Koo Ha-ra's tip-off, K-pop's 'dark underbelly' revealed in BBC documentary

Late singer Koo Ha-ra's picture is displayed at her funeral on Nov. 25, 2019, in southern Seoul. [NEWS1]

The story of three brave women — two journalists and one K-pop idol — who exposed a horrific crime ring involving Korean celebrities, known as the Burning Sun scandal, came to light in an hourlong documentary produced by the BBC.

BBC Eye, an investigative reporting team at BBC World Service, released a documentary on Sunday titled "Burning Sun: Exposing the Secret K-pop Chat Groups," centering on journalists Park Hyo-sil, Kang Kyung-yoon and late K-pop singer Koo Ha-ra, who played immense roles in bringing the crimes that took place behind the walls of the Burning Sun club to light.

The documentary delves into the Burning Sun scandal, which started in late 2018 when a man named Kim Sang-gyo claimed he was assaulted by the staff at the Burning Sun club in Gangnam District, southern Seoul.

What started out as a small lead, stating that the club was owned by former Big Bang member Seungri, turned out to be one of the biggest criminal cases in Korea. The scandal involved alleged connections between the police and the club, the filming of illegal sex videos, sex solicitation by Seungri, charges brought against YG Entertainment head Yang Hyun-suk and the rape convictions of K-pop stars, namely singer Jung Joon-young.

"They were so disgusting, playing around with women as if they were toys," Kang told the BBC in an interview, recalling when she first got access to the online chats. The chat content was described as "a hoard of sexually explicit videos and images of unconscious women being shared amongst the group, which involved Jung and other male K-pop stars" by the BBC.

BBC's hourlong documentary ″Burning Sun: Exposing the Secret K-pop Chat Groups″ released on May 19, revolves around the story of three women in K-pop who played a pivotal role in bringing light to one of the biggest scandals in Korean entertainment. [BBC]
BBC's hourlong documentary ″Burning Sun: Exposing the Secret K-pop Chat Groups″ released on May 19 [BBC]

The chat group included former member of K-pop band FT Island, Choi Jong-hoon, along with Jung and Seungri. The content of the chatroom was copied by a private forensics company in 2016 when Jung was first accused of illegal sex filming — referred to as molka in Korean — and was leaked in 2019. The chats took place between 2015 and 2016.

Journalist Park published a report on Jung's initial molka case in September 2016, after which she was bombarded with insults, harassment and even death threats from Jung's fans for months. The prosecution decided not to indict Jung in that instance, and the case was closed.

But Park went through two miscarriages after filing her report.

Kang continued Park's investigation, which took her into the "dark underbelly of the K-pop industry," leading to the Burning Sun case.

A still from BBC's hourlong documentary ″Burning Sun: Exposing the Secret K-pop Chat Groups″ released on May 19 of Seungri, the former member of boy band Big Bang at the center of the Burning Sun scandal [BBC]

According to her, the investigation resulted in "unfathomable personal attacks."

"At the time, I was pregnant," Kang told BBC. "They called me femi [feminist] bitch, pregnant femi bitch, left-wing femi bitch. It was the first time in almost five years of marriage that I'd managed to fall pregnant, so I was so scared in case something might happen to the baby. My heart was incredibly lonely and exhausted."

A pivotal figure in the Burning Sun case was late K-pop singer Koo Ha-ra, who helped get a lead on the case by convincing FT Island's Choi to tip her off on the senior police officer who had been "looking out for the gang," according to Kang.

The senior police officer, who was revealed to be Yoon Gyu-geun, was later sentenced to a 20 million won ($14,700) fine in 2019 for ordering officials to destroy evidence and accepting bribes related to the Burning Sun case. He is currently still working at the Songpa Police Precinct in southern Seoul.

Singers Jung Joon-young, left, and Choi Jong-hoon [NEWS1]

"I still remember her voice clearly when she called me and said, 'I'm Ha-ra,'" Kang said. "She told me that she wanted to help. Koo Ha-ra and Choi Jong-hoon had been close friends since their debuts, and she had some kind of connection to Seungri and Jung Joon-young. She told me that she saw their phones and saw 'so many strange things' and that I was right."

Koo later helped convince Choi to tell on Yoon, even though the officer only ended up being let off with a fine.

A few months after the tip-off, Koo took her own life on Nov. 24, 2019. She was found dead at her residence in southern Seoul at the age of 28. The incident occurred less than two months after the death of K-pop singer Choi Jin-ri, known as Sulli, who was found dead in an apparent suicide on Oct. 14.

Following Sulli’s death, Koo posted several photos of herself with Sulli on her Instagram account, saying, “Jin-ri [will be able to] do as she wishes in the world over there.” She also appeared on Instagram Live in tears, telling fans that she and Sulli were “like sisters.”

Late singer Koo Ha-ra at the Gangnam Police Station in September 2018 [NEWS1]
Choi Jong-bum, ex-boyfriend of late singer Koo Ha-ra found guilty of blackmailing the K-pop star by saying he would release intimate videos of the two, at the Seoul Central District Court in southern Seoul, on July 25, 2019 [YONHAP]

Koo herself was a victim of molka, conducted by her former boyfriend Choi Jong-bum. He had threatened to release a video of the two having sex in September 2018 and was given a year and a half in prison in August 2019, but the sentence was suspended for three years.

Five days after Koo's death, Jung was given a six-year prison sentence by the Seoul Central District Court. Choi Jong-hoon was given a five-year sentence. Their sentences were later reduced by the Supreme Court in September 2020 — five years for Jung and two and a half years for Choi.

Seungri was first given a three-year sentence in August 2021 by a military court. The sentence was reduced to a year and a half by the Supreme Court because he “admitted to all his crimes and is regretting his actions,” according to the ruling.

Seungri was released from prison in February 2023 and Jung in March this year.

"We threw a single pebble into a huge pond," Kang said. "It has calmed down again, but I hope it's still there in people's memories so that if something like that happens again, we can call it out much earlier."

The documentary is available on the official YouTube channel of BBC Korea. Written articles are available in both Korean and English. It will be made into a BBC News TV series starting next month, according to BBC Studios.