Commentary: The fight for Wonho is a huge challenge to the K-pop machine

OTTAWA: You may have recently seen K-pop trending worldwide on Twitter, especially hashtags such as #FightForWonho.

Wonho, whose real name is Lee Ho-Seok, was the lead singer for Monsta X, a Korean pop or K-pop group.



Monsta X debuted as a seven-member group piece in 2015. Just days after the release of Follow: Find You on Oct 28, the groups most recent album, unverified allegations of past “transgressions” emerged about Wonho. These forced Wonho to resign from the group a few days after the release.

READ: K-pop band Monsta X members in back-to-back scandals, from debts to an affair

K-pop fans, who are known to be passionate, refused to take the news lying down.

Rolling Stone magazine has compared K-pop to the British Invasion of the 60s and in a sign of its significance, late-night comedian Stephen Colbert has spoofed it.




2019 was a banner year of success for Wonhos group. Monsta X released collaborations with artists such as French Montana and Steve Aoki and appeared on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Ellen Show.

But in the K-pop industry, mistakes and rumours can steal an idols livelihood.

The allegations against Wonho include owing a friend money, attending a juvenile detention centre in his youth and smoking marijuana six years ago. (Photo: Facebook/Monsta X)

The allegations against Wonho include owing a friend money, attending a juvenile detention centre in his youth and smoking marijuana six years ago. Under South Koreas strict drug laws, people can be sentenced to five years in jail for smoking marijuana.

The case of Wonho brings old concerns about K-pop back into the spotlight.

READ: Commentary: BIGBANGs Seungris sex scandal and the end of K-pops innocence


Since the explosion of K-pop in the late 2000s, dozens of popular girl and boy groups have debuted. K-pop fans, including “Monbebe,” (the name of Monsta X fans), are often maligned. But through the recent troubles of Monsta X and the resultant Twitter campaign, Monbebe have shown their potential to be active consumers.

Monsta X fans and their recent campaign to keep member Wonho in the group reveals the explosive power of young fandoms.

Instead of needing adult protection from the boy bands they love, these fans exercise agency to protect their favourite bands against the very capitalist systems of production that exploit and dehumanise them.

READ: Commentary: Sex, violence and accusations of cover-ups rock South Korea

READ: Commentary: K-pop fans should mourn the loss of good music not artistes

Western articles discussing the K-pop industry often approach it as a cruel and exoticised novelty incomprehensible to western audiences. Global mainstream audiences dont always feel the K-pop love.

Many news outlets in Turkey, for example, have been warning families of the threat of K-pop and their androgynous, makeup-wearing boy groups indoctrinating Turkish youth into non-heteronormative lifestyles.

Implicit within these fears is the assumption that fans of boy bands are easily seduced by the charming pop products of a cunning music industry.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, cultural theorists who criticised the capitalist rise of mass-produced commodities in the 1940s, might have called these fans “cultural dupes” if they were alive today. They used the term to describe passive consumers of capitalism.

Photo of the seven-member Monsta X group. (Photo: Facebook/Monsta X)

K-pop groups do indeed have as much to do with capitalism as they do with music. In the early 2000s, the South Korean government, in a bid to improve the countrys economic market and national image, invested state support into a system of K-Pop star production that grants music labels the power to create, market and tightly control the youth looking for fame as K-pop idols.

These recording companies operate a finely tuned system in which they subject K-pop idol hopefuls to rigorous training in singing, dancing and media-readiness.


Artists whose American record labels left them penniless or trapped in brutal contracts, such as the 1990s American all-female group TLC, may have something to say about power dynamics in music industries.

The #MeToo movement is a powerful indictment against the power imbalance at the core of western entertainment industries.

READ: Commentary: A culture of unwanted advances and the persistence of workplace sexual harassment

The power imbalance inherent within the K-pop system is deeply cultural. South Korea is a strongly conservative society.

While some cultural theorists have noted that K-pop presents the country as a developed economy with modern scenery and fashion-forward people, others add that not-so-hidden beneath K-pops shiny surface are powerful messages of traditional Korean beauty ideals, ethnocentrism and strict codes of conduct.

Commentary: 'Are you sick?' Why more South Korean women are doing away with cosmetics

When an idols humanity peeks through the resulting cracks, the consequences can be dire.

The most recent example of this is K-pop singer and actress Sulli (real name Choi Jin Ri) who years ago shattered her traditionally innocent image with displays of sexuality and feminism.

K-pop columnists and cultural critics in Korea and the west, including Korean critic Yoonha Kim, speculated Read More – Source

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