K-pop industry, lawmakers wrestle over exploitation of underage idols

IVE's An Yu-jin, left, and Jang Won-young perform as IZ*ONE members in 2020. An was 16 and Jang was 15 at the time. [NEWS1]

Popular K-pop groups like New Jeans, Enhypen and Fifty Fifty have members working well over the work hour limit for underage entertainers, with the hours they spend on practices and lessons taken into account.

The suffocating system of the K-pop industry, often acknowledged by the stars themselves, has long been a hot subject of debate, with advocates claiming it is the bedrock of K-pop's success and critics arguing that the success was earned at the expense of artists' human rights.

Korea set a limit on how long teenage entertainers can work to address concerns about their human rights in 2014, but the controversy has resurfaced yet again following a legislative attempt to regulate the system further.

The new bill to revise the Popular Culture and Arts Industry Development Act aims to limit how long adolescent entertainers can work to ensure their rights, according to Rep. Yoo Jung-ju, the primary author of the proposal.

It does so by limiting underage entertainers' work hours to six hours a day, 25 hours per week for those under 12; seven hours a day, 30 hours per week for those under 15; and seven hours a day, 35 hours per week for those under 19 — the legal age in Korea.

The National Assembly's Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee is held in Yeouido, western Seoul, on April 21. [NEWS1]

If the bill passes, Korean girl groups and boy bands will have fewer hours to practice their choreography, take vocal lessons, receive makeup and perform on stage than currently allowed, 35 hours per week for under 15 and 40 hours per week for under 19.

The bill passed the National Assembly's Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee on April 21 and now awaits approval from the plenary session for enactment.

Popular groups such as New Jeans, Fifty Fifty and IVE have members who fall under the age hurdle as of this month.

New Jeans members are all minors except Minji, who just turned 19 last month, and half of Fifty Fifty and IVE members are underage.

YG Entertainment's BabyMonster, set to debut in the latter half of this year, will have six of the seven members under the legal age.

These young idols will also remain subject to the existing 10 p.m. ceiling on their work hours.

There were multiple cases where they had to miss a stage or make a Cinderella exit halfway into a broadcast program. Such instances are more commonly seen toward the end of the year when many programs are scheduled at late hours.

A YouTube video shows teenage members of ITZY and Tomorrow X Together leave a music program midway through around 10 p.m. in 2019. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

The time-constraining provision was met with fierce backlash from Korea's content associations.

"The proposal that arbitrarily subdivides work hours based on age is a Popular Culture and Arts Industry 'Underdevelopment' Act that disregards the reality [of the industry]," five entertainment organizations — Korea Music Content Association, Korea Entertainment Producer's Association, Korea Management Federation, Recording Industry Association of Korea and Record Label Industry Association of Korea — said in a joint statement on May 17.

The K-pop industry has been enjoying growth after the post-pandemic economic reopening.

YG Entertainment enjoyed the fastest growth with a 108.3 percent on-year increase in revenue at 157.3 billion won ($120.4 million) in the first quarter of this year. Its operating profit surged 2,047 percent on year to 36.5 billion won. Blackpink raking in ticket sales at a record pace from its World Tour concerts contributed to the hike.

HYBE logged a 44.1 percent on-year growth in revenue and a 41.7 percent on-year jump in operating profit in the first quarter of this year. Artists under HYBE's subsidiary music labels sold 9.11 million albums in the first quarter, more than four times on year. JYP Entertainment also charted a 74 percent on-year rise in revenue and a 119 percent on-year increase in operating profit over the same period.

Girl group Blackpink performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 15. [YG ENTERTAINMENT]

The five associations see the new bill as a wet blanket that dampens the fiery rally.

"In the case of idols, arguably the frontrunners of the K-culture, their members can be of various age groups even within a single group," the organizations said. "An age-based limitation of available working hours greatly undermines the spectrum of their activity by breaking up the hours and practically renders normal activity impossible."

The associations added such regulation hinders teenage Korean idols on their road to stardom, scrapping the chance to bring out their capabilities to a full extent, unlike other teenagers who are allowed to indulge in late-night studies for similar purposes.

"Time regulation is a substantial barrier for broadcasters and producers, which may have them bypass artists under the age restriction," they said, referring to the provision as a form of reverse discrimination against young stars.

Other parts of the bill, at the least, were welcomed in general, receiving credit as an attempt to eradicate the mistreatment of celebrities with unfair contracts.

The bill, if enacted, would require agencies to disclose details of accounting settlements upon the artist's request and on a yearly basis, even without such requests. It would also allow the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to inspect K-pop agencies for unfair conduct.

Members Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin of boy band EXO [SM ENTERTAINMENT]

Cases of celebrities embroiled in legal conflicts with their agency on mistreatment are not uncommon in the industry.

Boy band EXO's Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin filed a complaint against SM Entertainment to the Fair Trade Commission on June 5 for allegedly forcing them to sign unfair contracts.

The trio notified SM that they were terminating their contracts the previous week, arguing that the agency had failed to provide them with sufficient details on how their payments have been made since their debut in 2012. They also claimed that SM pressured them to sign unusually long "slave contracts."

Chuu, a former member of girl group Loona, has been in a legal battle with her former agency BlockBerry Creative after she filed an injunction to terminate her contract with the agency in Dec. 2021, citing the profit distribution clause as unfair.

All 11 other members of Loona eventually filed an injunction by February to terminate their contracts, reportedly citing unfair profit distribution and overwork as reasons.

The new bill also aims to secure young idols' access to education and protect them from verbal and physical abuse. It would also prevent them from being subject to excessive beauty standards by managers and agencies.

Fifty Fifty's Sio, first from left, and Aran, third from left, are currently underage. [NEWS1]

Experts call for a more thorough review of the change from both the lawmakers and the industry.

"Idols easily spend two to three hours just for makeup and transit," music critic and author Park Hee-a said. "Reducing the working hours of adolescent members requires multiple follow-up changes, such as more choreography practices for other members on how they move in a stage without them."

"The push to eradicate the violation of minorities' human rights is a positive move, especially considering many idols are in their growth phase, but the lawmakers overlooked the situation on the ground," Park said.

"It's different from setting a curfew on personal studies because a single change in the cast lineup results in corrections from hundreds of related staff," Park added. "And young idols lose the chance to appear in media."

Seo Jeong Min-gap, another music critic, thinks the change is necessary.

"Intensive working hours did contribute to the success of K-pop, but we are at a point where we should ask whether such aspect in the industry should remain imperative and permanent," Seo Jeong said.

"The associations expressed regret over the fact that lawmakers haven't discussed the issue with the industry, but I want to ask them if they had ever talked to the parties concerned — the teenage idols and their parents — before releasing the joint statement."

"Having jitters about the cut is totally reasonable," the critic said, adding "pouring one's sweat and blood doesn't always translate into success, nor does success stem only from such efforts."

"We are in a transition period; this is a good opportunity for us to think about a paradigm shift."