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South Korea has enjoyed tremendous success exporting its modern culture, especially so-called K-pop music. But that industry is now facing its biggest crisis to date - a lurid scandal involving sexual violence and official corruption. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the problems behind the scandal are deep-rooted.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Twenty-eight-year-old Lee Seung-hyun, stage name Seungri, was the youngest member of Big Bang, the boy band that helped K-pop take off. He was also an aspiring actor, a suit-and-tie-wearing proprietor of a noodle shop franchise, nightclubs and music and dance schools. Here's one of his hits from 2008.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRONG BABY")
SEUNGRI: (Singing) Hey, sexy. Crack, crack...
KUHN: He is now under investigation for procuring prostitutes for investors at a nightclub in Seoul's posh Gangnam district. He's also been charged with embezzlement and tax evasion. And he was allegedly in an online chat group with another celebrity named Jung Joon-young, who has been accused of sharing around a dozen secretly filmed sex videos. A whistleblower got hold of these videos along with evidence of police collusion and reported them to authorities through an attorney named Bang Jeong-hyun. In an interview, Bang says the evidence points to a mafia-like enterprise involving K-pop stars, club owners and police.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEONG-HYUN BANG: (Through interpreter) The collusion with public authority, especially the police, was not a single incident. The police had their backs frequently and in close coordination for their criminal activities and business operations.
KUHN: Five K-pop stars and six police officers have been charged so far in the case. Seungri has apologized, retired from the K-pop business and says he intends to clear his name. President Moon Jae-in weighed in last month, saying that if the truth is not revealed, we cannot say it's a just society. Women's rights groups, meanwhile, have denounced the whole K-pop establishment. Kim Soo-hee is director of the Seoul-based coalition Korea Women's Associations United.
SOO-HEE KIM: (Through interpreter) As the scandal unfolded, we realized there is a whole industry that routinely objectifies women's bodies with drugging, rape, sexual assault and sexual bribery and that the law enforcement agencies that should punish those crimes are, in fact, part of it.
KUHN: Despite the outrage among some Korean women, none of South Korea's popular girl groups have voiced their opinions on the scandal. Then again, says Choi Ji-eun, a Seoul-based journalist who has covered K-pop, Korean society does not welcome female celebrities who speak out on political and social issues.
JI-EUN CHOI: (Through interpreter) We cannot really burden them with the duty to speak up because it's extremely difficult for them to do so. But I am hoping that, as fellow citizens, that they can contribute to solidarity.
KUHN: Shareholders have threatened to sue Seungri's record label YG Entertainment for immoral conduct. Author Joo Won-kyu finds such views ironic. He went undercover in the nightclubs of Gangnam in order to write about them. He argues that South Koreans expectations of celebrities set them up to be disillusioned.
WON-KYU JOO: (Through interpreter) On the one hand, they expect a very high level of morality from K-pop stars. They're very conservative about the stars' romantic relationships. On the other, there's an expectation that if you make it as a K-pop star, then you can be forgiven for any kind of behavior.
KUHN: However society may judge Seungri, he reportedly faces up to three years in jail if convicted.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.