[Op-Ed] Underbelly of the ‘Korean Wave’ by Jasper Kim

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).

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[NEWS] K-ola: Corruption in Korean pop music

WITH its over-reliance on manufactured teen pop, and a leave-nothing-to-chance managerial style reminiscent of Phil Spector (minus the murder), there are obvious parallels between “K-Pop” and the American music industry of the 1950s and 60s. And perhaps now another box can be checked: the practice of bribing one’s way onto the charts. That’s payola, or 증회 in Korean.

Twenty-nine people, mainly radio and cable-TV staff, have been arrested on suspicion of accepting cash payments in return for airplay or fraudulent chart positions. New artists and their managers, keen to start their careers off with a hit, were the most frequent customers: Incheon Metropolitan Police believe that between April 2009 and May of this year, around a hundred wannabe singers paid a total of 150m won ($143,000) to several producers and the chairman of a cable-TV company. Such sums are dwarfed by the 400m won or so allegedly collected by the operator of a website that compiles a chart based on the number of radio plays each single receives. According to police, the unnamed 60-year-old took the money from singers and pop managers, promising six-month stays in his dubious top ten, for a price of 38m won each.

Others received money for songs that nobody ever heard: six employees of one radio station apparently fiddled with playlists in order to add songs to the charts which had never actually been aired. This pay-to-play(-or-not) scandal is especially unfortunate given the banner year that the Korean entertainment industry has been enjoying. Successful K-Pop concerts as far away as Paris have driven the local press into a frenzy, and prompted ordinary housewives to pour their money into shares of labels like SM Entertainment, the price chart of which now resembles that of an internet stock circa 1999.

Corruption though is the one problem that this country seems unable to stamp out. This year, on top of the usual civil service and chaebol naughtiness, no fewer than 46 players from the Korean football league have been arrested over match-fixing. For its extraordinary economic progress and rapid democratisation, South Korea is a smash hit of a nation—but in terms of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, there is a real danger of an imminent drop from the top 40.

Source: The Economist
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