How Kim Seon-ho and other S Korean celebrities are cancelling cancel culture, one scandal at a time

PHOTO: Instagram/seonho__kim

Just a few weeks ago, Kim Seon-ho seemed to be the most popular man in South Korea.

Not only was the actor, 35, starring in the most popular drama on Korean television, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, he also had a leading role in one of the most-watched reality-variety shows, 2 Days & 1 Night. That was until a former girlfriend posted on an internet chat room that the actor had broken up with her after pressuring her into having an abortion.

Suddenly, Kim’s star vanished into the ether. He was dropped from 2 Days & 1 Night and dumped unceremoniously from roles in two hotly anticipated films – the romantic comedy 2 O’Clock Date, in which he was to star alongside Girls Generation singer Yoona, and Dog Days with actress Yoon Yeo Jung. His role in another film, Sad Tropical, was also brought into question. Meanwhile, the media conspicuously steered clear of any farewell interviews for Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, despite the series having raked in more than 3.2 million views.

Kim’s cancellation was as unforgiving as it was swift. Not only did his on-screen roles all but disappear, the various brands that had once been so keen to be associated with him also began to desert him. Domino’s Pizza scrubbed its social media of his photos and videos, as did Canon and the mask brand MIIMA.

For observers of South Korea’s entertainment industry , the scenario seemed all too familiar. In an internet-obsessed, fast-paced and collective society where information can spread across the country in a matter of seconds, it has become a running joke that even the most brightly shining star can be brought crashing to earth in the time it takes to type out an anonymous accusation on social media.

Step forward actor Ji Soo, who stared in the TV show River Where the Moon Rises before claims of bullying and sexual abuse saw him sent into military service and substituted for another actor. Or actress Seo Ye-ji, who lost her spot on the drama Island when a tabloid revealed text messages in which she demanded her ex-boyfriend actor Kim Jung-hyun distance himself from female actors on set. (She lost further endorsement contracts when additional claims emerged online that she had bullied classmates at school).

Yet among the seemingly ever-growing list of fallen stars, the case of Kim Seon-ho stands out in the cancel culture wars. For Kim is among a new breed of celebrity to have cancelled his own cancellation.

The complaint against Kim could hardly have been more damaging for a celebrity whose clean public image had made him a go-to option for directors seeking a romantic lead.

His former girlfriend, who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘netizen A’, said that she had fallen pregnant after a single case of unprotected intercourse with Kim and had initially wanted to deliver the baby. She said Kim had previously been supportive, but backtracked on his promises and urged her to have an abortion citing financial reasons, suggesting that instead they could move in together. Following the procedure, she claimed he had “flipped out like a mad man” when she sent him the receipts for the procedure and began to threaten her.

Her damaging claims against Kim went beyond their personal relationship too, with ‘A’ claiming Kim was “cruel and cold” in real life, saying she had laughed when he was criticised for screaming on a TV show, and accusing him of “frequently badmouthing coworkers”.

The post spread like wildfire, gathering 3.6 million views in days — eclipsing even the success of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha — and generated widespread public criticism of the actor. Within four days, with his employers abandoning him, Kim made a formal apology to both his ex-girlfriend and his fans though he stopped short of acknowledging their veracity. In it, he said he had “dated this person with good feelings” but hurt them “due to my incompetence and lack of consideration”. He said he wanted to apologise “to all those who trusted me and cheered me on ... for disappointing you”.

He also spoke of his feelings when he first saw the “news articles with my name on them”.

Said Kim: “I experienced a fear like I had never felt before.”

READ ALSO: 'Experienced a fear like never before': Kim Seon-ho acknowledges scandal, apologises for 'incompetence' towards ex

With Kim’s career already in tatters (his management agency Salt Entertainment also felt the need to apologise), and justice seemingly served, that might have been the end of the matter. The ex-girlfriend herself appeared to accept Kim’s apology, deleting her initial post and commenting that she wanted no part in any further controversies about the couple’s relationship.

However, more revelations were to surface.

Dispatch, a tabloid site specialising in the private lives of South Korean celebrities, revealed the identity of the ex-girlfriend as former weather forecaster and online influencer Choi Young Ah and published a series of private messages, photographs and accounts by “friends of Kim” of the couple’s relationship that put a less than flattering light on “netizen A’s” own behaviour.

Among the counterclaims published were that Choi had initially hidden from Kim the fact that she was divorced and that this had been a part of a pattern of “lies” in the relationship that Kim had often raised as a concern in messages with a friend.

The report also questioned the portrayal of Kim’s response to Choi’s pregnancy and cast doubt on Choi’s claims that the pair “had to date secretly and couldn’t even hold hands outside”, revealing a photo of the pair at a pet cafe in Pocheon with their pet dog. It also claimed that Kim had discovered Choi to be secretly filming him; that it was Choi not Kim who was obsessed with money and designer goods and that Choi was being pursued by “gangs” and the wives of her ex-husband. To top things off, it posted a long letter of apology that Choi herself had sent to Kim in which she said she was sorry if he felt betrayed for her recent behaviour — referencing a “contract” and YouTube — and insisted her actions were not “for money or success”.

The situation worsened for Choi when the celebrity gossip YouTuber Lee Jin-ho released a voice recording purported to be Choi’s ex-husband claiming that she had slept with three different men in three weeks while they were still married.

The shift in public opinion was immediate. As swiftly as it had condemned Kim, the grand online jury began to champion his case. More than 190 petitions to keep Kim on 2 Days & 1 Night were sent to broadcast station KBS; Canon reinstated social media posts featuring the actor; his face reappeared on the front page of MIIMA’s website and the brands La Roche Posay and Foodbucket made their peace with him.

Dispatch even quoted a SALT Entertainment source as apologising to Kim, concluding with a quote from one of his “friends” saying that he hadn’t wanted “to fight about his private life in front of the whole nation, so instead of taking action, he apologised. He’s that kind of person”.

PHOTO: Instagram/seonho__kim

Kim’s case is the latest cause of concern for an entertainment industry on high alert for the cancelling of celebrities, often on little more than an anonymous online posting.

His case is also evidence of a shift in which accused stars are increasingly fighting back against their cancellations — and winning.

When a series of school bullying accusations against K-pop stars, actors and athletes started to spread online in February, associations within the entertainment industry warned against the rush to judgment, releasing a statement saying that “accusations that haven’t gone through strict investigations shouldn’t be targeted towards innocent celebrities”.

The statement also cautioned that “when a celebrity is taken off a drama set, album or TV show, a lot of fellow celebrities and staff who participated in the projects also suffer”.

Although many of the celebrities in the school bullying scandal apologised, took a hiatus or did both, others refused to accept their fate and — following legal action — were able to convince the public of their innocence.

Among the wrongly accused was the rising actor Jo Byeong-kyu, who starred in two of the country’s most-watched drama series of the past two years, Sky Castle and The Uncanny Encounter.

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An anonymous poster had claimed to have been bullied by Jo at a school in New Zealand, and Jo was subsequently cut from the highly anticipated TV show Come Back Home and his participation in season two of The Uncanny Encounter put into question.

His accuser later apologised and retracted the allegation following a police investigation. On Sept 18, Jo made his first public appearance in seven months on a video released by his agency and is scheduled to shoot a new movie.

Meanwhile, national soccer star Ki Sung-yueng filed damages claims against two former teammates who accused him of sexual assaults that allegedly took place 20 years ago.

Yet the case of female comedian Park Na-rae might be the most telling of all. She was investigated by the police after members of the public complained she had “sexually harrassed” a male doll in an episode of her YouTube show Hey Na-rae. During the controversial episode, Park had placed the plastic arm of the doll between its legs and made inappropriate jokes. She later posted a personal apology on her Instagram and resigned from the show. However, she remains one of the most watched celebrities on television for her roles in shows like I Live Alone and Amazing Saturday.

Ellen DeGeneres during a commercial break in taping of the Ellen Show in Burbank, Los Angeles, California, US on Oct 13, 2016. PHOTO: Reuters file

South Korea is far from alone in grappling with the rise of cancel culture. In the United States comedian Ellen DeGeneres was cancelled after claims she had created a toxic work environment on her talk show; in Britain the Harry Potter author JK Rowling was cancelled after saying transgender women weren’t really women; and in China cancel culture has even been put on a semi-official basis with the broadcasting regulator banning stars perceived as “unpatriotic”.

Yet in South Korea, a famously image-conscious society, observers say the problem has become particularly toxic.

Kweon Sang-hee, a professor of media and communication at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said this was partly because South Korea was a “high-context culture”, in which consumers were more sensitive to brand images than of the products themselves.

“While car commercials in Western countries like America emphasise showing the mileage and functions of the cars, South Korean companies focus on hiring celebrities who can personify the image of the car,” Kweon explained.

“Consequently, if a celebrity is under social criticism, then the company that the celebrity represents as a model is also under public scrutiny.”

This was why companies put a premium on hiring celebrities in the most popular drama, or behind the most popular record at any given time, he said.

“It’s also the reason companies switch their brand models so often and so quickly.”

Other country-specific features of the society contributed to the problem too, he said.

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“As we are a country that uses one language and culture under a land mass that is quite small, the significance of any controversy is that much magnified,” Kweon said.

“And we are a nation that embraces infodemics, or the spreading of information in a hasty manner to others. In this process, a lot of the information or news is oftentimes sensationalised.”

Still, while the cases of Kim and others have highlighted the problems of cancel culture at its most intense, there are those who say it still has a role to play in empowering victims and holding the powerful to account.

Michael Hurt, a lecturer of cultural theory at the Korea National University of Arts, was optimistic about how globalised social media and the Me Too era had given everyone a voice.

“I think social media is calling attention to much needed questions of accountability in certain areas and from certain people,” he said. “And netizens are merely flexing their rights as consumers of products. They are opting out of things they don’t like.”

Hurt added that social media allowed for a “strange environment” where famous individuals could be held accountable for things they had written or said even long in the past, as social norms were changing fast in today’s world.

Cancelling celebrities was a natural consequence of the online age, he said.

“I don’t think ‘cancel culture’ is a particular thing of any political side or group but more of a new tool that can be utilised by the members of our new consumer society who now vote with their thumbs on the follow or subscribe button as much as their feet.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.