Friday, December 04, 2009

2PM, Jaebeom, and Korea's Internet Culture

Dear Korean,

You may recall about two months ago that a kid named Jaebeom from the boy group 2PM (managed by JYP) was basically run out of Korea for some "anti-Korean" comments he made on his MySpace page a few years ago. What's your take on this, especially surrounding the jingoistic knee-jerk reaction to his comments, as well as the equally ridiculous movement to boycott JYP for not "protecting" Jaebeom?


Dear Simon,

The Korean will first state this for the record: the Korean loathes K-pop. Most Korean music worth listening to was produced before the 21st century. As of now, the Korean can count with one hand the Korean singers/bands that are worth listening to. Everyone else is a pretty, soulless shell mass-produced by production companies. Watching them or listening to most K-pop stars makes you stupider. There is nothing redeeming about them. They are the musical equivalent of McDonald’s French fries.

If you are interested in contemporary Korean music, try this guy.
His name is Jang Gi-Ha (장기하). Absolutely fantastic.

But the phenomenon that you described is indeed interesting, so here is the Korean’s take on it. But first, for those who are unfamiliar with the context, the Korean will provide an executive summary:

JYP, or Jin-Yeong Park, is one of the most successful talent developer/managers in the K-pop scene. (Park himself was a relatively successful pop star when he was younger.) The products of JYP Entertainment include such luminaries of K-pop such as Rain and Wonder Girls. JYP frequently mines talent out of both Koreans and Korean Americans.

One of JYP’s most recent creations was 2PM, a boy group with seven members that debuted in 2008. (Hilariously, JYP simultaneously created 2AM, a four-member boy group who sing ballads rather than the beat-heavy dance numbers that 2PM do.) Jaebeom, a third-generation Korean American from Seattle, was one of the members. Jaebeom joined JYP Entertainment in 2005 at age 18, and was trained in Korea prior to his debut as a 2PM member. 2PM was very successful, rising to the top of the charts by early 2009.

2PM. Barf.

Trouble began for Jaebeom in September 2009, when his MySpace page that he kept between 2005 and 2007 became public. Particularly problematic was a correspondence from Jaebeom to his friend on Feb. 22, 2005, which said: “Korea is gay. I hate Koreans. I want to come back like no other.” (Quote is cleaned up for grammar and punctuation.) When the news broke, JYP initially defended Jaebeom, calling the posts “youthful mistakes.” Jaebeom also issued an apology. Other members of 2PM stood by him, expressing support on their own homepages.

But the reaction of K-pop fans, particularly over the Internet, was swift and harsh. Massive amount of hate mail and blog posts soon overwhelmed the popular Korean websites such as Naver and Daum (similar to Yahoo and Google.) Petitions calling for 2PM’s disbandment circulated. JYP suspended 2PM’s appearances. Jaebeom then quit 2PM and returned to Seattle, four days after the news broke. Counter-protest from Jaebeom’s fans also broke out on the Internet over this development, claiming that JYP threw Jaebeom under the bus.

As of now, 2PM chugs along without Jaebeom, releasing a new album. In November, JYP appeared on a TV show indicating that he is considering Jaebeom’s return.

So there is the summary. Now, what does the Korean think about all this?

The Korean thinks that Jaebeom is a fucking retard. It is hardly a secret that Koreans are rather nationalistic, and some of them are prone to complete overreaction at any perceived slight against their nation. It should also be very clear that if you are a star, you have no privacy. Your MySpace page will be made public sooner or later. If Jaebeom did not know that when he was 18, he should have known by the time when he was 22. There is no excuse.

This is a different case from other cases of swift, harsh judgments on the Internet driving celebrities into a corner, for example like Choi Jin-sil. In case of Choi, the rumors on the Internet were baseless lies. In case of Jaebeom, the possible implications of his own words on the Internet were very clear. The Korean has no sympathy for him. Worse has happened to better people.

We still miss you very much.

Having said that, this episode is indeed very interesting because it is an excellent illustration of a particular characteristic of a Korean society that often baffles the outsiders – its interconnectedness. Korea is an extremely interconnected society. Put differently, everyone knows everyone in Korea. (Or more accurately, in Korea, everyone knows at least someone who knows another, leading to knowing everyone.) And by “everyone”, the Korean truly means everyone – including the biggest stars and celebrities.

Often this is described as Korea’s being small, but it is more than that. Compared to Americans, Koreans build a much denser social network over their lives through school, work, hometown and neighborhood. Also, Korea itself is literally denser than America – anything and anyone that matter are located in Seoul, a 12-million people gigapolis. On top of that, Korea is unquestionably the most wired country in the world. Internet works on incredible speed. (What is now advertised as Verizon FiOS has been available in Korea for the last 10 years.) Cell phones work everywhere, including in the subways.

There are many practical implications of this, which will be discussed over other posts as well. But one of the major implications is that in Korea, the distance between the media/Internet and the real world is very, very small.

Contrast America. Take Britney Spears, for example. There is no doubt that she lives in a fish bowl of sorts in America. Paparazzis follow her around everywhere. Any small detail of her life gets publicly exposed on Perez Hilton and TMZ. But as bad as her life is in America, few Americans can reach her in a meaningful way, because Spears is physically removed from most Americans. Few people know Spears personally, nor do they know anyone who knows Spears personally. Her career as a celebrity might suffer, but she can more or less go on living her life.

Not so in Korea. If there is a celebrity, there are already a lot of people who know that celebrity personally. There are even more people who know someone who has a personal relationship with that celebrity. (Heck, the Korean himself can get the phone numbers of a number of celebrities right now by using less than 5 phone calls/emails, and he has been out of the country for 12 years! The Korean even played basketball once with JYP in New York. He had a nice jump shot.) And they all live right around one another, and they are constantly chattering through the world’s fastest Internet and the world’s most extensive cell phone network. One intriguing move, and the eye of the public turns to that celebrity like the Eye over Minas Morgul.

Did anyone see my contact lens?

This is not always bad. For example, when Moon Geun-Yeong was revealed as the anonymous donor who donated around $800,000 over six years, the entire Korea went into a swoon over her commendable act, as the positive opinion of her multiplied quickly over the Internet. The story of her charity was justifiably hyped, which prompted more Koreans to care about charity and donations.

But when things go wrong, the power of the Eye is absolutely terrifying – particularly when it is aimed against ordinary people who never signed up for public scrutiny like celebrities did. The most infamous example is the Dog Poop Girl in 2005. A college student refused to clean up after her dog in a subway car, and another commuter took a picture of her (and her dog) with a cell phone camera. Within days of the picture being circulated on the Internet, everything about her became public – name, picture, address, school (current and former,) websites that she frequents, any comments that she left on the Internet, even where she is right now as “sightings” were reported.

This makes a celebrity’s life in Korea more difficult as well. For example in 2008, comedienne Jeong Seon-Hee made a remark that can be considered disparaging towards the Mad Cow Protestors. The Mad Cow Protestors, also organized over the Internet, began a boycott against Jeong, as well as against the business run by Jeong’s husband, a former actor named Ahn Jae-Hwan. Ahn’s cosmetics business was shut down, and did not do the same business after it re-opened. (Although the complete picture indicates that Ahn probably was not such a good businessman to begin with, as he was vastly overextended in multiple businesses that did not do very well at all.) The loss of income from his wife as well as from his business led to a financial ruin, which prompted Ahn to commit suicide.

But again, by September of 2009, the consequences for a celebrity who pisses off his fan base should have been pretty clear to anyone. Jaebeom is still an idiot for allowing this to happen. Jaebeom is actually lucky, because his sentence was not hell but a purgatory. The Korean society now has had the time to reflect the excesses of its Internet culture, and is coming around to realize that it is being too harsh on individuals for understandable mistakes that individuals are capable of making. This enabled JYP to bring up the possibility of Jaebeom’s return within two months without causing another riot on the Internet. He will be back in K-pop scene sooner or later.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. yea, I've always heard this about the Korean netizens. It's the same in the US, to a lesser extent... look what happened to Bill Mahar and the excellent show Politically Incorrect... canceled because he said one thing that Americans would not stand for.... so much for freedom of speech.

  2. Interesting read. In my opinion, the issue was blown out of proportion due to people in Korea not being familiar with the way American teenagers use the words 'hate' and 'gay'. But yes, at 18 you're a grown person and he should've known better. If you start seeing your face on TV every day, you might consider cleaning up any internet 'dirt' that could eventually be used against you, although in this case I don't know if you can just go and delete comments you've made on someone else's Myspace - on many sites, you can't just edit or delete comments whenever you feel like it. I feel bad for him though, because unlike you I do enjoy some of these so called 'idol groups' in K-Pop and I think the dude is very talented.

  3. I'd say that once you get past the K-Pop crap, there are many Korean musicians/bands who have a lot to offer (I'll see your Jang Gi Ha with 달빛요정역전만루홈런 and raise you a Kingston Rudieska):D

    It's good to see that the whole 'netizen madness' thing is subsiding somewhat though. 네티즌들이 이미 너무 많은 사람들을 잡아먹었지만...

  4. LOL..

    This is your "best post evar!"

    and you can quote me..

    You nearly owed me a new keyboard multiple times.

    You are right on about the music here.. there are some rumblings on college campuses and in trendy neighborhoods. At my University the "kids" (I say that as I am 50) are starting to become interested in what I would call "authenticity" and I think that bodes well for the future of Korean music. The cultural history is all about ryhtmn..which I can't spell... and when that bleeds through and the prepped-band thing fades I expect great things from Korean musicians.

    Jaebom was a fool - if you want to be a star you can't f*ck with your base, which is what he did.

    Last thing, just a point of fact..

    Moon Geun-Yeong was also attacked pretty viciously based on who she had donated to and the fact that some of her family were politically suspect.

    Korea - polarized... like every other country. ;-)


    I'm half "tutor" and half "puto" by word verification.

    LOL.. just about right..

  5. there are a couple more indie singers/groups worth listening to. jang gi ha is pretty amazing, though.

  6. Jaebeom probably is an idiot, but how many k-pop stars are known for their intelligence and political savvy anyway? As far as this issue is concerned, I think Jin Jung-gwon nails it when he attributes the problem to maniacal patriotism and yellow journalism:

    "박재범에 관한 토론에 참석해 달라는 요청을 받다. 작가가 견해를 묻길래, 애국주의 광기가 만들어낸 또 하나의 비극이 아니냐고 대답해주다.

    태어나서 제 나라에 대해 푸념 한 번 안 해 본 사람이 있을까? 어린 아이가 몇 년 전에 사회에 적응하지 못해 한 마디, 그것도 친구한테 사적으로 했던 얘기까지 끄집어내어 공격하는 대중들, 그 얼빠진 짓에 태연히 장단을 맞추며 조회수나 올리는 정신나간 언론들의 행태... " (source here, and another one here)

    (Sorry, too lazy to translate)

  7. Joanna,

    "Freedom of speech" is a bit out of topic for this thread, but this article from NY Times is an interesting read regarding freedom of speech: Link


    Good point, but in this case it was on Jaebeom's own MySpace page.


    The Korean has actually heard of them, just didn't get around to listening to them yet. (The Korean only needs 서태지 to be happy, and he is still not done listening to his latest album.)


    Actually, the post I wrote on Moon (linked in the main post) is talking more about the insane attacks that she received.


    You might be interested in this article: Link

    Money shot: "김성일 문화사회연구소장도 당시 네티즌의 목소리가 ‘애국주의적인 방식’으로 표출됐다는 점에는 동의한다. 하지만 밑바닥에 깔린 정서는 ‘애국심’ 보다 ‘박탈감’에 가깝다는 게 그의 분석이다. 당시 댓글에 “재범은 한국에 돈 벌러 온 미국인일 뿐이다” “군대 가면 용서해준다” 등 국적과 병역 문제를 결부시키는 내용이 유난히 많았던 것은 이런 맥락에서라고 한다.
    “우 리 젊은이들이 가장 고민하는 주제인 외국어와 병역 문제에서 자유로운 존재, 그러니까 외국인이거나 재미교포, 그리고 우리 사회의 일부 상류층을 보며 ‘88만원’ 세대들은 상대적인 박탈감을 느낍니다. ‘우리’와 똑같은 사회에서 살아가면서 아무 의무도 지지 않는 그들이 심지어 ‘우리’를 비판하기까지 하니 집단적인 분노가 폭발한 거지요.”
    김 소장은 “빼앗긴 자가 느끼는 열등감을 정당화하려 할 때 가장 쉽게 갖다 쓸 수 있는 논리가 ‘애국주의’”라며 “넓게 보면 스타벅스 커피를 마시는 여성을 ‘된장녀’라고 공격하는 것도 이 범주에 속한다”고 설명했다."

  8. So out of curiosity, what are the bands/groups/singers which you find acceptable?

  9. You wrote about Park Jaebeom! That's so gay! ur gay!

  10. Interesting article! That was what I thought when I read Jin's description of it as a "mania," that their actions were not out of true love for their country but more out of a misguided belief or illusion that what they are doing is "patriotic." The press must also bear part of the blame for having played on the sentiments of these netizens.

  11. You are a fucking idiot for saying that Jaebeom is a retard. You are no different than those stupid Korean netizens. I wish you would burn in hell.

  12. Careful, Korean. Methinks you might stir up antis of your own out of Jaebeom fangirls here. ;)

  13. @refresh_daemon: careful, Jaebeom. You may stir up antis of your own out of Korean lovers here.;)

  14. "the Korean loathes K-pop. Most Korean music worth listening to was produced before the 21st century."

    Trot music?

    Old kpop was fine for me

  15. The Korean wrote:
    The Korean thinks that Jaebeom is a fucking retard.

    Mister Park is not exactly my favorite person, but I think the use of "retard" as an epithet is highly insensitive at the very least, but heading toward extremely offensive territory.

    Almost as bad as the anti-Semitic epithets you recently removed.

  16. "The Korean loathes K-pop. Most Korean music worth listening to was produced before the 21st century."

    I'd add that before the liberation to boot! :)

  17. er, correction: 2AM is NOT a seven-member girl group (no idea where you got that idea), they're a four-member boy group who sing ballads rather than the beat-heavy dance numbers that 2PM do.

  18. And I agree with you on the mainstream Korean music being shitty, but there's still a few things now and again worth catching, and I adore Korean indie rock. Check out Guckkasten, My Aunt Mary, 브로콜리 너마저 and Ibadi.

  19. Correction is made, thanks -- just a momentary confusion.

  20. @Gonzalo

    I soooo completely agree that his words were not well understood. Yeah, if you write them out / translate them into Korean, they sound pretty harsh, but if you imagine a teenager saying them . . . I'm 90% sure he was just having a bad day (understandable, since he was living in Korea for the first time and doing training, which I've heard is nuts - like, 4-hours-of-sleep-a-night nuts) and letting off steam to a friend.

  21. Marilyn wrote:
    I soooo completely agree that his words were not well understood. Yeah, if you write them out / translate them into Korean, they sound pretty harsh, but if you imagine a teenager saying them . . .

    You're right. I'll bet they translated "Korea is gay" as "Korea is homosexual," but they should have translated it as "Korea is terrible/bad/stupid."

    But you're right. The way this was translated, it sounds like he's some jerk who hates Koreans but wants them to make him rich and famous, when in fact he's... he's... what is he again?


    To me the issue is privacy invasion, but his words were kind of indefensible.

  22. Kush, the Korean can't tell if you are just playing dumb, but the translation that Korean media used for the term "gay" (in a sense Jaebeom used) was 역겹다. That was probably a little too strong.

  23. the Korean wrote:
    Kush, the Korean can't tell if you are just playing dumb, but the translation that Korean media used for the term "gay" (in a sense Jaebeom used) was 역겹다.

    Deliberately "playing dumb," for effect. Though I vaguely recall what word was used to translate "gay," it's irrelevant to my point.

    Even if it had been translated in a culturally appropriate way, it was still rude and offensive, and shows that the guy was, at 17, a jerk.

    At 17 when he was trying to make it big in Korea. In other words, he was just another punk trying to make a buck off people he disdained. While I think it's unfortunate that people are digging in to his "past" to dig up dirt, what's dug up is dug up and the fact is he's just another punk.

    That was probably a little too strong.

    Perhaps. But there's still no "nice way" to translate "Korea is gay" in the way that he meant it. And there's no way to translate "I hate Koreans" in a way that puts a positive spin on it.

    He's a punk who hated the people he wanted to make money off of.

    But ultimately, it's South Koreans themselves who are to blame:

    But why wouldn’t they want to forgive him? Seriously, what is up with South Koreans and their narcissistic tendencies, where everyone has to love them and nobody must hate them and they don't like the people who do hate them?

    So the guy hates you and thinks your country is gay, is that any reason to stop buying his records and making him famous and setting him up in a lavish lifestyle while you live in a windowless koshiwon? What the fu¢k does that say about
    you, you narcissistic fu¢kwads?!

  24. Easy now, Kush. Let's address the idiots when they actually show up.

  25. Oh, sorry. That was a bit of satire from the post I'd linked earlier.

  26. fuck kushibo. you are a fucking cunt who has nothing better than finding fault with a Myspace's comment. You know what Jessica HO got when she insulted BoA? You will get the same treatment some day.

  27. You stay classy, fan of Jaebeom.


  28. You forgot to mention that it wasn't Jaebum's myspace it was his friend's that was infiltrated. Certainly, he may not have been that smart of an 18 year old boy, but you can't deny that any 18 year old boys talk in such ways to their boyfriends... heck they don't even need to be 18 to speak as such (50 year old men talk incoherently to their boyfriends do they not?). It was a private conversation only meant to be private, but was obviously exploited just how Korea likes it... and it was said nearly 5 years ago. I doubt even you would remember what you said 5 years ago. Overall it was overblown and quite stupid. The only good thing that could possibly come out of what happened is Korea may have received a small wake-up call to their two-faced feelings. Korea acts one way in reality, but the net has proven they desire another way. I hope it can finally get to the source of Korea's mass anger that is only reflected through its internet connections. :|


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