She was a young actress with designs on mega-stardom. But to realize her dreams, Jang Ja-yeon was resigned to take her place in the seamy realm of the South Korean sexual casting couch.
In the end, the disgrace proved too much. In the seven-page note she wrote before her March 2009 suicide, the 27-year-old TV sitcom regular described how her manager forced her to have sex with industry VIPs such as directors, media executives and CEOs, many of whom she cited by name.
Jang’s death stunned this nation transfixed by celebrity and all its trappings. Since 1990, a half-dozen TV and film actresses have committed suicide over the stress that comes with success in South Korea. The aftermath of Jang’s suicide triggered a federal government investigation into “slave contracts,” in which young talent, mostly women, become locked into exclusive contracts by their agents requiring them to work long hours for low pay, receive unwanted plastic surgery and, in Jang’s case, turn to prostitution.
Nearly two years after her suicide, critics say, little has changed in the cutthroat “Korean Wave” of TV, film and music that each year draws thousands of young hopefuls ready to endure whatever it takes — including sexual abuse and exploitation — to make it big.
While the film and music businesses in such nations as India and the U.S. can also be shady, scholars worry over the perverse treatment of women in South Korea’s relatively small but growing entertainment industry, which is making a cultural impact throughout Asia and the West.
An April 2010 survey conducted by a human rights group here found that 60% of South Korean actresses polled said they had been pressured to have sex to further their careers. In interviews with 111 actresses and 240 aspiring actresses, one in five said they were “forced or requested” by their agents to provide sexual favors, nearly half said they were forced to drink with influential figures, and a third said they experienced unwanted physical contact or sexual harassment.
Though two of Jang’s former managers were each sentenced to 12 months in jail last October for extortion, nearly two dozen executives named in the actress’ suicide note — now known as the “Jang Ja-yeon paper” — were never charged.
Other cases have surfaced. A government review panel in Seoul recently ruled that many entertainment contracts illegally infringe on performer privacy and limit an individual’s ability to change agencies.
Critics say the entertainment industry scandal runs to the very roots of Korean culture, in which powerful authority figures, beginning with the military regimes overthrown a generation ago, feel unchecked in their dominance.
“Nowadays in South Korea, money really does matter,” said Lee Myoung-jin, a sociology professor at Korea University in Seoul. “To cash in on stardom and wealth, young people do whatever their agents say. There are people out there taking advantage of the situation. It’s a tragedy.”
Jang’s life story plays out like a TV soap opera, the venue of her first success. Orphaned as a child when her parents died in a car crash, she set her sights on the movie industry. After making her debut in a 2006 television commercial, Jang’s first big break came when she landed the role of a vindictive schoolgirl in the popular TV soap “Boys Over Flowers.”
But off-screen, her life was anything but rosy. In her suicide note, the actress described being at the mercy of studio bosses who forced her to have sex with clients and once to serve drinks on a high-roller golf trip to Thailand. “I was called to a bar and pressured to accept a request for a sexual relationship,” she wrote in her suicide note.
When police later raided her manager’s office, they discovered a shower and bed in a “secret room” they believe was used for Jang’s forced dalliances. After the actress asked to terminate her contract, she was allegedly threatened and beaten, according to her last note. On March 7, 2009, Jang called her sister to lament of her “overwhelming stress.” Hours later, the sister returned to the family home to find Jang’s body hanging from a stairway banister.
In a newspaper op-ed published days after Jang’s death, a former national broadcasting official cited the immense pressure on celebrities to keep in the public eye. He said those “who do not make frequent appearances are treated as losers. To avoid this, they often have to go too far.”
The governmental Fair Trade Commission met in July to investigate the “slave contract” phenomena after three members of the now-disbanded male pop-idol group called TVXQ filed a lawsuit to end a 13-year exclusive contract with their manager. The panel ruled that the management’s contract was illegal and suggested an ongoing problem in the industry.
A former English tutor for the popular South Korean pop band Wonder Girls also claimed last year that members were mistreated during a North American tour — kept in isolation and denied medical treatment. The band has denied the claims.
But Jang’s suicide hit hardest. Even 22 months after Jang’s death, bloggers still rue the death of a fragile celebrity many believed was destined to become one of South Korea’s biggest movie stars. When she took her life, Jang was awaiting the release of her first two films, which were later both well received. In the first two days after her death, nearly 1 million fans visited her website.
Activists say there are probably other actresses like Jang caught up in the secret web between power and celebrity in South Korea. But they don’t expect the situation to improve soon. Many actresses, they say, fear reprisals as well as public shame if they come forward.
Said Lee Eun-sim of South Korea’s sexual violence relief center: “Jang’s death was the tip of the iceberg.”