K-pop — synchronized dance routines, bright costumes, catchy tunes and a heaping dose of stage-managed pouts and preening — is wildly popular in South Korea and perhaps the country’s premier cultural brand.

But now, South Koreans are being forced to abandon long-held assumptions about their homegrown music industry — which built a global fan base around its boyish stars and their carefully cultivated, clean-cut image. Some of K-pop’s biggest names have been charged in recent months with drugging and raping women and running a prostitution racket.

The allegations against the singers threaten the nonthreatening image that makes K-pop tick.

Most of those accused have denied the allegations, but that hasn’t stemmed the shock. K-pop fans — many of them teenage girls — are boycotting their former heroes in what has become a South Korean version of #MeToo outrage. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition to the presidential office demanding a full-scale investigation.

“I couldn’t believe my star boy exploited women in such a lurid and degrading manner,” said Cho Yeon-joo, who once admired K-pop group Big Bang and skipped school to attend its concerts.

Reports of sex crimes by Big Bang singer Lee Seung-hyun have ended her decade-long love for the band, she said. Lee has denied the allegations

Big Bang performs in Seoul in 2012. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Big Bang performs in Seoul in 2012. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Damage to the industry’s squeaky-clean appeal “could rock the image of ‘Hallyu’ as a whole,” the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial in March, using the term for the so-called Korean Wave of products, including elaborate skin-care regimes.

Seoul-listed entertainment stocks most exposed to the scandal have slumped as the accusations began to roll out.

At the center of the scandal is Big Bang’s Lee, better known as Seungri, and the Burning Sun nightclub he part-owned in Seoul’s glitzy Gangnam district. (Yes, the place of Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”)

Prosecutors allege the club was a haven for date-rape drugs and that it offered illegal prostitution services for VIP customers.

Lee is under investigation for allegations of prostitution, drug abuse and filming women in sex acts without their consent. The case was referred to prosecutors last month, but no date has been announced for legal proceedings.

“I should have acted with more responsibility,” he told the audience at a concert earlier this year. “Hope you could at least enjoy the show. . . . I am grateful and sorry.”

The scandal has grown to ensnare numerous K-pop stars, who were allegedly part of a group chat that included videos of sex acts, according to reports in South Korea media.

Other K-pop stars, including Roy Kim, a singer-songwriter and a recent graduate of Georgetown University, are under investigation by the South Korean police for allegedly sharing an explicit photo in the group chat.

“First and foremost, I apologize to my fans and the public for causing concern,” Kim told reporters in April. “I will faithfully face the investigation.”

The chief executive of Lee’s record label, YG Entertainment, resigned last month and apologized to fans after being accused of trying to cover up charges against the firm’s singers. Police also allege he solicited prostitutes for foreign investors.

Outrage over the stars’ alleged actions is also fueling a national debate about the status of women in one of Asia’s most gender-unequal societies. South Korea ranked 115th out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report last year, which measures disparities in economic participation, education, health and political empowerment.

The stars’ actions in resorting to rape drugs and prostitution are “a telling example of how women are routinely treated as sexual commodities in South Korea’s male chauvinistic culture,” said Kwon-Kim Hyun-young, a women’s studies scholar and visiting professor at Korea National University of Arts.

“Girls in South Korea grow up admiring and loving K-pop boy bands,” she added. “The misogynistic behavior of male K-pop stars who enjoy financial and popular support from mostly female fans, is a shocking hypocrisy and an act of betrayal.”

Cho Yeon-joo shows Bing Bang records and merchandise she collected when she was a fan of the band. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)
Cho Yeon-joo shows Bing Bang records and merchandise she collected when she was a fan of the band. (Min Joo Kim/The Washington Post)

In May, hundreds of women rallied near the Burning Sun nightclub to call for a rigorous investigation into the scandal. The rally’s organizers accused YG Entertainment of profiting from a network of nightclubs that systematically abused and exploited women.

In response to the petition to President Moon Jae-in, Police Chief Min Gab-ryong said the force had conducted a three-month investigation to root out crimes targeting women, leading to 920 arrests. Police will “follow up with rigorous measures to crack down on illicit behaviors that are of immediate concern to women’s safety,” he said.

Cho says she still has fond memories of the group from her teenage years. But the 26-year-old graduate student says she can never look at her former idols the same way.

“The boy bands still appear charming. But the sex scandals traumatized me so deeply that I can never go back to liking them,” she said.

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