No colors or hand gestures during elections: 5 no-nos for Korean idols and celebrities

Three members of girl group Billlie pose for photos after voting for the general election on April 5. [IST ENTERTAINMENT]

It’s general election season in Korea, and K-pop fans know what that means for idols: No colorful clothes, and keep all hand gestures to a minimum.

During election season, which comes around every few years in different forms, K-pop idols, as the singers are referred to in Korea, tread very lightly with every step so as not to cause any unsolicited criticism from political enthusiasts who berate the stars if they seem supportive of any particular party or candidate.

Idols refrain from wearing clothes with any of the many vivid colors that are used to represent the political parties — red for the People Power Party, blue for the Democratic Party, yellow and green for the Green Justice Party and so on — and don’t make the usual thumbs up or peace sign with their hands when they pose outside of polling stations, lest the gestures be interpreted as the number of a particular candidate or party.

And not voting isn’t the answer, because some fans reproach idols for being indifferent to the most sacred duty and right of democracy if they do not explicitly prove that they voted.

K-pop idols are held to high standards by the public, and it’s not just their love lives that they need to censor. Under the piercing scrutiny of the K-pop audience, almost anything can become controversial even if it’s nothing criminal. Sometimes the stars are objectively at fault, sometimes the fans are just overly critical and sometimes it’s a tossup.

Nevertheless, the following are five points that any K-pop singers or celebrities in Korea would be wise to keep in mind to avoid causing a stir — or if not, at least be prepared to give an apology.

Boy band The KingDom poses for photos after voting for the general election on April 5. [IST ENTERTAINMENT]
Girl group Weeekly poses for photos after voting for the general election on April 6. [IST ENTERTAINMENT]

1. Beware of the election seasons

Politics is a sensitive issue everywhere around the world, and this holds very true in Korea.

Stars are often seen endorsing particular individuals during elections in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world: Taylor Swift broke her political silence in 2018 by endorsing two Democratic candidates on her Instagram; Beyonce, Jay-Z, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga openly supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 U.S. presidential election; Rihanna endorsed Andrew Gillum for the Florida Governor vote in 2018, and the list goes on.

But the political silence kept in Korean entertainment is on a different level, especially for K-pop. Not only do stars not speak about politics, they even refrain from wearing or doing anything that could even remotely be interpreted as political.

Trot singer Song Ga-in had to issue an official statement in 2020 when the star appeared in a YouTube video by the National Election Commission to encourage people to vote in the general election. The reason: She wore a blue shirt, which is the official color of the Democratic Party.

Actor Cho Bo-ah had to delete an Instagram post after being bombarded with criticism when she uploaded a picture of the voting stamp on her hand against a backdrop of bright pink flowers. Bright pink was the color of the United Future Party, and the comment section was filled with users demanding an “explanation” on whether she was trying to indirectly convey her political stance.

Entertainer Yu Jae-seok suffered the wrath of the public after wearing a blue baseball cap during the 2018 regional elections, as well as actor Shin Jee-won who was spotted carrying a blue wallet to the ballot station.

Jung Ho-yeon, famed for appearing in the first season of Netflix’s hit series “Squid Game” (2021), had to delete an Instagram post after she uploaded a picture of a piece of paper with the number “1” printed on it.

Members Jay, left, and Ni-ki of boy band Enhypen on Nov. 28, 2023 [NEWS1]

2. Know your history or keep quiet

Another very sensitive topic for stars to watch out for is history, especially modern and contemporary history, due to Korea’s past of colonization by Imperial Japan and two decades of military dictatorship.

In May 2016, members Seolhyun and Jimin of girl group AOA apologized after failing to recognize the picture of independence activist Ahn Jung-geun (1879-1910) during a television quiz show and referring to him by a character from a periodic drama series. The two members each posted a letter of apology on Instagram 10 days after the episode aired, “for failing to show a sincere attitude as a Korean citizen toward our history.”

Earlier this year, Jay of boy band Enhypen said that Korean history felt like "a short novel" that “comes to an end within just a few weeks of studying or skimming through it” during a live session on Weverse on Jan. 11. He apologized just one day later.

Members Jimin, left, and Seolhyun of girl group AOA on April 13, 2018 [YONHAP]
Singer and actor Jun Hyo-seong on Nov. 14, 2023 [NEWS1]

Just two months after that, Jay's bandmate Ni-ki apologized for his "imprudent expression" regarding the March 1 Independence Movement Day after saying he was "jealous" of a fan who got to take the day off for the national holiday. The fact that a Japanese member spoke lightly of a national holiday commemorating a day of resistance toward the Japanese Colonial Rule (1910-1945) was enough to anger Korean fans, which also ended with his apology the next day.

One star, however, managed to turn her misstep into an opportunity.

Singer and actor Jun Hyo-seong in May 2013 used the word “democratize” in a derogatory way, commonly used by the radical far-right community Ilgan Best, also known as Ilbe, to imply oppression or destruction, while describing her girl group Secret during a live radio appearance. She uploaded a post explaining herself and that she did not know what it meant just an hour after the radio show, but still ended up having to post another apology a week later.

But Jun did not stop there, and went so far as to apply for the history test organized by the National Institute of Korean History afterward. Ever since, she has uploaded a post every May 18 to honor the Gwangju Democratic Uprising that took place that day in 1980, against the military coup of Chun Doo Hwan — not only clearing her name but also showing her ability to learn from her own mistakes.

Park Ji-hoon of boy band Treasure on Nov. 28, 2023 [NEWS1]

3. Don’t go to Japan on important national holidays

As a continuation of the history taboo, any topic related to Japan can be risky, especially depending on the date. The general rule of thumb is: Don’t do or say anything positive about Japan on March 1, June 6, or Aug. 15.

March 1 is the day that a nationwide protest organized by students took place in 1919. June 6 is Memorial Day, honoring all patriots who died serving the country, and Aug. 15 is the day that Korea was liberated from Imperial Japan in 1945.

Any sign of friendliness toward Japan on those days can make a star seem pro-Japan, even if it’s nothing political.

Take the case of Park Ji-hoon of boy band Treasure: He posted an image of J-pop band Radwimps’ music video for “Ms. Phenomenal” (2022) on June 6 last year and had to delete it right away after being bombarded with reproaching comments from fans who criticized him for the “poor choice of song on this particular day.”

Actor Ko So-young, left, and singer Sung Si-kyung [NEWS1]

Travel to Japan also has to be done secretly, so as not to end up like singers Kim Kyu-jong of boy band SS501, Sung Si-kyung, actor Ko So-young or entertainer Lee Si-eon, who were all criticized for uploading pictures of their trips to Japan on their social media accounts — even on days that weren’t national holidays.

And in this regard, it’s not just Korean stars. Foreign acts also risk being boycotted by Korean fans if they’re not careful, as seen in the example of pop bands Maroon 5 and One Republic, who saw fans threatening to boycott after band members were spotted wearing clothes that used the red-and-white pattern of the Imperial Japanese flag.

Irene of girl group Red Velvet on Oct. 17, 2023 [NEWS1]

4. Don’t be a feminist

In Korea, the word “feminist” is more than just a simple description of one’s sociopolitical stance. Being dubbed a feminist is a scarlet letter that can have detrimental effects on a celebrity, especially for those whose fandom largely consists of young men.

In March 2018, one fan asked girl group Red Velvet member Irene what book she had recently read during a meet and greet. The singer answered that it was “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” (2016), a feminist book depicting the everyday discrimination faced by an ordinary housewife in Korea. Days later, the internet was filled with angry posts calling her a feminist and pictures of Irene’s photo cards cut up or burned.

A captured image of a hateful message that singer HA:TEFLT, right, received with a caption by the singer reading, ″The reason I became a feminist″ [SCREEN CAPTURE]
Singer and actor Jun Hyo-seong appears in an anti-date violence campaign by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family released in 2021. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

A similar case took place in 2019 with singer HA:TFELT, formerly known as Yeeun of Wonder Girls. After publicly describing herself as a feminist, practically a forbidden move for a K-pop figure, she was bombarded with hateful comments on her Instagram, such as “Only old and ugly female celebrities turn into feminists.”

Even the subtlest of hints can incite anger.

Jun of girl group Secret, who was once called out for being part of the far-right wing, was again criticized for appearing in an anti-date violence campaign video by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2021.

One line she said during the video — “I always go home at night thinking, ‘Can I make it home alive and safe today?’” — resulted in hateful comments, and even a man in his 40s, who made headlines for being beaten by an unacquainted drunk woman at night in July 2011, uploaded a post saying that men can also be victims of violence and that the video must be taken down.

The video is still available on YouTube.

A hand-written apology uploaded by Karina of girl group aespa, left [NEWS1, SCREEN CAPTURE]

5. Don’t date anyone, at least until the fifth year

And of course, the biggest taboo of all for idols: dating.

A major part of K-pop fans’ affection toward their stars constitutes what’s referred to as yusa yeonae in Korean, which means “pseudo-romance,” as well as friendship or a sense of parental love where fans feel like they’re “nurturing” the group and its members. This means that when an idol starts dating someone, fans with a strong sense of yusa yeonae feel like they’ve been betrayed.

That’s why Karina of girl group aespa had to write a letter of apology to fans after she was caught dating actor Lee Jae-wook earlier this year. The aespa member uploaded the letter on her Instagram account a week after news first broke of her new love life, starting with, "I'm sorry to have startled you."

Her apology came after a myriad of Twitter posts demanding her apology, a series of LED trucks with critical messages driving around the SM Entertainment headquarters in eastern Seoul and the company’s stock prices plummeting for days.

Jihyo of girl group Twice, left, and singer Kang Daniel [NEWS1, YONHAP]

Other K-pop idols who have apologized for dating include singer Kang Daniel who dated Jihyo of girl group Twice in 2020, Girls’ Generation’s Taeyeon who dated Baekhyun of boy band EXO in 2014, Joy of girl group Red Velvet who dated rapper Crush in 2021, among others.

Jin of girl group Lovelyz came under fire last year just for mentioning the fact that idols can get to know each other while shooting TV programs and start dating in secret. She claimed that singers meet in waiting rooms for television music programs or entertainment shows, for which she was bombarded with comments calling her “imprudent” and “careless.”