South Koreans who watched Jang Ja-yeon playing an alluring villain twice a week in the nation’s favourite soap opera assumed the 26-year-old star had it all.
But since she hanged herself from banisters this month, the country has had to look hard at the seedy underbelly of an entertainment industry whose films and soap operas have won legions of fans across Asia.
A week before her suicide, she wrote a seven-page letter chronicling the sexual favours needed to achieve stardom in dramas of the Hallyu, or Korean Wave.
Police have opened an inquiry into 12 people, including producers, agents and studio executives. The fair trade commission is promising a rigorous examination of slave contracts in the entertainment business.
The case has become the focus of a national scandal and women’s groups view it as a broader test of accountability for a country where, they argue, an unchecked cabal of middle-aged men calls the shots, sealing deals in bordellos and hostess bars.
Lee Eun-sang, deputy director of Korea’s sexual violence relief centre, hoped the police inquiry would prove a landmark case in cracking down on abuse.
“The practice of powerful figures using their status for getting sex in return for favours is rampant in Korean society at large,” she said. “Miss Jang’s case can be the starting place for setting up a real institutional framework. In the past, the rumours never got as far as a proper investigation.”
The story Jang tells in her letter and the details the police have released smack of a soap opera. Orphaned since her school days when her parents were killed in a car crash, she says she was at the mercy of studio bosses who pimped her off and used her to serve drinks on a golf trip to Thailand.
In a trial by the public, the men she named have already been identified on websites, sparking an outpouring of vitriol.
But the case is far from clear-cut. Kim Sung-hoon, the artist’s agent, was cast initially as the villain of the piece and efforts are under way to secure his extradition from Japan, but he protests his innocence.
In late February, Jang visited Yoo Jang-ho, her former manager, in whose office she wrote the accusatory letter. Mr Yoo then gave copies of this letter to Jang’s family and leading media. The state-run Korean Broadcasting System, which shows Jang’s soap opera Boys over Flowers , aired extracts from the letter.
Mr Kim told Korean media the letter was an attempt by Mr Yoo, his rival, to bring him down. Although the police first assumed that Jang killed herself because of public humiliation, the star’s family contests that she felt hounded after Mr Yoo leaked the document.
Park Mun-yeong, a former KBS producer, said the suicide was also a tragic side-effect of a lack of genuine competition in Korean media that was stifling the arts.
“The current system of three [non-cable] broadcasters was established when the economy was a 10th of its current size. Therefore, a TV appearance has become synonymous with success and people are eager to perform at all costs,” he wrote in the Joong-Ang daily. “Actors and actresses who do not make frequent appearances are treated as losers. To avoid this, they often have to go too far.”
Korea’s government is trying to pass a media reform bill to increase competition but the measure is being resisted by leftwing politicians and unions.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong