K-Pop's slave contracts - a glance at South Korea's entertainment industry

By Daniele Pestilli on May 21, 2012
Aspiring K-Pop star, Elaine Yuki Wong (left). Credits: elaineyukiwong.com

Given the fierce competition in post-academic life, South Korea’s schooling system is known to be one of the most rigorous in the world: after studying at school, it is common for students to attend hagwons, or cramming schools. The more privileged also hire tutors to learn to play an instrument, prepare for an exam or improve their fluency in a foreign language. Those who find the time may also undertake taekwondo (a Korean martial art), swimming, or some other physical activity before doing their homework and starting all over again the following day.

Korea’s military, too, is known for being harsh and at times, bizarre. During winter military drills, troops go topless, throwing snow at each other while screaming or plunging into ice-water to perform cold-weather training in weather that hits lows of -22° C.

But harshest of all seems to be Korea’s pop industry, which trains and regulates the lives of its subjects to such an extent that some, like the Singaporean 23 year old Elaine Yuki Wong, could not help but leave.

As Elaine writes in a blog post, she is “not allowed to share [information on] the training [in Korea] or anything regarding [her] girl band – what [she’s] gone through, what they taught, [what her] schedule is like.” However, she asserts that she decided to quit due to health concerns and the overall conditions in Korea “being too tough.” She also admits to have broken down lots of times, not being able to take it.

Nevertheless, some good did come of it. During her ascent to “going-to-be superstar,” despite the extremely rigorous training and diet plans that entirely controlled her life “as though [she were leading a life] how they want it to be,” she gladly reminisces the special times when she danced with her band, “sang together, ran together, exercised together, slept together, washed [their] hostel together, cooked together, went for concerts together, took photos together … cried and laughed together.”

She writes, although she looks the same, this experience has changed her deep down: whereas she was quick to “laugh things off” in the past, she no longer does. And to her, this newly acquired seriousness is a good thing. Living in a foreign country where she couldn’t speak the language was hard, and despite her refusing this once-in-a-lifetime chance to become a star, this bright young girl expresses gratefulness for being able to “do whatever I want to, go wherever I want to and meet whoever I wish to.”

In a penetrating last sentence, she writes, “Something I learned: Life’s not about fame. It’s about being happy.”

Aspiring K-Pop artist Elaine Yuki Wong
Aspiring K-Pop artist Elaine Yuki Wong. Image credits: Elaine Yuki Wong

Being happy. It is hard to keep fighting for this when the industry behind you is worth more than $3bn a year.

In an interview with K-Pop star, Joy “Raina” on Al Jazeera, the young girl says “before we debut, we don't have phones. We cannot call or hang out with friends. Of course no boyfriends.” Their rigorous contracts cast them into the position of puppets rather than individuals with very human needs. They are serfs to a system that is so big and lucrative that management is often taken over by greed: for instance, K-Pop band Kara claimed their concerts were being overbooked, and their fair share of profits was being denied to them.

South Korea’s entertainment industry is becoming increasingly lucrative as its pretty boys and girls, catchy tunes and dance moves cajole fans in Japan, the U.S. and also Europe. According to the BBC, K-Pop star Rain was voted most influential person of the year in Times magazine, and the boy band Big Bang saw a meteoric rise in the U.S. iTunes store, reaching the top 10 album chart.

However, as Elaine’s story suggests and as the BBC reiterates, “some of K-Pop's biggest success stories were built on the back of so-called slave contracts, which tied its trainee-stars into long exclusive deals, with little control or financial reward.”

Dissatisfied with their preposterously demanding contract, one of the most successful bands in Korea, Dong Bang Shin Ki, sued their management company in 2011. An entry on The JYJ Files summarizes the March 15 hearing between SM Entertainment and the boy band. The explanation for the comically low earnings they were receiving was due to “overhead expenses,” which were revealed to be “snacks, daily expenses of SM executives and staff, parking fees, cold medicine, meals, entertainers’ transportation, rent, concert agents’ costs, various taxes and expenses that should have obviously been covered and borne by SM.”

The blog explains SM’s claim that in 2008, out of the total 14.7 billion Won (US $12.6bn) in earnings, only 1 billion ($857,000) came from Dong Bang Shin Ki – the rest came from other groups such as CSJH, BoA and the Trax. Out of the total 3.4 billion Won ($3 million) earned in Dong Bang Shin Ki’s world tours, SM “subtracted 900 million won ($771,000) as agents’ fees.” As the blogger comments, the more active the group, the more money they lose: “how is there anyone that thinks this makes any sense?”

Unfortunately, the “long exclusive deals” do not only refer to 14-hour work days.

Korean boy-band Super Junior
Korean boy-band Super Junior. Image credits: FrANk.H ^.^

K Bites writes, the contract at SM Entertainement of one of the members of Girls’ Generation, Yoona, was 13 years long – just like TVXQ’s. Super Junior’s and SHINee’s members have contracts that range from 5 to 13 years.

The blog quotes a member of Super Junior as saying

Even if I wanted to move to another agency, the time left [for my contract to expire] and the compensation I would have to pay would be too big to handle. We have to split our income into 13 so we don’t get as much as people think we get.

Upon the Fair Trade Committee’s inspection of some 20 entertainment agencies, many unlawful clauses were found in the artists’ contracts, such as “The Star must tell the Agency of their exact location at all times,” or “If the Star decides to cancel his/her contract, the Star must stop all activities relating to or resulting from the Star’s celebrity status.” Whereas the agency is well protected in these contracts, as Seoul Beats evinces, trainees can be kicked out at any point if they show signs of under-performance.

The training sessions have no fixed duration: whereas Wonder Girls member, Ye Eun, trained for merely three months, 2AM member, Jo Kwon, trained for seven years.

K Bites explains how, often, the stars making more money must compensate for those who make less, or for the teens who are trained from a young age but eventually fail to make the final cut. Some teens make it, sacrificing their schooling and social lives for a dream they may not well understand at such tender ages. One such teen was artist Jaejoong, who left his family at fifteen to try his luck at becoming a pop star, working several jobs to maintain himself in the process. Given his dedication, he eventually enjoyed great levels of success.

However, what he and many other Korean entertainers cannot forget, is the incredibly restrictive and demanding lifestyle they were put through before debuting. As South Korea becomes increasingly popular for exporting entertainment and ideals of handsome men and beautiful girls, one wonders if the entertainment industry will also become popular for its severity, unfairness and excessive greed.