Content Warning: this article discusses sexual violence, prostitution, and drugs. 

With a sordid trail of sexual assault, prostitution, drug distribution, hidden camera footage, tax evasion and police corruption, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) released a new documentary titled “Burning Sun: Exposing the Secret K-pop Chat Groups” about the 2019 scandal. The documentary revisited the complex case that revealed a dark underbelly of the K-pop industry in South Korea, garnering widespread attention. 

While numerous articles and reports have covered this high-profile case, the documentary offers firsthand accounts of two female journalists, Park Hyo-sil and Kang Kyung-yoon, who initially broke the story with coverage of a “molka,” a term for hidden camera, in accusation against singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young in 2016. In March 2019, allegations against Jung Joon-young involved his participation in a secret chat group with other celebrities where sexually explicit videos of sexual assault were shared, stemming from leaked forensic data dating back to 2016.

The Burning Sun scandal wasn’t solely linked to the disturbing crimes that were digitally archived but also to a prominent nightclub of the same name, co-owned by Big Bang member Seung-ri. Aside from serving as a business establishment, the club doubled as a physical site where many of these crimes were coordinated to take place.

Notably, the legal outcomes in comparison to the lengthy list of offenses were disappointing as most who received sentences had them reduced upon approval, and others involved were acquitted. The lenient and passive reintegration of these perpetrators into society doesn’t align with the severity of illegal drugging, sexual assault and filming of multiple women. In retrospect, the perpetrators being male and the victims all women highlight the dynamics of gender inequality that fail to protect women. 

This is evident in the treatment of women who worked extensively to reveal the truth to the world. After Park published the first story on Jung Joon-young being accused of molka, Jung’s management promptly released a statement on the investigation, calling it an “unimportant incident inflated by the press.” 

K-pop is defined by its idols’ pristine curated images; as a result, Park became a target for Jung’s fanbase to insult — receiving abusive comments online and malicious emails. Kang was also subjected to the same treatment from the public, going as far as enduring a harassment campaign directed at her unborn child at the time, which lasted three years. 

Having dealt with a molka crime herself, K-pop singer Goo Ha-ra became a key informant in the investigation, convincing Choi Jong-hoon, one of the perpetrators involved, to give up the group’s senior police contact that had been covering their crimes. All this goes to demonstrate the depth of corruption that permeates more than just the K-pop industry, allowing those that were involved to stand above the law.

The ongoing molka crisis, also known as the spycam epidemic, disproportionately impacts women, accounting for 80% of victims from the annually reported cases. According to the National Police Agency, in 2016, men accounted for 90% of the perpetrators in digital crimes.

In 2018, a case where a woman leaked a nude picture of a male model without consent resulted in a rapid response and harsh sentencing, contrasting with the usual dismissal towards male perpetrators’ cases. The apparent double standard sparked a series of six protests, yet the outcome of light reforms hasn’t done enough to ensure women’s safety.

From its initial reveal to the public, the Burning Sun scandal has led to miniscule efforts and surface level support that ceases to tackle valid frustrations of women. In Feb. 2023, South Korea’s Justice Department rejected the opportunity to revise its legal definition of rape, which is part of the issue. Article 297 provides a rigid definition and narrowly interprets what constitutes rape — so South Korea overlooks many factors that grant leniency to perpetrators and fail to align with international standards.

On the note of international standards, the annual report of “The Economist’s glass-ceiling index” presented a chart addressing women’s working conditions and opportunities relative to those for men. Among a list of 29 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, South Korea ranked the lowest in 2023. This was foreseeable considering South Korea is also one of the few countries to not have an anti-discriminatory law.

Set on pillars and history of misogyny and patriarchy, South Korea is inherently favoring bias towards the comfort of men that don’t want to change their toxic outlooks. Instead of restoring a failing system, South Korea needs to internally reevaluate the harm that’s been caused and develop a framework for protecting women and the minorities in their society. In compensation of loyal and avid fanbases, the K-pop idols involved depreciated the very people that gave them their status and intently chose to see them as a pool of targets to choose from and harm. 

Park recounts in the final moments of the documentary that, “Misogyny is not just something that men say about women, but it’s about power and an attempt to silence any suggestion of all genders being of equivalent value.” In defiance to the misogyny that looms embedded in different sectors of Korean society, the journalistic values maintained by both female journalists and courage that victims embodied in coming forward served as a catalyst for a bigger conversation to take place.  

The bear would not do this …