South Korean starlet's suicide is a real-life drama

South Korean starlet's suicide is a real-life drama
Jang Ja-yeon's purported suicide note tells of the South Korean actress being forced to have sex with TV executives. (Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)
In this nation obsessed with its soap operas, a real-life spectacle involving sex, a starlet's suicide and the country's most powerful entertainment executives has South Koreans riveted.

The drama began when Jang Ja-yeon, 27, star of a popular TV soap, was found hanged inside her suburban Seoul apartment in early March.

The plot soon thickened with the discovery of a purported suicide note that claims she had been repeatedly forced to have sex with entertainment executives, whose names haven't been revealed.

The story has since featured more plot twists than an episode of "Boys Over Flowers," which featured Jang as a social-climbing high school bully: One of her managers attempted suicide, and police are seeking to extradite a former manager from Japan.

As police continue their investigation, newspaper and TV reports have brought near-daily speculation on the identities of the TV executives. And although it is still unclear who might have forced Jang into sexual relations, commentators are calling into question the secret relationship between power and celebrity in South Korea.

"Throughout our recent history, including the past military regimes, there has been the idea that powerful authorities consider celebrities as their possessions," said Lee Myoung-jin, a sociology professor at Korea University in Seoul.

Jang's suicide is the latest of several involving South Korean celebrities in recent months.

TV actor Ahn Jae-hwan killed himself in September after reportedly struggling with mounting debts. Soon afterward, actress Choi Jin-sil committed suicide amid rampant speculation on the Internet that she was the one to whom Ahn owed large sums of money.

There is mystery around Jang's death. Within hours, talent manager Yoo Jang-ho claimed he possessed a suicide note from Jang but did not reveal its contents. A Seoul TV station reported the details of the purported note but withheld the executives' names. Soon after, amid rumors that he was involved in the hanging, a shamed Yoo attempted suicide.

According to media reports, about 10 high-powered figures, including TV producers and chief executives of two newspaper companies, were named in the purported suicide note.

In mid-March, after his release from the hospital, Yoo proclaimed his innocence. "I believe Jang killed herself because she was being treated so badly," he told a room packed with reporters. "The truth will definitely be revealed through the investigation."

On his blog, Yoo wrote: "There is a public enemy who is responsible for her death. All who work in the entertainment business know who that guy is."

So far, entertainment executives have kept silent about the case. But a former producer for the Korean Broadcasting System suggested in an op-ed piece in a local newspaper that Jang's case had inspired an old-fashioned witch hunt.

"Some people are more interested in making public the alleged list of the men whom she was forced to have sex with rather than actually paying attention to the substance of her death," Park Mun-yeong wrote.

According to a TV report here, the suicide note suggested that Jang felt like a prostitute. "I was called to a bar and pressured to accept a request for a sexual relationship," she wrote, according to the report.

Park questioned the pressure on celebrities to keep in the public eye, saying those "who do not make frequent appearances are treated as losers. To avoid this, they often have to go too far."

Park works in The Times' Seoul Bureau.