Seungri is free, and his die-hard fans couldn't be more delighted
Talk about unconditional love — K-pop fans are famed for their passionate, unwavering love for their stars, but some fans take it to the next level by displaying the same, or even stronger, affection even after the celebrity has been found guilty of a crime.
Seungri, the former member of boy band Big Bang whose real name is Lee Seung-hyun, was released from prison on Thursday morning at 5 a.m. after serving a year and a half for nine charges including soliciting prostitution, gambling and embezzling.
He was initially set to be released two days later on Feb. 11 but was released prematurely because the two days he was held under police custody while his arrest warrant was being reviewed by the court counts toward his sentence, according to his attorney.
Had he left the Yeoju Correctional Institution as scheduled, he would have been met with a swarm of fans, antis and press trying to get a glimpse of the fallen star.
Once a golden child of the Korean entertainment industry, Seungri saw success in not only music and television, but also at his restaurant and nightclub business.
Until, that is, he became the center of the infamous Burning Sun scandal involving sex, drugs and police protection. Shortly after accusations broke in late 2018, he left Big Bang in March 2019 upon announcing his retirement from the entertainment industry entirely.
Due to the gravity of his crimes, the Korean public has long turned their backs on Seungri. But for a sizeable number of international fans, it’s a different story as they prepare to welcome him back.
Right here waiting
Supporters of Seungri stand firm online, especially on Twitter, under the slogan “Justice for Seungri.”
Ever since allegations and police investigations began in March 2019, supporters have maintained that he was wrongly accused and faced an unfair trial in a sensationalized witch hunt orchestrated by the press.
Thousands of posts appear under the hashtags #JusticeForSeungri and #SeungrisRealStory, which claim that he was only CEO of the Burning Sun club on paper, not in action, and he that did not release any “immoral” videos that male stars were punished for back then.
Believing in his innocence, these fans hope Seungri will come back to the entertainment scene. Many of them continue to support the idea of Big Bang as a five-member group under the slogan “Big Bang OT5,” meaning "one true five," in a hope to see them together again.
Fans’ belief in Seungri’s innocence has been fervent from the onset of his investigation. In March 2019, Indonesian fans rallied in Jakarta to show their support.
“I do not believe he did those things,” one female fan was quoted by local news outlet Jawa Pos at the time. “Some reports are quite exaggerated, so we must be careful when we read related news.”
Almost four years later, a group of his fans shared with the Korea JoongAng Daily that they prepared a bundle of gifts to send Seungri to celebrate his release from prison. They also donated to the World Wildlife Fund under his legal name last year.
The group were no less busy while Seungri was serving time. Throughout the years, his fans have been displaying support online, especially focusing on distributing material that argue against Seungri’s charges or dismiss witness testimonies as false.
“We are a diverse group of people of all ages, genders, professions and nationalities, each with a personal history about how we came to know and support Seungri,” said the organizer of a Twitter fan page dubbed VVIP international fan group, derived from the name of Big Bang’s fandom, VIP.
The group maintains that Seungri is “not guilty beyond reasonable doubt” and that he fell victim to misinformation.
“Some were originally convinced of his guilt but were curious enough to look into the case and changed their minds, the deeper they looked. Details changed a lot of [people’s] minds. While the majority of supporters are fans who've appreciated him as a singer, dancer, actor or DJ, some are simply interested in the legal case. […] A surprising number of people came to know and support Seungri after his retirement.”
Although relatively less vocal than international fans, the organizer added there are also Korean fans in the group who “frequently engage with us directly, and confidently and concisely counteract the misinformation that they regularly encounter.”
“[The reason] we still support Seungri is because, like everyone else, he's entitled to basic human, civil and constitutional rights,” a member of VVIP said.
“When considering the facts and testimonies revealed through months of hearings, we don't agree with any notion that Seungri is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We felt the reporting of the investigation to be myopic, skewed against him at each stage. […] As a result, we witnessed the majority of people pass immediate and final judgement based on a few incendiary articles they saw in the media.”
What really happened
The VVIP members state that they are ready to change their minds given “tangible evidence.”
“That information hasn't been provided,” a VVIP said. “Too many questions remain unanswered.”
The so-called Burning Sun scandal started in late 2018 with a man named Kim Sang-gyo claiming that he got beat up by the staff at the Burning Sun club in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. News spread like wildfire and soon included allegations of connections between the police and the club, Seungri’s sex solicitation, YG Entertainment head Yang Hyun-suk and illegal sex videos from K-pop stars.
Seungri was first given a three-year sentence in August 2021 by a military court, which was reduced to a year and a half by the Supreme Court last May because he “admitted to all his crimes and is regretting his actions,” according to the ruling.
He was found guilty of soliciting prostitution for investors from Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong, as well as for himself, from December 2015 to January 2016. He was also found guilty of gambling up to 2.2 billion won ($1.8 million) in Las Vegas from 2013 to 2017, embezzling about 528 million won from his night club and mobilizing gang members to threaten customers with whom he got into a fight at a bar back in December 2015.
Seungri solicited prostitution for his investors up to 29 times within two months, spending 43 million won in the process, according to a court ruling reported by news channel JTBC.
He also took illegal footage of three naked women in bed and spread them through a KakaoTalk chatroom after a fan meet-and-greet held in June 2016 in China.
The chatroom sparked a whole new set of scandals involving multiple male K-pop stars who turned out to have shared illegally-shot videos of women they had sex with, including singer Jung Joon-young and former member of boy band FT Island, Choi Jong-hoon.
The two were charged and found guilty of sharing illegal videos and raping drunk, unconscious women in 2016.
Jung was sentenced to five years in 2020 and will be released from prison on Oct. 1, 2025. Choi was given two years and six months of prison time and was released in November 2021. Choi was last spotted by the local press attending church with his mother last year in January.
Singers Roy Kim and Eddy Kim also found themselves being investigated for being associated with chat rooms spreading illegal videos.
For singer Roy Kim, prosecutors decided to suspend his indictment on Feb. 25, 2019, meaning that they recognize his criminal charges but took into account other factors — such as age and criminal motive — and let him off with a warning. Eddy Kim has not been active since 2019, and Roy Kim kept off the stage from 2019 to May 2020 but released new music in October 2022.
Undying love or denial?
So why do fans of such stars continue to love these convicted criminals? Fans blame the Korean press, but experts say it’s a form of denial.
Fans of Seungri claim that the press has been feeding selective information, thereby manipulating the public consensus, and information has been even more limited to readers of other languages.
“Every story has multiple sides, and, as Seungri’s side has for the most part been effectively ignored or discounted, how can it be said that this view is the correct one?” said one VVIP member.
“If we view Seungri’s case as a jigsaw puzzle, then it is impossible to see the full picture if even just a tiny piece is missing: We at least acknowledge that we do not have all the pieces, while others insist that they can see the whole picture when all they actually have is a tiny corner of an otherwise massive canvas.”
It’s natural for someone to deny given evidence of a case as long as they are not harmed in any way by sticking to that belief, according to Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University.
“A person’s defense mechanism immediately kicks in if they are at a place of being proven wrong,” she said. “People will stick to their beliefs as long as they don’t cause any harm or get them into legal trouble. And the most common way of doing that is by believing that evidence has been fabricated or that something is going on behind the scenes.”
Seungri hasn’t made an official move, at least not yet. Fans have showed undying love for controversial, or criminal, stars in the past, so Seungri’s comeback to the entertainment scene isn’t completely off the table.
Singer Kim Hyun-joong, a former member of boy band SS501, was found guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend in 2014 and was charged with a 5 million won fine. The following year, she became pregnant with Kim and gave birth to a son in September 2015.
He held a fan meet-and-greet in April 2017 after finishing his two-year military duty and started a tour in December that year. He has been appearing in TV shows and releasing new music since.
Park Yu-cheon, a former member of boy band TVXQ, was supported by fans after being found guilty of illegal drug use in 2019. He hasn’t had an official music release, but his fans continue to show support on his Instagram account.
BY YOON SO-YEON, HALEY YANG, CHO YONG-JUN [email@example.com]