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Actress’s Suicide Exposes S. Korea's Culture of Sexual Exploitation

New America Media, News Report, Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee Posted: Apr 01, 2009

SEOUL -- A letter written by South Korean actress Jang Ja-yeon a week before her March 7 suicide has touched off a firestorm here over the exploitation of female entertainers by some of the country’s leading influential figures. The emerging scandal has also indicted local police and the media for attempting to cover it up.

The seven-page letter, written by the 26-year-old in the offices of a former manager, implicates prominent individuals in South Korea’s media and entertainment circles, including the head of one of the country’s largest dailies and the chief of a popular Internet news site. The government has banned media outlets from publishing those named in the letter, although a number of local Internet sites claim to have gotten hold of some or all of the names.

In the letter, Jang describes her distress at having been forced by her agent, Kim Sung-hoon, to have sex with VIPs, some her father’s age or older, in order to further her career. “I am a powerless young actress who can’t fix what is so evidently wrong,” she wrote. Jang and her sister were orphaned at a young age, leading some to speculate that her suicide was driven by depression. Others say it allowed her to be more easily manipulated by her manager.

Kim, who has been summoned by prosecutors, left for Japan after he was accused of molesting a male actor. Investigators say a hidden room with a shower and bed was discovered on the third floor of his offices in Southern Seoul.

Jang’s is the latest in a string of suicides by popular entertainers here and raises questions over their underlying causes, initially chalked up to the stress of national fame. Jang’s body was found on March 7 hanging from the banister of her southern Seoul apartment.

She starred in the popular television drama “Boys Over Flowers,” playing a scheming young student in an elite Seoul high school. The program was criticized for its weak story line, though it garnered legions of adoring fans, while corporations shelled out enormous sums to secure ad placements.

Investigators have launched a probe into 12 individuals named in Jang’s letter, though online bloggers and women’s groups here say there has been a concerted effort to stymie the investigation to protect those on the list.

“Police must expose the problems that have long plagued the entertainment industry in Korea and drove at least one actress to commit suicide,” an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo reads. “Failing to conduct a proper investigation would make the police guilty of negligence.”

A statement released by several leading women’s groups, including Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center and the Korean Women's Association, describes a cabal of vested interests all engaged in the longstanding practice of using women to seal deals and forge business relations.

“An actress wants to reveal the experiences she’s suffered, but who can she trust? Police, lawyers, media, her entertainment agency?” the statement reads. “Everyone is connected by this circle of power. Movers and shakers who have absolute power in the system easily use their power to cover it up.”

Kim Min-hye-jung of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center says there is growing skepticism about the thoroughness of the investigation. “It doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and none of those mentioned in the letter have been properly investigated yet.”

She also points to a recent scandal involving an official from the presidential office who accepted sexual favors as a bribe by a local business leader. “It goes all the way to the top,” she says.

Her group sent a letter to authorities to ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted into the figures named in Jang’s letter. But she also points to the complicity of local authorities and the media in covering up the issue.

“Major media has been so focused on (figureskating champion) Kim Yu-na and South Korea’s performance in the World Baseball Classic, it’s as if they tried to cover up the story of Jang’s death,” Kim said.

That view gained traction as rumors spread that the release of parts of Jang’s letter by a local broadcaster was intended to steer attention away from an ongoing investigation into a Supreme Court Justice for attempting to influence junior judges.

The reporters are now being sued by Jang’s family for defamation after they reported on the contents of the letter.

A key question is whether Jang’s death will serve as a catalyst for change in the country’s entertainment industry or become another statistic on a growing list of highprofile suicides.

Kim of the Sexual Violence Relief Center says there is so much distrust within the entertainment industry and that authorities need to take responsibility for Jang’s death. “Society cannot permit this kind of sexual violence any longer.”

Related Articles:

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Korean Activist Warned Detained Reporters Not to Cross Border

Korean Elections Mired in Oil and Corruption

Gathering Storm -- A 'Typhoon' of Regional Asian Films



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