Extra! Korea

March 25, 2010

(Updated) How K-pop trainees are (mis)treated

Filed under: celebrities, music, rapid cultural change, youth — extrakorea @ 2:41 pm

Twenty-seven years ago, a plurality (23.3%) of Korean schoolchildren wanted to be scientists, followed by teachers, judges, doctors, and artists. Nowadays, 41.6% of kids want to be singers when they grow up. Considering that an additional 8.5% want to be actors, that means that over 50% of kids want to be entertainers. Those that want to be scientists amount to only a little over 1%.

Nowadays, groups manufactured by the star factories of SM, JYP, YG, and DSP Entertainment dominate the music scene, leading to large numbers of young people to enroll in “star academies,” hogwons for future pop music hopefuls, which cost trainees from 500,000 to 2,000,000 won per month (US$1=W1,137). On average, trainees attend for four or five years before being allowed to debut (if they debut at all). In addition to the monetary costs are other, more intangible ones.

During that process, the company may require the aspiring star to live in a boarding house with colleagues (or rivals), go on a strict diet with regular weight checks and put in more than 10 hours of practice a day.

[ snip ]

Park, the manager of Beast at Cube Entertainment, explained, “When registering as a trainee with our company, the trainee makes an agreement with us that they will comply with a set of rules along with an acknowledgement that we cannot guarantee when they will be able to make their debut as a full-fledged singer.

Park Bom (Bom), Sandara Park (Dara) and the other two members of 2NE1 are forbidden from having boyfriends. That’s fine for, say, 15-year-old Minzy, but Bom and Dara are in their mid-20s.
The members of After School were forbidden from having cell phones. Ironically, Uee (Ms. “Honey Thighs“) appeared in commercials for cell phones. When this ironic fact became publicly known, their management relented and let them have cell phones.

“The toughest part is getting only five hours of sleep,” said a 16-year-old student. “I feel like I’m in hell every time I get up in the morning.”

Kahi, the most senior member of After School, once fell asleep right on national television. She’s not the only member that goes with little sleep.

Kahi revealed, “UEE only got 1-2 hours of sleep daily because of all her drama filmings, After School activities, and dance practices. Because of that, she falls asleep as soon as she gets home.”

And falling asleep in front of camera might not be as embarrassing as dozing off in a toilet cubicle.

She continues “when she was sleeping at the toilet, we had no idea where she was. So we kept searching the whole building for our leader. Suddenly our staff member said she fell asleep inside the cubicle.”

Eunjung responded, “Honestly, I fell asleep because I was so tired. But the seat was so comfortable and I didnt even smell any bad odors.”

I’ve nodded off while watching movies, riding the bus, studying in the library … but on a toilet seat?!

In fact, these no-holds-barred training regimens – and the hold they give managers over young performers’ careers – have caused numerous scandals over the years. Last year, when actress Jang Ja-yeon committed suicide after allegedly being forced to act as an escort for VIPs at the behest of her manager, it led to an investigation by the Fair Trade Commission, which found last July that most entertainment contracts, including those for idol groups, infringe on performer privacy and limit their ability to change agencies.

According to rumor —rumor!— the reason that Park Jae-beom was permanently kicked out of 2PM was because he divulged details of his “slave contract” to his friend during that infamous MySpace incident. JYP Entertainment finally stopped having “slave contracts” only in November, 2009, after such contracts had become such a big public issue.

One manager for the entertainers said, “The reason why the trainees are often punished and shouted at is so that they are driven to succeed in a very competitive industry.”

They can be punished like schoolchildren even after they successfully debut. Look at the way Park Jin-young treated members of 2PM not too long ago, making them kneel and hold up their arms.

Experts say it is worrying to see these budding entertainers grow up under such conditions and develop a distorted set of social values. Ji Jung-soon of the Bright Youth Center, said, “Young kids who want to be stars grow up being punished and pushed around, so if they become famous, they may become fixated on power and influence, while suffering from low self-esteem.”

The power that manager or producers wield over these group members seems to extend over every aspect of their private and public life:

“Every time we record a song, our boss Park Jin Young emphasizes that we should sing very emotionally. During those times, there are specific emotions that he assigns to each of us 2PM members. To me he said, ‘Taecyeon, you show anger. You show anger no matter what.’”

You’re told what emotion (not emotions, plural, but emotion, singular) to exhibit while performing?! What if I don’t want to be “anger”? What if I want to be … angst? Or schadenfreude? It’s almost like that scene from the movie Reservoir Dogs:

A: Here are your names. … and Mr. Pink.

B: Why am I Mr. Pink? … Why can’t we pick our own colors?

A: No way. … I pick. You’re Mr. Pink. Be thankful you’re not Mr. Yellow.

B: Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. P***y. How about if I’m Mr. Purple?

They don’t get any control over, say, lyrics either. Seo-hyun, of Girls’ Generation, was so uncomfortable with the lyrics of Oh! that she could hardly sing the song:

“The part where the lyrics go ‘Oppa I love you’ was really difficult for me to record. … No matter how much I practiced, when it came time to record, I couldn’t sing it!”

After letting out a sigh Seohyun said, “The lyrics were just so embarrassing that I couldn’t do it at all.”


Artists also have no control over what clothing they will wear

T-ara members HyoMin and EunJung participated in the filming of SBS Strong Heart recently and they said, “When we first received the animal costumes during our first performance, we were really embarrassed and don’t know what to do with it.”

T-ara had followed cute concept with various animal costumes and gloves for their performance of ‘Bo Peep Bo Peep’. They added, “There is something we have to clarify. There are many who raised their doubts about how our stylists are antis. The truth is our codi unnies have no wrong in this. All the costumes were ideas of our boss.”

… or dances that they will perform

Ga-In also shared her feelings on the Saucy Hip Swaying Dance in their song, “Abracadabra”. She said that when she first saw the choreography, she was so shocked by how racy and sexy the whole dance was.

… or who leads the group

Jo Kwon continued,

After “This Song” was released, JYP decided I should be the leader of 2AM for marketing reasons.

… or which songs will be released as singles

She revealed that Lee Hyori had decided with ‘U-Go-Girl’ while their company boss had wanted the song ‘Mister Big’ as Lee Hyori’s 3rd album title song.

… or their lyrics or music

Everything about the Wonder Girls, from writing lyrics and composing music to costumes and choreography is controlled by Park’s magic hands.

… or even their music genre.

At first we [the Brown Eyed Girls] went with R&B, hip hop and ballad. This time, we felt that electronic should be our thing.

In the video below, the Wonder Girls are being interviewed. When asked about their favorite music, Yoobin replied that her favorite band is Muse, and that she likes rock.

Finally, there is this story, which should make anyone consider carefully about sending their daughters to these “star academies.”

Taeyeon explained, “During practice, there was a missed call from an unknown number waiting for me. Initially, I thought it was a prank call so I disregarded it. Later, I received a text message that read, “I am __ oppa.” He kept sending me text messages so, out of curiosity, I dialed his number using the office phone to confirm his true identity. It turned out that he really was the man that he claimed to be.”

According to Taeyeon, he is a famous celebrity that can easily be identified by his name alone. However, she has never met him face-to-face before.

She continued,

“He told me that he happened to find my number and asked if it was okay for him to contact me. Of course, I consented because he has always been a sunbae much older than I am.

Despite him being a sunbae with a large age gap, he continued to contact me. He would send me texts like, ‘Let’s meet sometime’ and ‘I’ll buy you some ice cream,’ almost like a child abductor

What was most upsetting, though, was the time when he called me in the middle of the night while he was drunk. He said he knew a lot about my private life by talking to the people around me. Hearing this, I grew really angry. I asked him, “Why are you being like this? There is no need for us to keep in contact any longer” and quickly hung up the phone. He replied a few weeks later with a text message that read, “If you plan on continuing your life as a celebrity, do you really think you can cut ties with me, just like that?”

Taeyeon’s confession shocked viewers, including fellow SNSD member Seohyun who shared that it was her first time hearing it as well.

As she wrapped up the story, Taeyeon expressed that she received a huge shock from this ordeal and wished that the mystery man would not create such a tramautic experience anymore to other hoobaes in the future.

(emphasis mine)

Tae-yeon certainly showed strength. It should be noted that she’s undoubtedly the best singer in Girls’ Generation, and that a young woman with less talent may have relented and ended up being like Jang Ja-yeon.


  1. […] Extra! Korea and SeoulBeats both provide excellent analyses of this Chousn Ilbo article of the above title, the latter of which begins thus: In a recent article from the Chosun Ilbo, author Choi Seung-hyun discusses Korea’s newest threat to their obedient, well-structured society: superstardom. It used to be so, that the country’s best and brightest aspired to be scientists and doctors, those time-honored traditional professions that would make any parent beam with pride; this is no longer the case, claims Choi. […]

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  2. This is going to be a long post.
    You can see how more and more young people in Korea want to be a star yet they probably don’t know the hardships of what those K-pop artists go through. They probably just see them and get inspired to be an entertainer because it’s fun and going to these star academies e.g SM Academy will debut very quickly. I wonder about the people who don’t debut and wait more than five years especially the ones who are probably over 20’s, it’s not like that they may not still have a chance but if you think of this way, the youngest a person can be now to debut is what…? 13 – 14.
    It’s kind of terrible how some of these young students only get less than six hours of sleep yet they are doing so to push for their dream yet, in reality there is possibly a slim chance of that happening so quickly in less than a year. And the fact that it gets so bad that some of these actors/actresses e.g. like the one from Boys Over Flowers who committed suicide shows how traumatic it can be to be an entertainer. I am still curious at why Jaebeom was kicked out of 2PM, perhaps that might be just a rumor like the drugs and getting a girl pregnant.
    Lyrics don’t surprise me. What about Junsu of 2PM or G-Dragon of Big Bang who want to have more say in composing and writing their own songs in the future? I feel sorry for them because like the scene from the movie Reservoir Dogs unfortunately, they don’t get that choice which is just…terrible. I didn’t even know Seohyun had trouble singing Oh! However I still get the idea it’s because she doesn’t really like guys and is only starting to get used to them because she’s on We Got Married.
    Clothing, lyrics, dating…no choice on anything, it’s all decided for them and slowly they are becoming robotic slaves and they are just humans. It’s strange how Jo Kwon is the leader of 2AM, I thought it was Changmin really.
    So Taeyeon got a call from a guy who could be an impersonator or child abductor…pretty bad the way I see it. This is DEFINITELY THE FIRST TIME I heard about this, kind of scary for these artists yet they are pretty much watched over 24 hours so they don’t really have much to care about ,right?

    Comment by NyNy — May 25, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  3. […] in New York came forward with some allegations that might be disconcerting in America, but are par for the course in South Korea, where the music business has become more business than music. Said tutor allegedly wrote a letter […]

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  4. […] of the Wonder Girls talked about something I’ve written about before: lack of sleep. As Park Ye Eun, 20, from popular girl group Wonder Girls says: ‘Being a star […]

    Pingback by Some K-pop trainees begin as young as 10 years old « Extra! Korea — July 7, 2010 @ 2:44 am

  5. […] the madness! Please, for the love of God, can`t we let kids be kids before throwing them into the meat-grinding corporate gears of the Korean music business? Leave a […]

    Pingback by New girl group has member in elementary school. Stop the madness! « Extra! Korea — August 6, 2010 @ 3:18 am

  6. […] these performers are when they begin training and debut, and how pitiless the Korean music industry can be. I’d be happier, though, if these kids were allowed to grow up first before being thrown into […]

    Pingback by Cube Entertainment has its performers meet with mental health specialists « Extra! Korea — August 8, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  7. […] trainees are under very stringent contracts, some as long as 13 years. Some contracts stipulate that if the trainee quits […]

    Pingback by Did H-Line Entertainment obliquely admit to pimping out an underage trainee? « Extra! Korea — October 13, 2010 @ 10:23 am

  8. […] to forcing an underage trainee into virtual prostitution? How about any of the other examples of trainees’ mistreatment? Or how about the recent survey that suggests that over 60% of female entertainers are pressured […]

    Pingback by Netizens apoplectic with fury at suggestion that Girls’ Generation may have done sexual favors « Extra! Korea — November 4, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  9. […] in the Korean music industry, costumes and other things are controlled by producers and managers.[15] Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post.Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by The Piggy Dolls: Not Just Another Girl Group « Streetwise in Seoul: Mini-essays about living in Korea — February 8, 2011 @ 10:41 am

  10. […] in the Korean music industry, costumes and other things are controlled by producers and managers.[15] GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

    Pingback by The Piggy Dolls: Not Just Another Girl Group « Streetwise in Seoul: Mini-essays about living in Korea — February 22, 2011 @ 3:10 am

  11. this is… in a way scary and ridiculous.
    I mean, all those singers who are SO very talented and have so many fans looking up to them, behind the scenes, are getting mistreated and abused and are linked to those ‘slave contracts’ and are controlled to do EVERYTHING.
    They can’t choose anything on their own.
    What i say is to let them have more freedom. I think they should let them write their own lyrics, wear what they want, sing what they want. I mean, yeah, they do have to have control over quite a bit of stuff still but they’re wayyy to held down and have no freedom. They’re only teenagers/young adults.
    After reading this, it makes me want to create my own entertainment there when i’m older and just ruin that whole trend or ‘thing’ that they havee with slave contracts, abusing/mistreaing their artists, and controling them on EVERY ASPECT of their life and do it completely different from what it is right now. who’s with me??
    I think that shall be my goal in life.

    Comment by amanda — February 23, 2011 @ 2:47 am

  12. Well even though it’s not right, but that’s what u get when u can easily become a trainee. Being a trainee doesn’t really require a lot of skills as they would give u extensive training anyway so the companies feel that they have given so many opportunities to normal kids like me and you so they should control them and give them money that’s not on a superstar level. For example if a person wants to be a singer the hard way it would be harder to become an idol or in the limelight but you will be rich. But if u wanna become a trainee they give u an easier chance to make it and when you do make it you become famouse and be living the dream of having ppl love u but you won’t really be earning lots of money and living a luxury life!

    Comment by Saju — July 23, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  13. This is not new tbh. Whenever you look at the upper tier of anything, you find it is cutthroat. Also, I don’t think it is all that bad for a CEO like JYP to have his hand in everything. He is the boss for a reason. He knows more than his singers since they are HIS people. They work for him because jy worked his butt off to be the best. If you don’t want to do what he says, he is not forcing you to stay. All of the world is in two categories, pimps and hoes. Park is just pimp making sure his crops yield. The hoes stay with Park because they want the MONEY.

    Comment by Ji Wada — September 17, 2011 @ 9:48 am

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