2018: Life and Death of Kim Jonghyun

The Asia-Pacific Journal | Japan Focus Volume 16 | Issue 13 | Number 3 | Jul 01, 2018
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Regulating the Idol: The Life and Death of a South Korean Popular Music Star

CedarBough T. Saeji,   Gina Choi,   Darby Selinger,   Guy Shababo,   Elliott Y.N. Cheung,
Ali Khalaf,   Tessa Owens   and Kyle Tang1


For many people outside the South Korean popular music (K-pop) world, the December 2017 death of pop star Kim Jonghyun was a sad, but abstract event. Jonghyun, and dozens more like him, is a type of Korean celebrity known as an "idol." In addition to being popular within Korea, idols are the public face of K-pop, which has become a worldwide phenomenon. This has made idols into incarnations of Korea and Korean culture, and brought the public’s powerful disciplining gaze to bear on these young performers. In this paper, we explore how characteristics of life in contemporary Korea—including a high suicide rate, and intense pressures in education and employment—compound with idols’ years of intense training in singing and dancing without adequate attention to physical, much less mental, health. Although this is the first incident of an A-list K-pop idol committing suicide, we propose that the nature of contemporary Korean celebrity, together with specific factors defining the lives of Korean youth, create an environment where suicide may become even more prevalent, escalating Korea’s suicide rate, which is already among the world’s highest. Finally, we discuss the potential impact of Jonghyun's suicide on K-pop fans.  ...

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