Op-ed: How Serious Are Drug Scandals In Korea?

korean celebrities drugs

A slew of investigations surrounding top celebrity drug scandals are dominating the headlines in Korea. Fans are left feeling remorse yet bitter while pondering discussions amongst the public of why idols do drugs in the first place arise. Drug allegations always run harsh in Korea and damage reputations of all involved. However, are drug scandals in Korea being handled properly or entirely blown out of proportion?

korean celebrities drugs
Credit: Koreajoongangdaily

Recently, the name on everyone’s lips is Lee Sun Kyun, the star of international hit film Parasite. Due to his long-career history, family-oriented image in dramas, and advertisement work portraying the “ideal couple” alongside his wife, it was an absolute jaw-dropping surprise to discover he frequented exclusive parties at hostess bars with other women in Gangnam’s underground night scene for drugs and more.

Before this, Yoo Ah In, another reputable actor still under investigation for his drug use with marijuana, LSD, and even using sedation medications in private, was shamed by Koreans and is still suffering from his mistake. Now, after Lee Sun Kyun made headlines, more and more names came to the surface such as the infamous Han Seo Hee and now G-Dragon, who was found doing drugs back in 2011 when he claimed the marijuana he smoked was mistaken to be a cigarette. Due to all the allegations, the public is baffled and many netizens have had strong biased opinions geared towards each individual celebrity.

Due to his past, videos of G-Dragon immediately surfaced questioning his behavior, slurred speech and nervous ticks. While nothing of the sort has occurred for Lee Sun Kyun. Instead, many worry if he can recover from the damage, if his career will tank, or if his wife will even divorce him and how drugs will ruin his personal life. Their images play a role in how they are perceived.

korean celebrities drugs
Credit: Yonhap News

Still, is it really a big deal to do drugs in Korea as a celebrity? The answer is yes. But why do celebrities in Korea need to worry about these repercussions in the first place? Obviously drugs are bad, but celebrities all over the world use them and American celebrities are infamously known for it. In Korea, being an idol/actor isn’t merely about being famous. The title alone stays true to its definition meaning an “idol” has a responsibility to represent the core values of someone who should be idolized in a wholesome way. 

In Korea, since idols are mostly adored by children and teens rather than adults, they can leave lasting impressions on the public and are expected to avoid various scandals ranging from dating and entering a relationship to even simply smoking a cigarette. Even saying an ill-fitting comment on SNS or bullying someone at school in the past is grounds for losing your right to be an idol (think LE SSERAFIM’s Kim Garam). If something as simple as this can ruin an idol’s image, imagine doing hard drugs and getting caught? Simply put, idols cannot get away with such behavior and will be scrutinized, ostracized, and face roadblocks in their current and future careers.

But why do Koreans treat their idols this way? Oddly enough, unlike the nonchalant counterpart attitude towards US celebrities, Koreans feel all the love and affection they are giving idols in order to maintain their fame and popularity should be equally compensated with a clean and respectable image. Once that perfect image is soiled, it is hard to recover.

korean celebrities drugs
Credit: Billboard (Monsta X Wonho third from the right)

There are many circumstances where an idol’s career truly dissolved or was at least shaken up due to drug allegations. Former Monsta X member Wonho was falsely accused of smoking weed and was forced to leave the boy group in order to save their image. It was a sacrificial act that led him down a path of his own to become a soloist but incurred some loss and tarnished his image. Ga In of Brown Eyed Girls had entered a period of “Deep Reflection” in 2017 (still ongoing) after someone offered her marijuana for her depression and she was later found to be using Propofol (a sedation drug) instead to cure her insomnia and depression in 2019. She was fined and apologized in 2021. 

Even current sensation PSY, CEO of P Nation and creator of the “Gangnam Style” craze, was noted to have taken drugs five times (marijuana) back in 2001 until 2002. He stated the pressure to remain creative in the industry had forced him to do drugs. He soon thereafter repented, publicly apologized and later came back to the K-Pop scene with a slew of hits.

In America, stars like Doja Cat often smoke weed or drink alcohol on Instagram live, which is broadcasted internationally, and face no repercussions for their actions from Instagram, government laws, or the public. Even actors such as ‘Friends’ Matthew Perry struggled with drugs and alcohol and was still adored by the public. Yet, American celebrities still remain active since Americans are simply too consumed by the content of these artists to think otherwise or simply move on from their troubled stories. 

korean celebrities drugs
Credit: Leafly / RCA Records

Yet, how come foreign celebrities, despite their regrettable behavior, can still maintain their fame in Korea? More often than not, foreigners are given a free pass because they are not related to nor represent Korean culture or the country so their actions have little to no meaning to Korean nationals. If anything, the wild behavior of foreign celebrities is almost expected by Asian society. 

If foreign celebrities make inappropriate and sexual gestures on stage or wear revealing outfits, Koreans boil it down to the artists being “foreign.” However, female idols like Hwasa even had a lawsuit filed against her for making an “obscene gesture” at a college music festival and Hyolyn faced backlash for her performance at the 2018 KBS Drama Awards which was for an adult audience but broadcasted on national television. The point is clear – there is a double standard for Korean idols and they simply cannot get away with the outlandish things that occur in Western entertainment.

Overall, how can the Korean artists under investigation currently handle and recover from this situation? There isn’t a sure fire way and as mentioned before the outlooks from the public towards each celebrity differ and their way of handling the situation is quite the polar opposite as well. G-Dragon immediately denied the allegations of doing any drugs of any kind. He voluntarily went to the police station, passed his preliminary drug tests and stated “I’ve never used drugs. I’ll actively and more sincerely cooperate with the police investigation since I know well that many people are worried about me.” All that’s left are his forensic tests.

Lee Sun Kyun has remained completely silent and has neither denied nor admitted to the claims of his alleged drug use. However, it is speculated he himself is unsure of what evidence and information the police have gathered and are ready to use against him so remaining quiet and simply apologizing for the damage is another entertainment tactic many companies utilize to keep things from escalating. For example, If Lee Sun Kyun admitted to only doing one drug but was found doing several he would not only be a drug abuser but a liar in the face of the public, leading to his career tanking in a heartbeat. 

Still, in the past there has been a lack of repercussions surrounding such cases for first-time offenders such as T.O.P (BIGBANG member and childhood friend of G-Dragon) or legitimate drug abusers like Han Seo Hee a troubled ex-trainee who was responsible for T.O.P’s initial use of marijuana back in 2017 and for smuggling cannabis and LSD into the country.

korean celebrities drugs
Credit: Billboard

Celebrities may feel a sense of relief that the punishment may not be so severe or ruin their careers if other celebrities went unscathed. If a sensible solution could be made, these celebrities and others suffering from drug use in Korea should be given medical help, treatment, or counseling alongside a heavy fine and sentence. It could at least deter future users and also promote wellness for ones afflicted by this. Tossing idols to the side and leaving them to be dealt with by the public leaves these celebrities (who are still people like us at the end of the day) in disarray grasping what little is left of their career dangling by a thread. This ultimately can lead to more celebrity suicides as well. 

In the end, drug scandals are serious to Koreans and the nation is disappointed in Lee Sun Kyun most of all because of his image and family life. The scandal is more serious due to the volume of cases appearing alongside the dark truth of the entertainment scene becoming more exposed to the public. Whatever happens in the end, we can only wish these celebrities less harm and a better future.

Currently, Lee Sun Kyun’s instant drug test results have turned up negative and his urine and hair samples sent to the National Forensic Service for accurate testing is expected to take around a month. G-Dragon continues to deny all claims and is under a travel ban until the investigation is complete. Yoo Ah In is undergoing an investigation and awaiting sentencing for his abuse of propofol, midazolam, ketamine, identity theft, and pushing drugs.

DISCLAIMER: This OP:ED reflects the opinion solely of the writer and is not reflective of the opinions, ideas, or values of ZAPZEE and ODK Media.

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