The Burning Sun Scandal, named after former Korean K-pop idol Seungri's prominent club, rocked the country for days with the horrendous details of hidden camera footage, drugs, and corruption. In this month's feature, we delve deep into each aspect of the issue that goes behind the stage to explore the extent of the problems that recent reports and investigations have uncovered.
An Overview of the Scandal
The Burning Sun scandal unveiled a shocking and complicated series of criminal activities that involve quite a number of high profile and powerful individuals. Named after the nightclub where the scandal first broke out, it spans activities of several years and includes crimes such as prostitution mediation, gambling, police corruption, drug usage, and tax evasion.
It all started on January 28, when MBC’s News Desk aired footage of a man — later identified as Sang-kyo Kim — being assaulted at Burning Sun. Kim claimed to have been helping a woman who was sexually harassed but ended up getting beaten up and arrested. In December, he uploaded CCTV footage of a woman being harassed at the club, claiming that similar incidents happen often and that the police received money from Burning Sun to ignore the illegal activities. KBS also reported that illegal drug use occurred in the Burning Sun VIP rooms. On March 2, Dispatch revealed a group chat among Burning Sun employees revolving around a discussion of tactics for taking advantage of drunk girls and providing women for VIP guests. In the days that followed, Burning Sun was subject to investigation as the police looked into alleged drug dealing claims and questioned Burning Sun executives. BIGBANG’s Seungri was on staff as the publicity director of the club, and as the news cycle continued, his name was linked to the controversies surrounding the club. Seungri claimed not to have any knowledge about the surfacing criminal activity in the club and asserted that he had minimal involvement in the club’s management.
However, on February 26, SBS funE released a KakaoTalk group chat involving Seungri and other prominent figures. Seungri allegedly ordered his employees to hire prostitutes for his investors and planned to dispatch Korean women to Japan and Indonesia as escorts. The Seoul Police Department confirmed that it had launched an investigation into the claims. Later on, it was reported that the messages were sent directly to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission due to suspected police corruption.
On March 10, Seungri was charged with supplying prostitutes. The singer denied the charges and retired from the entertainment industry. Two more singers were implicated in sharing hidden camera videos of sexual acts in the previously mentioned chat room. As more weeks of the investigation passed, further shocking reports of illegal spy cam video distribution and police corruption were reported. Several K-pop idols who were involved have retired from the entertainment industry. On March 18, the case reached a new level of national urgency when South Korean President Moon Jae-In ordered a thorough investigation of the cases in the Burning Sun controversy, the late actress Jang Ja-yeon’s sexual abuse case, and the former vice minister of Justice’s sex scandal. Investigations are still ongoing. The Burning Sun scandal has revealed systemic problems in gender equality, police corruption, tax evasion and money laundering cases, and links to drug cartels and the mafia.
A Burning Scandal and a Big Bang of Stars
When the Burning Sun scandal was first brought to light, nobody could have guessed the intricate mess of date-rape, lewd chatrooms, prostitution, and spy cameras it would soon unveil, or the big names of dazzling idols it would soon drag into its flames. The chatroom between Burning Sun employees leaked by Dispatch about drugged women being harassed in the club’s VIP restrooms foreshadowed the sordid sexual nature of the incoming turmoil. Following Seungri’s apology on Instagram, BIGBANG fans have struggled to support his claim that he was just hanging out with the wrong people at the wrong time. However, ever since the other chatroom — a shady KakaoTalk group chat involving him and other prominent names dating back to December 2015 — got released, things went further downhill for Seungri.
In the KakaoTalk chatroom, Seungri was originally accused of supplying prostitutes to wealthy investors. YG Entertainment immediately refuted the allegation, asserting that the chat was fabricated. Nevertheless, Kyung Yoon Kang, the reporter who first leaked the chat history, defended the credibility of her source. On March 4, SBS funE revealed more celebrity names involved in the chatroom and on March 9, Seungri was booked on charges of soliciting prostitution. At this point, Seungri officially became a suspect. The next day, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency confirmed the legitimacy of the chatroom. Seungri kept denying these allegations, stating that he was just “bluffing” and “showing off”. His lawyer stated that he only went to Indonesia with “CEO Kim”, another member of the chatroom, and that all he did was introduce women to his acquaintances without any solicitation involved.
The series of twists took a new turn when singer Jung Joon-young was revealed to be a part of the chatroom on March 11. The chatroom members were then also suspected of sharing hidden camera footage of explicit sexual acts, and Jung was booked on charges of violating the Sexual Violence and Protection Act the following day. On March 13, he confessed to all his crimes. He said he would not challenge any of his charges and apologized to all the victimized women, as well as the people who had supported him. Jung was confirmed to have secretly filmed intercourse with at least ten women without their consent and knowledge, and uploaded the videos to the chatroom.
On March 15, MBN’s News 8 revealed the identities of all eight members of the chatroom: Seungri; Jung Joon-young; FTISLAND’s Choi Jong-hoon; Yuri Holdings CEO In Suk Yoo; CEO Kim; Kwon, SNSD Yuri’s brother, referred to as “Mr. A”; an unnamed former employee at YG Entertainment, referred to as “Mr. B”; and a friend of Jung’s, who once appeared with him on a travel program, referred to as “Mr. C”. Snippets of the chatroom’s contents have also circulated online — showing disturbing texts of Jung and Kim sharing sex videos, while they and the other chatroom members made obscene remarks about the videotaped women and rape. In an interview with Chosun Ilbo, Seungri admitted to being a part of the chatroom. However, he claimed that he was trying to stop the others from distributing the videos.
On the first day of April, the flames started to fall into place. The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency declared Choi guilty of distributing six illegal hidden camera videos, as well as directly filming one of them. Police also confirmed a part of Seungri’s prostitution allegation to be true based on the testimonies of five women. At the time of writing, police are still continuing the investigation.
The case has exposed the ugly truth of Korea’s entertainment industry hidden beneath its glamorous façade. Questions arise as to whether these worshipped idols are as innocent as they are made out to be, and the extent of what they have gone through to achieve their current status.
A Tale of Partners in Crime
The Burning Sun controversy has brought us on a ravaging ride of shocking revelations, one after another. But with substantial evidence pointing to police collusion, this controversy elicits a bigger conversation that transcends towards a deep-rooted history of political corruption — one that potentially threatens the very foundations of South Korea’s justice system.
On January 28, MBC’s News Desk reported an assault case at Burning Sun that had occurred in November. According to the victim, Sang-kyo Kim, he was helping a woman who looked drugged and was being sexually harassed but was attacked by a club VIP, two security guards, and their friends. Nonetheless, he was illegally arrested and booked on seven charges. He was also assaulted and threatened by the police at the time.
Burning Sun accused him of sexual harassment in the club. The two security guards stated that they were preventing him from harassing the woman, but that he caused a ruckus. A few days later, three women claimed to have been sexually harassed by Kim, and Burning Sun even submitted a video footage as evidence. As of writing, Kim is charged with three counts of sexual assault cases.
However, other footage reveals a different story — they apparently attest to Kim’s assault statements. Furthermore, the three women who sued Kim were found to be affiliated with Burning Sun, one of who is a drug-positive employee suspected of selling drugs to club VIPs.
Many other sexual assault incidents in the club have been raised where victims were either dismissed, left unresponded to, or wrongfully accused by the police. On March 27, SBS’s 8 O’Clock News broadcasted an anonymous woman being arrested for allegedly assaulting a club promoter. She claimed that she might have instead been drugged and sexually harassed since she felt physically bruised and weak.
Burning Sun also faced a possible suspension of business operation when a mother of an anonymous minor reported her child’s entry to the club last year to the police. The case, however, was dismissed due to lack of evidence. An MBC reporter claimed that Burning Sun co-CEO Sung Hyun Lee bribed the former Korean National Police Agency Commissioner General Shin Myung Kang with 20 million KRW to cover up the ongoing case. Lee conceded on March 1 and also admitted to convincing the minor to issue a false statement during the police questioning.
There were also existing police ties with individual celebrities, specifically those included in the exposed Kakao chat rooms. The 2016 sexual assault case of Jung Joon-young, where he was accused of filming his sexual encounters with his ex-girlfriend without consent, was dismissed due to lack of time since Jung’s phone had to be repaired. SBS’s 8 O’Clock News reported on March 13 that the Sungdong police officer in charge actually requested the digital forensics company to destroy his phone and to write a fake letter stating that the restoration would be difficult.
Similarly, Choi Jong-hoon was caught drunk driving in February 2016 by a police officer in Itaewon, Seoul. He was fined with 2.5 million KRW and received a 100-day license suspension. Choi admitted on April 4 that he tried bribing the police officer with 10 million KRW to cover up the violation, but the police officer refused. Nevertheless, the incident did not reach public headlines, with Kakao chat room messages released by SBS showing that Seungri, Yuri Holdings CEO Yoo, and another anonymous member facilitated police payments to prevent the incident from spreading in public.
This implicit police corruption has consequently built a tragically inevitable distrust towards the police ranks. Perhaps there are bigger secrets yet to unfold.
An Offer They Could Not Refuse
The chaos of the scandal, with each reveal detailing more and more horrific incidence of crime after another, boils down to a single question. How did Seungri and other figures gain the immense capital and power to carry out their operations at such length and scale?
The rumors of extravagant parties hosted by Seungri prior to the opening of Burning Sun was already circulating long before the Burning Sun scandal broke out. Investigators suspect that Seungri may have hosted such parties as well as created Burning Sun in order to attract large foreign power holders.
One of the biggest investors was “Madame Lin”, a Taiwanese businesswoman who has been reported to have given Seungri 20% of the Yuri Holdings stock from a company worth nearly 30 million USD. But aside from the financial influence, Madame Lin has been reported to have ties with the Sanhehui, also known as the triad — a transnational organized crime syndicate mainly located in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Though MBC stated that such information is false, Lin has been linked to massive illegal gambling operations in the Philippines.
It was also reported multiple times through various news media that Seungri had a penchant for drug usage, especially “Happy Balloon”, the street name for nitrous oxide, which Korea classifies as a hallucinogenic substance. The investigation for Seungri’s substance use was eventually dropped due to lack of evidence. However, the other patrons of his establishment had revealed evidence of regular drug use — for example, one of their Chinese employees tested positive for illegal substances, sparking new possible ties with Chinese drug trafficking.
The ongoing murmurs of involvement with shady organizations, money laundering, prostitution trafficking, and drug use have caused some to dub the story to be like that of a “Korean Mafia”. Korean society still awaits the verdict of the deep-running scandal that strikes at the core of police corruption and the entertainment industry’s blatant misuse of its privileges and power. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil — it’s time to face the evil that has been in front of us the entire time.