'I'm sorry for everything': K-pop idols apologize to meet impossible standards
Forgetting the name of a noodle dish, drinking Starbucks and not replying to a text message — these are some things that K-pop stars have apologized for in January alone.
The words unforgiving and suffocating have often been used to describe the cutthroat Korean entertainment industry, not only because they're expected to look perfect all the time, but also because one wrong utterance or action can summon an angry mob who will not go away until a formal apology is made.
Rapper Lee Young-ji kicked off 2024 with a Jan. 1 apology to fans of Seventeen for purportedly ignoring text messages from band member Dogyeom.
Jake of boy band Enhyphen apologized for drinking Starbucks coffee during a livestream with fans on Jan. 5. There have been online endeavors to boycott the franchise regarding its perceived stance on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
Later on Jan. 16, Minji of girl group NewJeans issued an apology for a “bad attitude” she'd displayed during a YouTube appearance last January. Online users had accused the artist of pretending not to know of kalguksu, a Korean knife-cut noodle dish, in an effort to “maintain her luxurious image.”
K-pop “idols,” as they're referred to in Korea, operate under the ruthless scrutiny of an audience whose bars stand impossibly high. That audience is devoted, political and extremely online, and its wrath can leave even the most beloved idols with wounds in their hearts — and their egos.
“What is kalguksu?”
On Jan. 5, 2023, members of NewJeans took part in a livestream with YouTuber ChimChakMan during which Minji was asked about her appetite for Korean noodle dishes.
The hosts asked her whether she was willing to try kongguksu (cold soy paste noodles), kalguksu or bibimmyeon (cold sweet chili paste noodles), and she refused, asking “What is kalguksu?” Question marks flooded the comment section, but the audience quickly moved on as additional topics were raised.
Still, Minji's very short utterance floated around online communities for months afterward. Posts claimed the idol had gone too far with her so-called “concept” — referring to an image or quality that K-pop idols may push for during a given period, such as cuteness or sexiness — and fans engaged in heated debates over whether Minji had done something “wrong.”
Minji, on Jan. 2, 2024, addressed the year-old kalguksu incident during a Weverse livestream with fellow NewJeans members.
“Everyone, do you honestly think that I wouldn’t know what kalguksu is? […] Would I not know what it is? Please think twice,” she said, leading to immediate backlash from netizens reproaching her “hostile” attitude. Online communities frequented by K-pop enthusiasts were filled with posts criticizing the NewJeans member.
It only took the artist two weeks to yield to the angry mob.
“I am truly sorry to Bunnies, who must have been surprised and hurt that I showed a bad attitude during a live broadcast [on Jan. 2] where I comfortably interacted with the fans,” she eventually wrote in a letter on Jan. 16.
Bunnies is the name of the group's official fan club.
“I thought there was no use crying over spilled milk and that time would calm down the heated dispute,” she said. “However, as time passed, more comments were made, even about my relationships with my members. The misunderstanding has put me in distress, knowingly and unknowingly for the past year. I will be more careful not to make the same mistake again.”
“Sorry for everything”
Other instances for which K-pop stars apologized have been both as trivial and hotly debated as Minji’s obliviousness to noodles.
In September 2013, members of girl group Kara made guest appearances on the MBC talk show “Radio Star.” The show’s panel, a majority of whom are veteran male entertainers, is known for making mischievous remarks that add a fun touch to the show but are sometimes considered too far.
During the episode with Kara, member Kang Ji-young was asked to show her aegyo, or youthful and cute side, which she repeatedly refused to do. She ended up crying when panelist Kim Gu-ra asked her several times. Member Koo Ha-ra also cried when panel member Kyuhyun, a member of boy band Super Junior, hinted at revealing her love life saying, “Koo Ha-ra will be done for once I open my mouth.”
Controversy swirled in online communities, where people criticized both the Kara members for “overreacting” and the panelists for pushing the members too far. Group leader Han Seung-yeon uploaded an apology to X, formerly known as Twitter, a few hours after the show aired.
“I want to apologize to everyone who felt uncomfortable due to our appearance on ‘Radio Star,’” she wrote. “I deeply regret the unprofessional attitude I displayed due to my personal reasons. I sincerely thank all the crew, [co-guest] Park Jin-young and the MCs at ‘Radio Star’ who helped us during and after the show.”
“We — Seung-yeon, Ha-ra and Ji-young — will work harder and show you a brighter version of ourselves,” she added.
That's far from the only example. Stars have apologized for all sorts of things over the years: Girl group Girl's Day for refusing to eat mandu (dumplings) during a YouTube livestream, Bang Chan of Stray Kids for pointing out that younger K-pop stars don't say hello in hallways, Highlight's Dongwoon for sharing the news of his marriage at age 32, Kyuhyun himself for complaining about SM Entertainment's parking fees, and many more.
Why the high bar?
Consumers' contradictory emotions toward celebrities are evident in the fact that they are widely referred to as “idols”: people want to feel close to the stars, but also want them to be perfect.
K-pop idols exist as both models that fans look up to and products that they spend money on. Those fans, as a consequence, hold both a reverence for the stars and a sense of control over them as their source of revenue, according to pop music critic Seo Jeong Min-gap.
“This tendency has existed ever since the dawn of pop culture industry,” he said. “But it has only gotten worse recently, because fans have become able to team up in the online space. Other factors such as gender and age also come into play, but people’s unfair ambivalence toward K-pop idols is leading to cruelty toward the entertainers.”
The aggression toward the industry's female constituents is worse, Seo Jeong said. Society holds tight codes of conduct for both idols and women, which only makes the bar for female idols even higher.
When a male K-pop singer is caught smoking, for instance, fans might question where he was smoking and how he discarded the leftover cigarette butt. When a female K-pop singer is caught smoking, however, Korean society, which frowns upon female smokers, is more likely to criticize the very fact that she smokes.
While boy band members apologize to angered fans, it's often in response to relatively grave incidents: the calling out of other K-pop groups, dismissive comments about Korean history, swearing or pictures of their swearing in online spaces, for example.
“Women have long been strictly judged by their appearance and demeanor the way men never are,” said pop music critic Park Hee-a. “The kalguksu incident should not have been discussed in the first place, because it’s a matter of one’s taste. The fact that it became ‘a thing’ itself is evidence of the society’s nonsensical attitude toward idols — especially female idols.”
End of the discussion
The endless list of handwritten letters that pop up when one Googles “idol apology” is evidence that humility can work wonders.
“In the company’s perspective, an apology is the best, and sometimes the only solution to such situations,” an insider at a major K-pop agency said under the condition of anonymity.
“If we don’t address a certain situation, then we get blamed for turning a blind eye. The comment section gets filled with netizens demanding an ‘explanation’ or sarcastic remarks. We know that apologizing makes it seem like they’ve done something wrong, but it at least leads to people feeling guilty that they may have gone over the line.”
But the mere fact that an apology can silence online mobs, as Minji's did, it doesn’t mean that it should always be issued, the critics said.
In a market witnessing an unfortunately large number of K-pop stars halting activities due to panic attacks, and some even taking their own lives, the fact that idols have to apologize for something that an “ordinary” person wouldn’t is a problem, according to Seo Jeong.
“The agency should have fought the ridiculous accusations, not fed the angry mob with a quick and easy remedy,” he said. “It’s the duty of an agency to tell the audience when they’ve crossed the line. That’s how they protect the rights, self-esteem and human dignity of the stars.”
The public also needs to step back, Park said.
“When you’re openly criticizing someone, you need to think whether you’re doing so because you think that they ‘deserve’ to be criticized just because they’re most exposed to the public,” she said.
“Everyone is entitled to their freedom of speech, and idols are no exception. If they say or do something that is evidently wrong, then and only then do they need to apologize. Someone’s taste or idea should not become the subject of discussion, especially when an ungrounded comment can lead to the infringement of idols’ human rights.”
And agencies are slowly beginning to take firmer stances against hateful content.
IVE member Jang Won-young and her agency, Starship Entertainment, filed a lawsuit against a YouTuber named Park who had been spreading false rumors about Jang for years through the YouTube channel Sojang. The court sided with Jang, ordering the YouTuber to compensate Jang 100 million won ($74,430) in damages last month.
“Sojang had been constantly spreading false information, causing the severe defamation of Starship’s artists, which has interfered with the company’s business and given major pain to both the artists and their fans,” the agency said.
“We are running a monitoring system to protect the personal rights and privacy of its artists and will proceed with any legal measures with zero-tolerance against those acts defaming or damaging the company’s artists.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]