Trigger warning: Suicide and death.
In less than two years, K-pop fans were shocked after Kim Jonghyun of SHINee, Choi Jinri or Sulli of f(x), and Goo Hara of KARA took their own lives.
In December 2017, Jonghyun was found unconscious in a rented apartment in Seoul. Sulli, on the other hand, was found dead in her home by her manager on the afternoon of October 2019. Hara’s passing came six weeks after, despite promising Sulli—her close friend—that “she’ll live more diligently” for her.
According to the World Health Organization, the suicide rate in South Korea is the fourth highest in the world. Unfortunately, the K-pop industry is not exempted from it. No matter how glamorous and picture-perfect it seems, Jonghyun, Sulli, and Hara’s tragedies show the dark side of the industry.
Jonghyun is known among fans as SHINee’s main vocalist, soloist, and composer with songs like Lonely and Shinin’. His final activity was a solo concert entitled Inspired from December 9-10, 2017. It became a bittersweet memory since he passed away eight days later.
Following Jonghyun’s passing, his farewell letter was released by his close friend Nine9. The letter was left in her care, where she was asked to reveal it to the public after his death.
He wrote, “Things you can overcome don’t remain as scars. I guess I wasn’t meant to confront the world. I guess I wasn’t meant to lead a life in the public eye. That’s why it’s hard: confronting the world and being in the public eye. Why did I make those decisions? It was ridiculous. It’s great that I even made it this far.”
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Jonghyun also revealed that his doctor blamed him for being unable to “shake off the depression.” He ended his letter by expressing his desire of hearing the words, “You did well.” A month after his death, his self-produced posthumous album “Poet | Artist” was released.
Sulli, Jonghyun’s labelmate, started her entertainment career at an early age. She was a child actress before debuting as a member of the girl group f(x). She was only 20 years old when she announced her “break” from the industry. At the time, she admitted being “mentally and emotionally exhausted” from rumors and hateful comments online.
She also opened up about her struggles with panic disorder and social phobia in 2018. “Even close people left me. I was hurt by them and felt there was nobody who understands me, which made me fall apart,” she added.
A note, which revealed her innermost thoughts, was reportedly found in Sulli’s apartment after her death. The details of the note and her burial, however, were kept private until this day.
There were signs of progress in the K-pop industry and discussion of mental health after Sulli’s death. The “Sulli Act” was soon launched to fight cybercrime, but reactions were mixed. Others mentioned that it’s “hard to enforce,” while some said it’s “unconstitutional.” As a result, interest in the bill was dropped in 2020.
Fans have barely recovered from Sulli’s death when her close friend Hara was found unconscious at her home in November 2019. Experts, however, noted the warning signs pointing towards suicide.
“Hara’s case was a red flag. She had attempted suicide before. That meant she could try again anytime. She was definitely categorized as 'high risk,' or in need of treatment,” Yonsei University psychology professor Lee Donggwi told ABC News.
Hara is known among fans as the main dancer and visual of disbanded girl group KARA. Throughout her career, she was accused of having plastic surgery, to which she later admitted. She also went through a controversial breakup where her ex-boyfriend allegedly threatened to expose her using a sex tape.
Before Jonghyun, Sulli, and Hara’s deaths, they’re known to have suffered from depression which can be hinted towards their struggles of being in a cutthroat industry.
K-pop idols are known to have gone through rigorous training methods before their debut which can last from two months to 10 years. They also endure unhealthy diets, inhumane schedules, lack of privacy, cyberbullying, and sexual harassment.
At the same time, idols are expected to actively engage with fans through social network sites, idol-to-fan apps, fan meets, and more. These intersocial interactions can be a double-edged sword since they’re subject to scrutiny once they’re confirmed to be in a relationship.
In 2019, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea announced the revision of the standard labor contract of K-pop idols, especially among adolescents. Entertainment agencies are required to protect their artists and may provide treatment if they suffer from extreme depression.
Yet, despite these ongoing developments, there’s a long way to go in addressing mental health concerns among K-pop idols in all aspects.
Jonghyun, Sulli, and Hara’s deaths are a lesson to the industry. Their names deserve to be respected and celebrated. And not to be used as an escape pass for those who messed up.
If you know someone who’s considering self-harm or suicide, you may call the National Mental Health Crisis Hotline at 1553 (Luzon-wide, landline toll-free), 0966-351-4518 or 0917-899-USAP (8727) for Globe/TM users, or 0908-639-2672 for Smart users.
Banner and thumbnail phots from SM Entertainment and DSP Entertainment