SEOUL - THE BASICS
Seoul is the capital and largest city in South Korea, stretching for over 30 kilometers and housing almost 25 million people (nearly a quarter of a million of those being international residents). Seoul is bisected by the Han River, which was a source of great political tension over the course of history; as in early days, the political center of Seoul remains in the Jongno and Jung district. Most foreigners are more familiar with the economic center of Seoul, the Gangnam District, thanks to Psy's blockbuster 2012 song "Gangnam Style".
Seoul is one of the most visited tourism cities in the world, largely because of the popularity of its dramas and music worldwide. It is also home to multiple spots of international interest, including the most visited national park in the world, Mt. Bukhan, and Lotte World, the biggest indoor theme park on the planet. The aforementioned Gangnam District is likened to the Beverly Hills of South Korea, where many entertainment companies are located and where the highly fashionable go to shop at the multiple markets. High-speed rail connects Seoul to the entirety of South Korea, and every subway and train is equipped with 4G LTE and WiFi.
Summers in Seoul are often hot, with average temperatures being about 85 F/29 C, but the all-time highs reaching over 100 F/38 C! Winters are generally fairly cold, with snow and freezing temperatures the norm (32 F/0 C). There is a short rainy season in June and July commonly called jangma that affects the entire Asian region, where humidity is high and flooding is common. Additionally, in the springtime, yellow dust storms can occur, which deposit large amounts of yellow sand from Mongolian regions all over South Korea. South Korean scientists have taken to planting large amounts of trees in forested areas to try and stop the migration of this dust.
Cost of living in Seoul is fairly high, with the average apartment costing about $5500 per square foot in American dollars. (Apartments can go for double this in the Gangnam district!) However, the city offers duty-free shopping to visitors, which is hugely beneficial for tourism. The current conversion rate from South Korea's national currency, the won, to US dollars is 1 won to 89 American cents.
South Korea boasts one of the most educated, literate workforces in the world - as one of the highest-performing OECD countries (bested only by Singapore), education is taken very seriously, viewed as an individual and a family's best chance of upward social mobility. High academic performance is a great source of pride for many South Koreans, to the point where not having a degree from a university is a major stigma for individuals.
School years and ages generally are the same as ages for American schools, with one exception - children ages 0-3 will often be enrolled in nursery schools, and will attend kindergarten from ages 4-6. Some parents enroll their children in kindergarten at age 3, giving them three years of kindergarten and a distinct educational advantage.
While attending middle school, almost every student has some form of extracurricular activity, whether it be idol training at an agency, martial arts, or tutoring at a private hagwon center (something that an estimated 95% of middle schoolers in South Korea attend). These activities only grow in intensity when entering high school, as a student can feasibly leave for school at 5 am and not return home until 10 pm due to studying, tutoring, and classes.
High school is not mandatory for South Korean youth, unlike middle school; however, 97% of South Korean teenagers attend high school. There are multiple types of high schools to attend in South Korea - specialty schools, which teach a certain track of education to prepare students for a specialized career path in college (say, in the sciences); public and private high schools, which teach a rigorous all-around courseload as dictated by the South Korean government; and vocational high schools, which prepare students to enter a career immediately after graduation.
Though entrance exams are no longer mandatory for middle school, a student may be required to take an entrance exam, depending on what kind of high school they wish to attend.
Attitudes about higher education have been changing in light of the international fiscal crises and depressions of 2007-2008. More South Korean students are opting to go to vocational school and to pursue blue-collar careers in manufacturing fields. Meister schools modeled after vocational and apprenticeship programs in Switzerland and Germany have been established, to encourage younger students to prepare for careers instead of higher education. However, there is a generational gap in regards to education - 93% of South Korean parents in 2012 expected their children to go to university.
There are also serious sociological debates about South Korean education. The harsh nature of the educational system, the focus on success, and the lack of a certain future due to economic downturn contributes to an intensely pressured youth. One study estimated that 40% of youth in South Korea have had suicidal thoughts due to the academic pressures put upon them. There is also serious concerns that the current educational system stifles creativity in individuals.
There are three branches of government in South Korea - the legislative and executive branches, which operate on a national level, and the judicial branch, which operates on both national and local levels. The power for the government is given by the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, and this document dictates that South Korea's head of government will be a president. Much like the American government, there are a system of checks and balances between each of the three branches; these checks were demonstrated with the recent impeachment of former South Korean president Park Geun-Hye. (We will talk more about her current impact later in this section.)
The legislative branch is mainly represented by a 300-person body known as the National Assembly. 56 of these members are elected based on proportional votes in elections; the rest are directly appointed by local vote. Sessions of the National Assembly can occur once a year, and go on for no more than 100 days, or can be started due to extraordinary circumstances. All sessions are open to the public, barring a vote to close a session. One of the National Assembly's largest duties is approving the budget of the country every year, which must be approved at least 30 days before South Korea's fiscal year begins. However, the National Assembly votes on many more matters of national importance, and are the main lawmaking body of South Korea.
There are four parties with a majority in the National Assembly currently - the Democratic Party, the Liberty Korea Party, the People's Party, and the Bareun Party. The Justice and Saenuri parties are smaller parties; Independents are also represented in the National Assembly.
The executive branch is headed by the president, who is democratically elected, and, much like in America, serves as the head of the South Korean military as well. They are assisted by a Cabinet, which functions as a blend of and American cabinet and English-style parlimentary cabinet. There are 15-30 members of this Cabinet, and they all represent and lead different government ministries (i.e., National Defense Committee, Security and Public Administration, Gender Equality and Family, etc.). Cabinet members representing other interests that do not have ministries in the South Korean government may also be present (like Veteran Affairs). The Cabinet cannot bind the President to its decisions, and functions more as an advisory board for the President.
The Judicial Branch is headed by the Supreme Court of South Korea, followed by the Constitutional Court, appellate courts, and local courts. There are no independent courts, as all courts must be under national jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has fourteen justices, one of whom is the Chief Justice; this individual oversees all court-related administration and can propose legislation in the National Assembly, in addition to their duties as a justice. Justices serve on the Supreme Court for 6-year terms.
The Constitutional Court only sees matters pertaining to the Constitution, including impeachment. There are nine justices on this court - three recommended by the Chief Justice, three by the National Assembly, and three by the President. The President ultimately appoints the entire Constitutional Court.
Presidential elections are held every five years in South Korea, barring extraordinary circumstance. The political landscape in South Korea right now is in a state of recovery, as former president Park Geun-Hye was impeached in 2016. Her relationship with Choi Soon-sil, who allegedly extorted bribes in exchange for political favors, had access to classified documentation despite being a civilian, and dictated most of Park Geun-Hye's decisions, was at the center of this impeachment; also figuring in was the public's continued anger at Park Geun-Hye's handling of the tragic Sewol Ferry Disaster, where over 300 schoolchildren died, and past wounds related to Park Geun-Hye's father, who seized power of South Korea in a military coup and ran the country until 1981 as a dictator. She is currently awaiting trial, and has been replaced by Moon Jae-in as of May 2017.
All South Korean men are required to conscript into the military. The current law requires all men between the ages of 18 and 35 to complete some form of compulsory military service. Depending on what branch of the military a man is conscripted into, he can serve anywhere from 21 to 36 months. Active duty in the South Korean Army, Marines, Navy, or Air Force is around 21 - 24 months; non-active duty can last for 36 months.
All eighteen-year-olds are required to take health tests in order to determine that they are healthy enough to perform military duties. After that point, men simply have to make sure that they enlist to take their basic training and mandatory service before they are 35. (In order to complete annual military training afterwards for six years, many men enter the military by age 27.)
Non-active duty is usually reserved for men who do not completely pass a full physical examination. They can be placed as workers in social welfare offices or in other public service positions.
Though I will not be going into all the different duties that a military man can have, all conscripted officers go through a five-week basic training that is oftentimes described as brutal. After service, South Korean men are put on a reserve roster, and must complete annual military training for a few days for six more years.
Traditionally in South Korea, especially in the Joseon Dynasty (which lasted until about 1897), a woman's role was in the home. Confucianism dictated a patriarchal society, and women were often kept out of political affairs unless they were part of the aristocracy. Parents often chose husbands for their daughters. Women were expected to remain chaste before marriage, and if their husband was to die, they were not allowed to remarry. Sexual education for women and men was fairly limited.
However, influence from the Western world has seen many changes in women's rights in the past thirty years. In the 1980s, cultural clashes between younger and older generations about women's desires to choose their own partners and maintain their own careers were common; these desires are now accepted as common. Currently, men and women both are allowed the right to a divorce, although financial and social motivators still strongly influence a woman's decision to divorce her husband.
There is a glass-ceiling phenomenon in the South Korean workforce - a 2013 study by the Economist found that South Korea ranked lowest of all OECD countries in having women in senior jobs. This is in tandem with large influxes of women working in factories and performing labor to create textiles, electronics, and other items responsible for the economic boom of South Korea. Wage equality is problematic, at about an equivalent level to America's wage gap of 70 cents to the dollar. There is also the pervasive attitude that a woman should work only until marriage, an attitude that is heightened by the social stigma against paternity leave in the workplace.
However, despite these challenges, women are becoming a dominant force in South Korea. The patriarchal family register was abolished in 2005, after women were granted the rights of custody to their children and material property in divorce cases in 1991. Samsung has committed to hiring and promoting more women into senior management, while the CEO of the Industrial Bank of Korea is female as well. Women have also, traditionally and modernly, been in charge of family finances, and women are often seen as the planners and executors of their children's educations. There is also the matter of a national drive for equality - the vast majority of South Koreans desire gender equality, according to the UNDP.
While homosexuality and transgender reassignment surgery are legal in South Korea, there are still very strong social attitudes against homosexuality and transgendered individuals. Gay and lesbian individuals are not permitted to marry, and the hint of a gay scandal in the idol world could, at the very least, temporarily derail a star's career, as it did with gay comedian and actor Hong Seok-cheon in 2000, who came out on television and found himself blacklisted for many years. His career has recovered in recent years, in large part due to increasing youth acceptance of homosexuality.
Unfortunately, multiple shows about LGBTQIA+ issues have been cancelled or not rebroadcast due to protests from the South Korean public. There are no discrimination protections on the books legally for those who feel they are being discriminated against for their sexual orientation.
South Korea can claim that a majority of their people have no religious affiliation. However, culturally, the country is dominated by three religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Korean Confucianism. The predominant forms of Christianity in South Korea are Protestantism and Catholicism, which began to spread rapidly after missionaries visited the country in the 1880s.
The indigenous religion of Sindo is a shamanic form of religion; unlike Japan's similar Shinto, it never became a national religion. In Sindo, a male or female priest acts as an intermediary between gods/spirits and the human world, in an effort to resolve problems on Earth, via rituals. Sindo was targeted by the regime of Park Chung-hee and was almost wiped out in the 1970s and 1980s, destroying many sites that would probably be labeled world heritage sites today. However, Sindo is making a comeback in modern South Korea.
Though Korean Confucianism generally is not a religion that people claim to be a part of anymore, Confucian thought dominates Korean culture. Rites are held yearly at the Confucian shrine in Seoul, and Confucian values like taking education seriously, performing ancestral memorial services, group-oriented living arrangements, loyalty and reverence, and ethics in the workplace are deeply ingrained in South Korean life. Korean Pottery, Tea Ceremony, Gardens, and Flower Arrangement are all also still governed by Confucian teachings and rules.
The road to becoming an idol is a long one, but it starts, whether acting, modeling, singing, or dancing, by being discovered. Some idols are discovered by employees of agencies simply going about their daily business, shopping with their families, or going to school. More likely, idols initially attended an audition for a trainee slot with one of the major agencies. Agencies will have auditions not just in South Korea, but in Japan, China, Thailand, the Philippines, and even the United States. (Getting spotted on the street does not make you immune to this audition process! The agencies like to make sure you can carry a tune in a bucket or aren't a completely wooden actor.) Sometimes multiple trainees are let into the agencies after these auditions; sometimes only one is. (The YG audition that found Lalisa Manobahn, a.k.a. Lisa of Blackpink, famously only let her into the agency.)
Generally, you have to be at least 11 years old to audition, and most agencies accept trainees age 11-22. Some companies will accept older trainees, but it is very rare to see someone over 25 accepted as a trainee. (Please keep in mind that on Re-Bye, we require your characters to be at least 13 years old.)
Once a potential idol is accepted into an agency, they will sign a contract with the agency to secure their services. Most of these contracts are currently for 7 years; however, this was not always the case. South Korean agencies dealt with a wave of criticism and controversy in 2009 over the terms of their contracts when three members of the band Super Junior sued over the unfair clauses in their contracts, including ones that denied them most of the monetary gains they'd made as the most famous band in South Korea. They are far from the only artists who have taken their agencies to court over this, and the South Korean government has required that a 7-year contract limit be enforced because of these issues.
Most contracts do require trainees to pay back the costs of their training, including vocal coaching, room, board, dress, and food. (Some bands, such as GFriend, have mentioned that this left them pretty poor during their first year after debuting.) Leaving an agency early may require a former trainee to pay back these costs out-of-pocket, something that can be extremely difficult. Other items commonly mentioned in contracts for trainees and idols include limits on vacation days, rules on dating and socializing, and delineating fines for inappropriate behavior (like being late to events, aforementioned dating issues, and behavior that could damage the company).
A trainee can be in the training process at an agency for anywhere from two to eight years - and there is never a guarantee that a trainee will debut at all. Days for trainees are very long, and are packed with vocal lessons, dance classes, language tutoring (so that a trainee will be prepared to speak Japanese, Chinese, and English in case of international debuts), and general studying; some days for trainees can be fourteen hours long.
Many trainees are expected to remain in top physical shape. Dieting is very common among all trainees, with agencies also restricting when trainees can eat and drink (a famous rule that's circulated the internet says that women cannot drink water after 7 pm to avoid bloating). Trainees also work through physical injuries, exhaustion, and other physical ailments.
Trainees all live together in the agency dormitories. Many trainees create life-long bonds here, and become very close friends. Even after debuting, many in the same agencies will continue to support the people they trained with, by sharing their songs online through social media or appearing with them on variety and reality shows.
Depending on the agency, trainees can be forbidden from dating each other and trainees/artists from other companies, but we'll talk more about that later.
Agencies will, eventually, take certain trainees and prepare them for debut. The debuting process is very jam-packed - the soon-to-debut artist will record their singles/album, learn a dance for their title song (lead single) to perform at all the music shows, film the music video for said title song, photo shoots, various other promotional events which can include debut concerts, fan meetings, online introduction videos, dance practice filming... there are many things that happen before an artist debuts!
Debuts, as mentioned earlier, are not guaranteed in a trainee's contract. Not only that, a debut does not mean that an artist's work ends! They continue to practice their singing, dancing, rapping, and, occasionally, songwriting skills, with additional promotional schedules.
THE SIDE-EFFECTS OF FAME
Congratulations! You have debuted! No matter how successful your debut is, you will generally end up with some fans in South Korea and abroad. What does that mean for you?
For starters, idols are expected to interact with their fans. The main way to do so is through social media videos, usually posted on VLive or Naver, the main social media apps in South Korea. Others use Twitter extensively to get their message out. Another way to do so is for an agency to organize fan meeting events. These events often involve question and answer sessions, high-touch (an event where fans get to high five their favorite bands), and gift-giving from fans to idols. Sometimes there can even be special events organized between fans and idol groups that can be attended by winning contests and/or getting a special ticket or item inside copies of the band's album - these can include meals with the band, meet and greets, or even small trips!
Idols are held to very high standards of behavior by their fans, very similar to American child stars. Regardless of gender, idols are expected to be constantly available, or to appear available, to their fans through social media, fan meetings, appearing on variety shows, and various other activities. Many idols have online fan cafes, where fans will discuss the idol and support them in their various endeavors. These fan cafes also are in charge of organizing to send gifts and other tokens of affection to their favorite band members on special occasions (member birthdays, concerts, music show stages, etc.).
There are downsides to this level of interaction with fans:
- Idols are put onto pedestals and expected to act as perfectly as possible. Korean internet commenters, often called 'netizens' or 'Knetz', can be exceedingly harsh on celebrities that disappoint them. A scandal of any kind can destroy an idol, to the point of even ruining whole band's careers over the indiscretions of one member. There are plenty of stories of idols committing minor indiscretions and having their whole careers destroyed - in some cases, like the case of Solbi, someone faking a scandalous event about your past can ruin your career. (Two people faked a sex tape and sold it as being of her and her manager. Though they went to jail, the damage to Solbi's image was already done.)
- Sasaeng fans are a constant threat to idols. These fans often stalk idols wherever they go and generally invade their privacy - the most extreme among them will install cameras in their favorite idols' homes, steal items from their dormitories, and may even try to kidnap them (some sasaeng fans tried to kidnap the band EXO by driving a van that looked like one from their agency; their manager thankfully noticed the ruse just in time). And god forbid you start dating. There is a large network of sasaeng fans online who will pay each other for or trade photos and other idol-related items to each other.
However, the idol life can be unlike anything on earth. Idols who are successful often go across the world to perform their greatest hits, in addition to gaining sponsorship deals with the biggest labels on earth. Most idols do truly care about their fans, and often give their money to charitable causes to help out those in need - one of the biggest traditions in k-pop is for fan cafe members to donate bags of rice to help the hungry and poverty-stricken, in the names of their favorite idols. K-pop idols are revered as the most glamorous in South Korea, and being an idol can lead to a lifelong career in the entertainment industry, either as a television host, a songwriter, an actor/actress, or even a commentator.