Back to Burning Sun

Back to Burning Sun
Screenshot of Koo Hara's IG feed

When I first saw the other day that the BBC had released a documentary on Burning Sun, I was a bit on-edge. If you're unfamiliar "Burning Sun" is a catchall referring to several interrelated sexual abuse and criminal cases in South Korea that were uncovered in 2019, and resulted in several high profile celebrities, including K-pop stars, ending up in jail.

Having reported extensively as the news broke for Billboard, including collaborating with the amazing Caitlin Kelley on an intense timeline of everything*, I was wondering what the documentary could possibly add that wasn't covered back in 2019 when everything broke, aside from ending with the prison sentences, and now-release of some high profile celebrities.

But the BBC did something heartbreakingly wonderful: they put women back into the narrative not only as victims but as heroes.

Along with featuring anonymized interviews of victims to show how disturbing the abuses and sexual assaults were, the BBC doc emphasized how two female journalists led the investigations. It also emphasized how KARA's Koo Hara (aka Goo Hara), a victim of abuse herself, facilitated efforts to bring down at least one of the K-pop stars who she was friends with as a rapist.

Both journalists were harassed immensely for their reporting**. One revealed that she had suffered multiple miscarriages during the reporting cycles related to Burning Sun investigations, ostensibly due to stress. Koo has since died by suicide.

Now they are being proclaimed as heroes, and K-pop fans are revisiting the cases, and what this says about Korea and Korean celebrities and how we treat them. Korea is reimagining Koo's legacy.

This is all thanks to a 1-hour documentary from the BBC.

I can't help but feel a bit bittersweet about all this: how short is memory of audiences that heavy reporting and publicizing of these cases back in 2019 that they're still causing ripples in 2024, via a documentary that, to be quite honest, had very little new information about the cases and abuses themselves.

Centering women and shining light on their efforts feels like it's the real addition, to me, but it feels horrific to see all the shocked Pikachu reactions from online communities as if sexual abuses and crimes aren't a major issue in South Korea, and as if Burning Sun in particular wasn't widely publicized. Some people are pointing to Netflix's Nth Room documentary - a reference to another series of sexual crimes in South Korea - as an example of how Korea handles these situations, but it's a bit disheartening to see how short memory is.

This is partly a matter of pride as a journalist I admit; as I get older, I can't help but wonder about if any of the work I've done really matters, and this is hitting home on that. But it is more about my own pride, and more about my growing concern about how the history of K-pop is going to be recorded as the internet is literally disappearing. When I first started seeing people react, it was presumably a lot of newer fans; 2019 was a lifetime ago for international K-pop fans. But then it seemed that even the people who had probably been around in 2019 were acting surprised and offended by all the details.

Misinformation spread, such as by sizable accounts sharing erroneous information about current President Yoon's role. One thing that kept on raising flags, however, was less the misinformation, and more the framing. As Jake Kwon of the BBC points out in the post linked here, "it's odd to frame this [documentary's details] as a big reveal."


That feels like a comment less about this individual factoid and more about everything: this wasn't a breaking news documentary. This wasn't a tell-all. It was an overview. Anything new were the details of some instances like I mentioned regarding the women who deserved far more praise than the hate they received. But being surprised over common knowledge feels like another nod to the fact that the internet, and just generally conversations among people nowadays both on and offline, are full of informational holes: so much news is happening that even if you're invested in a topic you're only seeing a small portion of the information at any given time, let alone ever.

It also has to do with how fan translation accounts have so much power, and it's worth paying attention as much to what they're saying as much as what they're not talking about. Of course, informing yourself nowadays about what you don't know online in 2024 is a Sisyphean task.

K-pop fans who are diehards, daily tweeting about it (xeeting?) were surprised because there is no way to keep up with the stories currently being told about humanity. There is too much content, too many players, too much data, that even if you're heavily invested in a topic or scene, you cannot ever see or understand everything. The industry moved on, the country wanted to move on, and so Burning Sun becomes a one-time scandal to be shocked and appalled over rather than a herald of change.

The documentary ends essentially saying that nothing has changed in South Korea's club scene since Burning Sun's arrests, and abuses are still rampant. It's enraging and heartbreaking to know that these instances lead to only destruction of lives of women.

*My byline is missing here but I did write it, and have emailed my editors at Billboard because I'm pretty miffed about it since I put in many, many hours on confirming facts. It's a long weekend here, so doubt anything will change in the next few days, but I hope my name will end up on it again soon. A reminder to all writers that you should always PDF your articles, folks, because digital bylines get deleted all the time.

**I can confirm personally that any journalist, female or otherwise, who has mentioned these men and these cases still get harassed by fans. Yes, these men still have fans.

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What I'm listening to

New NewJeans and RM releases are both wonderful! Right Place, Wrong Person is an amazing album from RM that I'm looking forward to digesting further over the coming days, and "How Sweet" by NewJeans is literally a piece of ear candy.

But as I'm writing this, I listened to the Now That's What I Call K-pop vinyl. Shoutout to the folks who put this together because I hear it was a phenomenal effort to coordinate collaboration between K-pop companies.

And I don't have it yet, but I'm on the market for aespa's now sold-out CD player album. Looking forward to listening to that.

What I'm watching

Two friends and I have been having some lockdown era-style Kdrama viewing nights recently, and we recently began Chicken Nugget. This show is bonkers. Everyone needs to watch it.

Also been enjoying Korean college festival videos, like NMIXX and EXID performing at Korea University. I couldn't attend the one that took place when I was studying at Yonsei way back due to a personal issue, so missed Girls' Generation, Psy, and a few other amazing artists performing back in 2013. One of my major regrets of life, if I'm being honest.