South Korea's Corruption, Exposed by Burning Sun

South Korea's Corruption, Exposed by Burning Sun

CedarBough T. Saeji
CedarBough T. Saeji

The biggest news in South Korea remains the Burning Sun scandal. It has been sending shock waves through South Korean society for the past few weeks, exposing the culture of misogyny among young male celebrities, many of whom have been caught bragging about sexual conquests and sharing illegally made photos and videos of intercourse.

But beyond the cavalier and criminal ways that some of them have treated women, the scandal has also exposed a range of additional illegalities. The Burning Sun case brought to the fore issues of sex work and drug use in South Korea, not to mention corruption that implicates entertainment industry figures as well as police, prosecutors, media companies and even high-level politicians.  

Although the Seoul District Police are expected to hand down their final recommendations for prosecution of Seungri—the K-pop star at the center of the scandal—in early May, it is likely that questions about the behaviors of South Korea’s elite will continue to reverberate throughout 2019.

In the end, the real damage from the scandal is not to K-pop only, but also to the reputation of the country’s governing class, who have always had difficulty with gaining the public’s respect. The revelations have confirmed the belief, held by many, that South Korean elite easily get away with wrongdoings, even when ordinary citizens are held to strict moral and legal standards.


Sex and the Law

In fact, the Burning Sun scandal has served to remind the public of two other scandals from the recent past. The first was centered on a relatively unknown actress named Jang Ja-yeon, who committed suicide in 2009 in the final stretch of shooting for that year’s hit drama Boys Over Flowers. She left behind handwritten notes along with a list of very powerful men—including senior management of a major newspaper—that she allegedly had been forced to have sex with by her management agency. The investigation, however, ended when prosecutors concluded insufficient evidence supported her claim.

In 2013, then-deputy justice minister Kim Hak-eui had to step down after only six days in his post following the release of a video that seemed to show him having sex at the country house of a construction tycoon. Kim, a prosecutor by profession, was accused of receiving these sexual services, at least some of which may have been non-consensual, as a form of bribe. Despite abundant digital evidence, the prosecutors decided not to pursue charges claiming that the key video was not of high enough quality to prove the identity of the person in the video. (Recently a broadcaster aired much higher-quality footage, which appeared to show without doubt that Kim was in fact the man on tape.)

Just as the Burning Sun scandal started to, literally, burn up, authorities turned their attention to these two previous scandals involving Jang and Kim. Although the Jang case has so far had only one former actress—also previously managed by the same agency as Jang—speak out as a witness to the allegations raised in Jang’s suicide notes, the office of prosecutors formed a special committee to investigate the case.

Then in mid-April prosecutors arrested the former construction company boss who is accused of providing women and leaking the sex video starring Kim, and Kim himself may also be detained and charged. (As the spotlight turned on Kim, he attempted to fly to Thailand for unspecified reasons but was identified at the airport and turned away by immigration officials; now he is barred from leaving the country.)

Why the timing? Some members of the public have pointed out that the Jang and Kim cases are damaging mainly to the current conservative opposition. Many of the figures whose names are apparently on Jang’s suicide notes are business tycoons (and the business community doesn’t have the best relationship with the current government), not to mention that the newspaper implicated in the Jang scandal is known for its dislike of the current center-left president, Moon Jae-in.

And Kim Hak-eui was appointed deputy justice minister when previous president Park Geun-hye—a conservative—was in power. The justice minister at the time was Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is now leader of the conservative Liberty Korea Party and widely expected to run for the presidency in 2022. Some figures within the ruling Minjoo Party have sought to cast Hwang as part of the cover-up that allowed Kim to get away with his crimes six years ago (though without enough corroborating evidence).

The fact that prosecutors looked the other ways when the scandals first broke and conservatives were in power, but now rush to uncover the truth under a president from the other side of the political spectrum, has given the impression that prosecutors carry out justice selectively, depending on which political party is in charge.

The Burning Sun case has actually been bad for the government, which has been attempting to reform the powerful office of prosecutors—which has been embroiled in many corruption scandals over its long history of existence and has never really liked the center-left Minjoo Party. Moon Jae-in had wanted to give the power of investigating crimes—now shared between the police and prosecutors—exclusively to the police. But after assertions emerged that Seungri’s club might have received special treatment from the local police, who chose to overlook crime on the premise, the government’s rationale for empowering the police lost much of its persuasiveness.

With the Jang and Kim cases back in the spotlight, the credibility of prosecutors is against under scrutiny, and that is a good thing for the government’s reform initiative. But the damage is already done: the overall effect of the scandal has been to discredit South Korean law enforcement authorities of all stripes—police, prosecutors and the government alike.


Sex in Business

Another ugly truth laid bare by the Burning Sun scandal is the common use of sex to sweeten business alliances. Jang’s management agency and the construction company currying Kim’s favor used women to gain preferential treatment from powerful men. Seungri appears to have been no different, providing sex in return for investment.

Based on evidence in the form of chats on South Korea’s popular messenger app KakaoTalk, Seungri seems to have procured women to engage in sex with foreign businessmen who might invest in his ventures.

According to these chat transcripts, Seungri insisted that employees and associates (help) find women who would entertain such potential investors. This in itself is not unusual in South Korea, where cultivating business ties or cementing a business deal has long involved a visit to a “room salon” where young women ply guests with drinks and, for additional fees, sexual services. While buying and selling sex is illegal, the government has not been able to eradicate this practice, and many times the authorities choose to prosecute female sex workers over male clients.

Even in the Burning Sun scandal, prosecutors have charged seventeen women for sex work performed in connection to the saga.

As for Seungri, since openly employing the services of a room salon as a celebrity is out of the question, the chats indicate that he was searching for escorts who were willing to work in private. Prosecutors recently announced that they had found evidence of Seungri paying for a hotel suite in Seoul to host a Japanese businessman, and that sex workers had been dispatched to this very hotel suite.

In celebrating his 30th birthday in 2017 on Palawan, a Philippines island famed as a beach destination, Seungri invited potential investors and female employees of South Korean room salons. (He has denied inviting the women to have sex with other guests, saying that he paid only for their travel expenses and made no request for sexual services.)  

While the degree to which Seungri seems to have used sex to advance his business agenda is extravagant to say the least, the scandal hints at the widespread blasé attitude in South Korea toward the use of sex and women in business situations, to the point that some middle managers don’t think much of taking subordinates to room salons for male-bonding.

Given the prominent coverage of Seungri’s case, it’s hard to imagine that the government will not prosecute him thoroughly. Yet will prosecution of one pop star for hiring sex workers, or additional investigations into the Kim and Jang case change South Korean business practices? As long as South Korean businessmen perform and condone illegal acts as a matter of course, then corruption will not easily disappear. In addition, this widespread acceptance of sex work in the context of business practices is part of the glass ceiling for women in corporate South Korea. Being unable to participate in such male-centric situations, female employees are excluded from opportunities to form key business connections, or seal deals that can further their careers.


Elite Drug Use

Seungri may also find himself charged in connection to drug sales and use that took place at Burning Sun (he himself tested negative on drugs after the investigation began). Even today the legal ramifications of being caught with drugs in South Korea were severe even for marijuana, as under South Korean law all drugs are equal. Drug use in the country, however, has been increasing, with manufactured opiates and methamphetamine available for sale online. And many such users appear to be among privileged classes.

When the Burning Sun scandal came to light, it included evidence that drugs were used and dealt on site, and the police were criticized heavily for turning a blind eye. As if to compensate, within days a massive series of drug busts and arrests began.  At this point the drug scandal has implicated not just pop stars like Seungri (because of drug use and dealing at Burning Sun), but also celebrities not tied to Burning Sun such as JYJ’s Park Yoo-chun, television personality Robert Holley, and scions of South Korea’s richest business families, including Hyundai’s grandson (whose full name has not been disclosed), SK’s grandson Chey Young-geun, and Namyang Dairy heiress Hwang Ha-na.

But the uncomfortable question remains: If children of the super rich have been taking drugs for so long, how could the police not have known about it? Were the authorities ignoring the crime or were they simply incompetent? Public sentiment is in favor of the former possibility. Hwang was investigated back in 2015 for drug-related crimes but let go without being charged. She reportedly bragged at the time to her friend that her parents were friends with powerful people and that she would never be punished.


An Unfair Society    

The Burning Sun case is a mix of personal corruption, illegal business practices (there is tax evasion and embezzlement as well—about which I won’t say much for brevity’s sake) and collusion between a celebrity and law enforcement forces. The KakaoTalk chat transcripts featuring male celebrity regulars at Burning Sun disclosed this chummy relationship. One conversation alluded to Choi Jong-hoon of K-pop group FT Island avoiding arrest for drinking and driving thanks to help from a police officer. Other chats apparently made references to a highly ranked law enforcement officer “handling” problems for Seungri. It is anger at this unfairness, as much as any other factor in this case, that has made Seungri continual front page news.

But ordinary South Koreans don’t express much hope that this will lead to a bigger change. They believe that Seungri couldn’t have gotten away with so much for so long without some bigger patron behind the scenes, someone at the very top of South Korean society.

After all, artists managed by YG (which managed Seungri until dropping him recently from its roster due to the scandal) often find themselves in hot water, and yet those cases have often been handled quickly with only light or no publishment. With the government, in the form of the National Pension Service, invested in YG stocks, were YG artists untouchable until the Burning Sun scandal became too big to sweep under the rug?

What seems like preferential treatment for YG artists has long fueled rumors of powerful support behind the scene. Some of this distrust has to do with oft-circulating ideas about how the elite use eollon peullei—literally “media play”—to influence public opinion. It means selective disclosure of news—for example a celebrity scandal—to cover up an even greater political scandal.

After stories about drug use by Hwang Ha-na, Park Yoo-chun and Robert Holley broke, the public was mesmerized by the details (especially in the case of Holley, who is said by domestic media to have shaved his whole body in the past to avoid detection of past drug use, and even had a male lover with him while taking drugs). But soon many South Koreans charged online that these arrests are being made and information leaked to the public by the deep state in collusion with media in order to deflect attention away from some unidentified bigger scandal.   

All this goes to show why at this point in  South Korean history so many are willing to believe that ordinary people of South Korea never have a chance, and that behind-the-scenes decisions by callous CEOs, irresponsible leaders and corrupt officials who are cost-cutting, back-scratching, and brown-nosing—all of them in bed together—are harming the nation and the public, as in the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster which claimed more than 300 lives, most of them high school students.  

Meanwhile, Ordinary Koreans are struggling with a sluggish economy, a high youth unemployment rate, and a poor social safety net. Some lash out in violence, blaming their actions on societal conditions. Yet heads of powerful business families that run business conglomerates can be caught engaging in bribery, embezzlement and other misdeeds, and receive only suspended or short prison sentences (and even then presidential pardons are ready to be doled out under the pretext of helping the national economy).

While hardly comparable to the misdeeds committed by major South Korean companies, Seungri’s drinking establishment Monkey Museum operated for three years in a residential neighborhood even though this type of business is prohibited in such areas. He registered it as a restaurant, paying lower taxes and business registrations fees. The KakaoTalk chats show that Seungri was even prepared to bribe inspectors to keep Monkey Museum open.

Anger at the notion that the powerful live with impunity and constantly get away with it is boiling below the surface. That angry beast has been unleashed by this Burning Sun scandal. And that’s what makes this story not just about K-pop but about the larger state of contemporary South Korea as a whole.


Cover image: Seungri appears in response to a summon by the office of prosecutors in Seoul on May 1, 2019. (Source: Yonhap News TV YouTube channel)

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