who are desperate to become K-pop idols by imposing strict controls on their behavior and, in some cases, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse.

Since the 1990s, “the level of exploitation has been systematized and also normalized because the K-pop industry has become mainstream” and the most ambitious youth have been drawn to it, said Jin Lee, a scholar of pop cultures. Asian women and research fellow. at Curtin University in Australia.

“Everyone wants to be an idol,” he said.

Workers in South Korea, a deeply hierarchical society, are increasingly speaking out about bosses abusing their authority. But experts say most working K-pop artists don’t publicly criticize their agencies because they fear the consequences of violating their contracts.

Kim Youna, an entertainment lawyer in Seoul, said smaller agencies in particular have tended to hire rising musicians with contracts that don’t define working hours or place limits on what artists can reasonably be asked to do.

Regulations governing contracts between artists and their agencies have existed in South Korea for only about 25 years, Kim said. Other industries in the country have strong labor laws. “In this context, it seems that the idols, considered the least powerful parties, have no choice but to suffer a small loss,” he said.

Some of the losses are financial. It’s common, for example, for agencies to ask artists to pay for the costs of training they received, such as dance lessons, vocal training, and other preparation. But there are often questions about the transparency with which those debts are calculated, said Lee Jongim, a scholar of the South Korean entertainment industry and author of “Idol Trainees’ Sweat and Tears.”

Aspiring K-pop stars “debut in their teens, but entertainment agents are adults,” she said. “So they start from a structure in which it is difficult to establish an equal relationship.”

Some K-pop musicians have waited until their contracts were up to accuse their agencies of mistreatment.

In one example, Heo Min-sun, a member of the former group Crayon Pop, he told the Asian Boss YouTube channel in 2019 that the band’s agency had withheld the band members’ salaries for a year and a half after their debut. She said that she had also forced them to diet and forbade them from socializing without the agency’s permission.

“Our private life was strictly controlled. Even if I wanted to make a new friend, I couldn’t,” Ms. Heo said in the 2019 interview. Crayon Pop’s agency Chrome Entertainment did not respond to a request for comment.

In a 2019 criminal case, two K-pop musicians successfully brought legal action against their agency before their contracts expired.

Those musicians, Lee Seok-cheol, now 22, and Lee Seung-hyun, now 20, are brothers who performed in the boy band The East Light as teenagers. They accused their production company, their agency, and their CEO of verbally assaulting and threatening them. A court fined the agency, Media Line Entertainment, some $15,000 and sentenced the producer to 16 months in prison for child abuse. The CEO got eight months for aiding and abetting child abuse.

Another case, though technically successful, is seen as a warning.

Three former members of the TVXQ group struggled for years to appear on television after ending their contract with SM Entertainment, one of the most powerful agencies in South Korea. The country’s antitrust regulators eventually ordered SM Entertainment to stop pressuring cable channels to blacklist the band members. to appear on television.

The agency denied the commission’s findings. But CedarBough T. Saeji, a K-pop industry expert from Pusan ​​National University, said the band members had been “unofficially blacklisted by the K-pop industry.” The episode sent “a chilling message to younger idols that crossing a powerful company could be the end of their career, even if they achieve a legal goal,” he added.

After Kim Jaehan’s altercation with Ms. Kang at the Los Angeles hotel on October 22, a South Korean television network released blurry images. images of the episode that a passerby had filmed. When the band returned to Seoul, its members took the rare step of creating a instagram account without your agency’s permission, as is normally required. In another unusual step, they aired their allegations of abuse at a press conference.

“Each of us is experiencing a lot of anxiety,” Kim said at the press conference last month.

The band members say that a few months after Omega X’s debut in June 2021, Ms. Kang, the CEO of Spire Entertainment at the time, began making habitual sexual comments, touching her thighs, hands, and neck. face against their wishes, and regularly forcing them to do so. drink alcohol after rehearsals.

Lawyers for the band also said that Spire, a small agency founded in 2020, ordered each band member to pay the agency about $300,000 in debts incurred from their training. ‌

So far, the band’s lawyers have not filed a criminal complaint or produced any physical evidence to substantiate their allegations, citing concerns that doing so would suggest they were trying to influence the civil proceeding that begins Wednesday. They said their current focus was to get the band out of their contract, not press charges.

In an interview last week, Ms. Kang denied the gang members’ allegations. Her request to cover her agency’s debts was justified, she added, and she believes the band members accused her of abuse to justify moving to a larger agency.

“In their opinion, our company doesn’t have enough to nurture them,” Ms. Kang said, referring to the company’s financial resources. “So they’re running a witch hunt.”

The fate of Omega X may depend on how the South Korean public reacts to the band’s history, said Ms. Lee, the pop culture scholar. If the dispute escalates and its members can gain more public support, she said, Spire Entertainment may allow them to break their contract.

At least two companies working with Spire abroad have cut ties since the scandal broke: Helix Publicity, which had been responsible for Omega X’s public relations in the United States, and Skiyaki, the company that held the license for the activities. of Omega X in Japan.

Several people who worked or volunteered in concert halls on their recent two-month, 16-city tour of the United States and Latin America have also spoken out for Omega X.

Gigi Granados, 25, a beautician who attended a show at Palladium Times Square in New York City, said she had seen Ms Kang yelling at the band members at her hotel after the performance. “No one deserves to be yelled at like that,” she said.