Imagine a world where slavery, often involving underage and unsuspecting victims, is not only condoned, but legally enforced. This is not fiction, but fact, in one of Asia’ most prolific entertainment export-oriented country ― South Korea (Asia’s fourth largest economy and OECD member state) ― involving the so-called “Korean Wave.”
The term “Korean Wave,” (or “hallyu”), which began sweeping parts of Asia from the late 1990s, creating new possibilities for promising stars to gain fame and fortune (in a collectivist Confucian culture where what others think is a notable determinant of an individual’s self worth). Such new emerging industry ― Korea’s entertainment industry ― has led to the rise of a wave of girl and boy pop “idol” bands, such as Kara, Wonder Girls, Big Bang, Super Junior, and TVXQ.
However, with the rising phenomenon of the “Korean Wave,” we see signs that the underbelly of it may not be as pretty as seen from above. This is because a notable portion of such aspiring young talent are being forced into the signing of long-term “slave contracts” with little remuneration in which the bargaining power and terms and conditions of the contract are grossly and disproportionally in favor of the entertainment agency.
Often such slave contracts involve a so-called quid pro quo whereby the entertainment agency provides entertainer-related expenses (food, housing, singing and dancing lessons, sometimes with plastic surgery procedures) in exchange for dubious and over-the -top royalty schemes for the agency. Such contracts also often have embedded exclusivity provisions, which preclude the young artist from contracting with other competitor agencies. .
The economic benefits derived from the Korean Wave amount to those from exports to China, Japan and other in countries in Asia (according to the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism). As a result, little economic incentive or national interest has existed to “pierce behind the corporate veil” (a legal term of art denoting the initial deference given to commercial actors in their business transactions) involving such contracts.
On July 31, 2009, three members of TVXQ (a highly popular five-member boy band) argued to terminate their earlier-agreed-to exclusive contract with SM Entertainment (one of South Korea’s largest and most prominent entertainment agencies). TVXQ’s claims revealed that they had agreed to a 13-year contract (which did not include time the two-year mandatory military service required of all male Korean citizens).