SECRET’s Hyosung, Netizens and Democracy in South Korea

K-pop girl group SECRET’s leader Hyosung has been having a bit of a tough time recently. At first it was all the articles and comments about her diet which overshadowed the group’s recent comeback and then something a little more serious happened. Yesterday on a radio show, she used the word ‘democratisation’ in a manner which was negative and inconsistent with the word’s true meaning. When talking about how the group operates she said “Our team respects each other’s individuality so our group doesn’t utilise democratisation.” This caused a huge outrage in the comments section of Korean news portals like Nate and Naver. Netizens started asking if Hyosung is a user of conservative forum Ilbe and demanding that she be edited out of the second part of an Infinity Challenge special which commemorates the Gwangju Democratic Movement.

This might not sound like a huge deal to international K-pop fans, so why is it making such big waves on the Korean internet? To understand that, we need to understand a bit about Korean politics, history and the function of Ilbe on the Korean internet.

Former Korean dictator, Park Chung-hee

Former Korean dictator, Park Chung-hee

The Republic of Korea is a country which very strongly values its democracy. The main reason for this is that it hasn’t actually had true democracy for very long and a lot of people fought hard to achieve it.

From the split of the Korean peninsula after the Second World War in 1948 until the late 80s, Korean democracy was undermined by a series of military coups and dictatorships, most notably that of Park Chung-hee who ruled unelected for 17 years. He also happens to be the father of current president, Park Geun-hye.

The road to democracy for South Korea was not one without casualties as many protesters (often university students) were killed by the military or the police in democratisation protests. One of the most well-known of these is the Gwangju Democratisation Movement (광주 민주화 운동) also known as the Gwangju Massacre which is commemorated nationally every year on May 18th. The series of protests which started on that day in 1980 saw what has been estimated at up to 2000 casualties (although official figures put the number at less than 200) and the imprisonment of hundreds of civilians. Although it was unsuccessful, it paved the way for a series of other movements which led to eventual democracy in 1987.

Most Koreans as a result are very proud of their democratic state and this is one of the reasons Hyosung is getting such a hard treatment currently. Hyosung used a word associated with Korea’s long and hard fight for democracy in a way that was inaccurate and many see as disrespectful. It also has to do with the Korean messageboard Ilbe from which this use of the term originates.

Ilbe (short for Ilgan Best) is a popular (in terms of number of users) website with a very bad reputation. Content-wise, it’s most similar English-language counterpart is imageboard 4chan, as both are notorious for their foul language, misogyny and attacks on individuals over the internet through various social networks. Unlike 4chan, Ilbe is also a very political website and hosts many users who hold extremely right wing, ultra conservative opinions. These users are against any attempts to improve relations with North Korea and idealise dictator Park Chung-hee and other right-wing figureheads. This very specific version of the word ‘democratise’ (민주화시키다) used in a negative sense meaning along the lines of forcing democratisation or making people conform to the ideas of the majority even if they disagree was created by the users of Ilbe.

Ilbe logo

Ilbe logo

Because this version of the word is only really used on Ilbe, netizens are now speculating on whether Hyosung is a user of the site which, considering their reputation, is not a good thing for her image. Added to that is the fact that Ilbe users have decided to add fuel to the fire and bulk buy SECRET’s new album en masse. They have also been taking over the comments section of articles about Hyosung calling her ‘Ilbe goddess Hyosung’. She has also been referred to as ‘General Jun Hyosung’ which may be a result of the fact that she shares the same family name 전 as former military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, the man in charge of the government behind the Gwangju Massacre.

Hyosung on radio show ‘Choi Hwa Jung’s Power Time‘

Hyosung on radio show ‘Choi Hwa Jung’s Power Time‘

This all comes after the first part of the Infinity Challenge special, which featured SECRET, on which many idols failed to answer fairly basic questions about Korea’s recent history and democracy.

So is Hyosung a user of Ilbe? It seems unlikely. Ilbe is extremely misogynistic, women are routinely referred to as ‘boji’ meaning vagina, and not exactly welcoming of female members. What is more likely is that she either has browsed Ilbe before or saw the word being used in this way somewhere else online and misunderstood its actual meaning.

Hyosung came out herself on twitter, apologising and explaining that she misunderstood the word’s real meaning. However many netizens are saying that if it was a case of pure misunderstanding then Hyosung must be stupid as this is something taught in school from a young age.

Either way it looks like a difficult time ahead for Hyosung and her group. The criticisms themselves are not unfounded but to what extent should they affect her career? It is unfortunate and foolish to have shown her misunderstanding of democratisation so close to an important national memorial day but should that mean that she has to be edited out of a TV special?

I often think western celebrities are not held accountable for their actions enough but in Korea this sometimes taken too far the other way. For example when singer Ivy was forced out of the public eye for three years because of a sex tape that never existed. It also seems that consequences for female celebrities are worse than for their male counterparts.

However it does also get tiring to see the constant comments on English language Korean entertainment websites criticising the knee-jerk reactions of Korean netizens while taking no time to understand the cultural context themselves. The irony in sweeping remarks which criticise the judgemental behaviour of a few individuals as the actions of an entire country  (some real examples from this story:‘WTF Korea?’, ‘koreans….’, and ‘OMG korean people so mean.’) is somehow always lost.

People put stupid, judgemental things on the internet everywhere. They are not the reflection of the actual views of a whole country of people.

What do you think about this whole situation? Let us know in the comments.

  • Olivia Wood

    Poor hyosung, it was just a mistake and she even apologised publically on her twitter, I wish the netizens would cut her some slack:/

  • Terri

    I think it’s a very unfortunate situation. I do think it’s possible that Hyosung used the word without fully realising its meaning/connotations. I hope that SECRET don’t suffer too much, but realistically, it looks very bad for them.

  • Mariana

    I think it’s true that it could have been a mistake to speak of it so lightly use words like that. Perhaps lacked think more before saying what really meant. But, although I understand the historical and political importance, I think it is an exaggeration to react and say things that netizens have said. An error committed by any person. She besides being an idol, she’s human. I do not think it’s stupid and does not think that is part of that group. In my humble opinion she just made ​​a grammatical error in speaking. And she realized what that word was playing on the network. Being idol you need to be aware of any trend and maybe she misunderstood or confused with another word. Although people do not want to believe it, especially if it is an artist, these things happen. It is the first time you have a scandal like that. If you really belong to that group already had known before. I understand that people react with such surprise, but they have not stopped to think that things can be much easier than they can get to see. She was not promoting anything. Even the word was out of context, so I can not think that she actually did it on purpose.

    What they say about foreign fans, maybe most do not really think or we can not understand the pain or the memories of all those who fought for democracy. But I think it is stupid to bother with something it was just a mistake, a miserable mistake of someone who really did not know what she was saying and she apologized. Nobody is perfect and there are things you forget, you understand them differently, or confused by the clueless, or many other reasons.

    I’m not saying they don’t have the right because I’m not Korean, it’s just my opinion. And if the fans speak is because somehow appreciate them and do not like this type of conflict. Just thank you very much for your time to explain it and hopefully SECRET and, of course, Hyoseong are not much affected.

    PS: Sorry for my bad english…I’m spanish~

  • giki303

    k-netizens need to know that hyosung is just a human. and humans make mistakes. she already apologised for misusing that ONE word, what more do they want?

  • michelle de guzman

    I really feel sorry for her :(( She apologized already :(( they want her to be edited out in IC

  • Geraldine Anderson

    Ah poor girl, everyone makes mistakes and not everyone understands the meaning of every word be it something simple or complex it doesn´t make her stupid and nor does it make her part of an anti-democratic forum =_= there´s a lot of political terms that I have no clue about, despite studying it for a semester haha, I wouldn´t consider not having a strong grasp or understanding of them rendering someone stupid. I hope it blows over and the nets don´t act so strongly on it, to be honest I do get the feeling they enjoy playing with the lives of idols especially females ones out of jealously or sheer boredum ;/ I hope this doesn´t harm their career too much!

  • apple girl

    I used to think that perhaps Hyosung was acting like politically informed twat by using the word ‘democratization’ without knowing the real meaning, just for the swag of it. to leave people the impression that she’s a smart girl and whatnot.
    but then i stumbled to this article and i just suddenly got it. it’s usual for any coutry’s government to create some celebrity/ies’ absurd issues/scandals to divert public’s attention from the national, political scandal that’s crucially damaging the ruling government’s image. and after the main spokeperson of the SK’s president committed a sexual harassment scandal in the USA, people were raging to the government under Park Geunhye.
    i’m highly suspicious that somehow Hyosung was ordered by “script” to talk ignorantly about democratization to make people leave the governmental’s scandal alone, forgotten. and being clueless *cough* like idols usually were, she fell straight into the trap. eh, who knows. you can do absolutely anything with governmental power, and a young, oblivious idol’s career is nothing compared to your government’s image.