[News analysis] Using lure of fame, K-entertainment agency bigwigs sexually prey on young trainees

Posted on : 2022-08-30 17:21 KST Modified on : 2022-08-30 17:21 KST
The Hankyoreh’s review of court documents reveals a troubling picture of powerful figures in the entertainment industry abusing their positions to sexually exploit trainees, many of whom are minors
(Getty Images Bank)
(Getty Images Bank)

Several cases of sex crimes committed by the heads of Korean entertainment agencies against trainee artists made headlines in 2012. At the time, the South Korean government and others moved to develop plans to prevent and eradicate sex crimes against women in the entertainment industry, including young trainees.

Ten years later on, sex crimes by bigwigs at entertainment agencies continue to come to light. Police are reportedly currently investigating an Aug. 22 report claiming that the male head of one agency demanded photographs of trainees without their clothes on in order to “check their weight loss progress.”

In addition to the power dynamic between entertainment agency heads and trainees, another factor making the crimes difficult to eradicate is the fact that 4 out of every 10 trainee artists are underage.

According to a 2021 study on conditions in the popular culture and arts industry, 826 of the 1,895 trainees affiliated with South Korea’s entertainment agencies, or 43%, were under the age of 19 which in South Korea means they are legally considered minors.

On Monday, the Hankyoreh explored some of the incidents of sex crimes committed by entertainment agency heads against trainees by looking at first trial rulings posted on the court verdict library system over the past two years.

The perpetrators often demanded that the trainees expose their bodies to an excessive degree in order to check on their “appearance” and “talents.”

In one case, a teenage female trainee, identified as “A,” was contacted last year by “B,” the head of her agency, who asked her what “efforts” she had been making recently. B called A into his office and ordered her to take off her clothes. He then sexually assaulted her.

In his first trial, the court sentenced B to one year in prison suspended for two years and ordered him to complete 40 hours of sexual assault treatment courses.

“The crime in this case was very serious, as the accused is the operator of an entertainment agency who assaulted the victim, an affiliated trainee,” the court said.

But B did not receive any order prohibiting him from working in environments involving interaction with children, adolescents, or disabled persons.

Entertainment agencies are included in the category of workplaces where convicted sex offenders are barred from employment. Ultimately, B was not subject to any restrictions on operating or working for an entertainment agency.

A particularly common offense was the use of “stardom” or a “big debut” as a lure for agency heads to sexually exploit prospective entertainers.

“Not everyone can rise to the top,” said one agency head, identified as “C,” to entertainers belonging to a troupe.

“If you do well by me, I’ll help you out,” he also said. C gave work and exclusive stories to those who acceded to his requests for physical contact.

The victims were not in a position to say no, since they would not be able to work if they didn’t agree. C insisted that the victims’ allegations of sexual exploitation were “far-fetched claims by people trying to get out of their contract”; he has even filed complaints against them for “insult” and “false allegations.”

The trial court rejected C’s argument, as he had previously been sentenced to probation for molesting a trainee after coercing them into drinking alcohol during an interview, and as he had committed another crime while on probation. In January of last year, the court convicted C of molestation through abuse of occupational authority, sentencing him to one year in prison and 80 hours of sexual violence prevention training as well as issuing an order forbidding him from gaining employment at facilities for children, adolescents, or disabled people for the next five years.

While the sex crimes of entertainment agency CEOs tended to come to light through victims reporting their case, there were many instances in which trainees hesitated to report what happened to them to authorities, sometimes out of fear.

Such was the findings of a study that examined the human rights situation of children and adolescents working in Korea’s pop culture industry, which was released by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in December of 2020. Even when they were harmed sexually, the report pointed out, victims “were not able to proactively speak out about their victimization due to concerns about earning disfavor or because of the daunting nature of raising a complaint.”

In-depth interviews with industry insiders also demonstrated this realistic barrier. “D,” who provides instructions to trainees, commented, “[Managers] make physical contact [with trainees] like it’s the most natural thing in the world, saying, ‘I’ll help you stretch.’ Such instances happen all too frequently. [Trainees] aren’t able to tell their companies such things.”

“E,” a trainee, said, “Male teachers touch you when talking. Things didn’t go too far in my case, but a friend told me that she was touched on the thigh and stuff like that.”

There are ways victims can receive support even if they decide not to report their case directly. For example, the Korea Creative Content Agency runs the Contents Gender Equality Center in order to respond to various sex crimes targeting trainees.

“As trainees are minors more often than not, they find it difficult to judge whether they have been subjected to sex crimes even when they have been harmed,” said Lim Gyu-bin, who manages the center. “I recommend [victims] to consult expert organizations such as the Gender Equality Center.”

The Gender Equality Center provides counseling and legal support services.

By Choi Yoon-ah, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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