Friday, December 01, 2023

Drug scandals and why celebrities are held to such high standards in South Korea

A recent article at Korea Pro by Chris Tharp (author of this excellent memoir), titled “Unpacking South Korea’s strict drug policy amid celebrity scandals,” examines societal attitudes toward drug use by celebrities and raises an important question as to “why so many South Koreans seem to hold celebrities to such high moral and ethical standards when, in Western countries, public figures are not usually held to such standards.”

It seeks answers from PNU professor CedarBough Saeji, who has spent a great deal of time studying K-Pop fandom, summarizing them as follows:

when feelings of personal aspirations and closeness induced by parasocial relationships combine with the far-reaching nature of social media platforms, allegations of drug abuse can often lead to South Korean fans feeling betrayed and questioning their idols’ integrity or worthiness, thus profoundly affecting the fan base.

Chris also sought input from me about the history of South Korea’s drug laws, but he informed me apologetically that this material was cut by the editor. What I sent him would be a bit of work to edit into a blog post, but I did want to write a few paragraphs laying out why, from a historical perspective, I think celebrities in South Korea are held to such high moral and ethical standards.

One reason for this is that in the past, entertainers – meaning those who earned a living through performing, rather than those taking part in, say, musical performances during local festivals or while working – came from the lowest social strata. As was noted in this 2006 NYT article about the hugely successful film “King and Clown,” which was about  Joseon-era traveling performers, 

One person the director consulted was Kim Gi Bok, 77, who is considered the last surviving itinerant clown. Mr. Kim was amused at the attention he had gotten because of the film. “Before, we were treated as beggars, but now we are considered traditional artists[.]”

Gisaeng might be seen today as a few rungs above itinerant performers, but they were tainted in many peoples’ eyes by their association with the provision of sexual services. 

This caused issues during the initial rise of popular culture in urban Korea during the colonial period, leading to people in the early 1930s denouncing the negative effects of radio because “Drunken songs with corrupt lyrics from the mouths of kisaeng come into our homes every night…to great harm and spiritual corruption,” leading to “struggles in households all over Korea… between fathers who hate the sounds of the new songs and want more traditional songs and their sons…who want to hear Western music.” All of this prompted the question, “Should we not be cultivating the cultural consciousness of the masses?”*  

This gives some hint as to how entertainers were perceived, and even then their private lives were scrutinized by news media. Though working as an entertainer is certainly seen in a better light today than it was in the 1930s, elements of past attitudes linger, and media scrutiny has only intensified. 

One reason for this can be found in the question “Should we not be cultivating the cultural consciousness of the masses?” This raises the other issue that goes beyond entertainers to the role of entertainment itself. As Haksoon Yim’s article “Cultural Identity And Cultural Policy In South Korea,” put it, “The arts have… come to be seen as an integral part of cultivating morality.” 

Or, as ROK Minister of Culture and Communications Sin Beom-sik described youth culture, or mass culture, in 1970, it was “something that emerges healthily in the mass media in a spirit of assigning tasks to citizens and lighting the way forward for the nation.” 

Yim further described how the South Korean state perceived and promoted mass culture: 

Park [Chung-hee]’s government differentiated “sound” culture from “unsound” culture. The term “soundness” was strategically used to enlighten and mobilize people for the political purpose of Park’s government. Park’s government sought to promote a “sound” culture conducive to anticommunism, nationalism, traditional morality and state-led economic development strategy. [...]

[S]ince the 1980s, culture and the arts have been considered to be a solution to social problems. Governments have tended to attribute social problems to the deserted spiritual world and the confused ethics caused by rapid economic growth. Thus, the government has stressed that the enrichment of the spiritual world by culture and arts was necessary to counteract the negative effects of materialism and commercialism. This demonstrates that cultural policy has considered the moral mission of culture and the arts. Culture and the arts have been mobilized as a cement of social cohesion.

Olga Federenko has highlighted how this even affects the advertising industry (that link is to her thesis; her highly-recommended book is here), noting that

in South Korea, the marketing instrumentality of advertising is subordinated to the ethos of public interest, and both advertising consumers and producers strive for advertising that promotes humanist values and realizes democratic ideals, even if it jeopardizes the commercial interests of advertisers.

Also, beyond previous attitudes towards entertainers and official perceptions of the role of entertainment in society, the first time drugs and entertainers were really linked in news media on a wide scale was the marijuana scandal of 1975, which I looked at here, and which was used by Park Chung-hee’s government at the height of its authoritarianism (and deployed along with extensive song bans) to enforce morals and silence the slightest hint of defiance (let alone dissent) that might appear in entertainment media. This lesson reverberates into the present, shaping attitudes toward marijuana use in general and drug use by celebrities, as well as making it clear to entertainers that when it comes to politics, they should keep their goddamned mouths shut. Almost 50 years later – and even 30 years after the arrival of democracy and greater freedom of speech (marred, to be fair, by Park II's artist blacklist) – entertainers continue to steer clear of political commentary unless they feel their opinion is a very, very popular one, such as during the candlelight demonstrations in 2002, 2008, and 2017. Only when there is a clear alignment in political opinion between those opinions felt personally and those articulated as the will of the people (the present day mandate of heaven?) will some entertainers take the risk of speaking out.

* Michael Robinson, “Broadcasting, Cultural Hegemony, and Colonial Modernity in Korea, 1924-1945,” in Colonial Modernity in Korea, ed. Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 65, 67.