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Should there be stronger laws protecting individuals in South Korea’s K-pop Industry?

Written By: Leeanne Chayavirabood 

Edited By: Nadia Ho



Introduction 

In 2021, exports from South Korea’s Entertainment Industry, often referred to as K-content, hit $12.45 billion–even amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, this sum has since increased to 4.4%. Beyond its economic impact, the industry has garnered global recognition, particularly through the rise of the South Korean Pop Music Industry, or K-pop, over the past decade. K-pop groups including BTS and Seventeen have hit the Billboard Hot 100 Charts since 2017, whilst other groups like Black Pink and Aespa have performed in international music festivals like Coachella. This exhibits the growth of K-pop which is slowly becoming a cultural phenomenon as it captivates audiences worldwide. However amidst the glitz and glamour of K-pop’s success, there exists a growing concern regarding the treatment of minors within the industry. Instances of entertainment companies debuting groups with minors such as Hyein from ‘New Jeans’ who was only 14 when the group made their debut. This has raised questions about the presence of adequate legal protection for minors and to what extent they have been effective. Therefore, I will be examining the importance of contracts in regulating relationships within the K-pop industry, the existing laws designed to provide legal protection and offering suggestions to ensure robust protection for minors in this rapidly growing industry.


The Significant Role Of Contracts 

Behind the music and captivating performances by K-pop artists lie the contractual agreements that serve as the foundation of their relationship with entertainment companies. These legally binding agreements establish the terms of the relationship between parties and aim to safeguard their interests. However, disputes often arise when one party breaches the term(s) or fails to fulfil their obligation(s) as agreed to in the contract. Thus, it is vital for parties to have a thorough understanding of the contractual terms to ensure compliance with their legal obligations. 


One notable issue that has emerged from the K-pop Industry is the prevalence of so-called ‘Slave Contracts.’ Characterised by their extensive validity and stringent terms, such contracts are perceived as exploitative and have led to numerous legal battles. For instance, in 2009, the boy group TVXQ initiated legal proceedings against their agency, SM Entertainment, citing an unfair 13-year long contract and inequitable profit distribution. The court ruled in favour of the Claimants, affirming their right to terminate the contract after seven years and deeming the absence of termination options unconscionable. The contract placed SM entertainment in a superior position by excluding the term explaining damages in cases of termination. Thus, this sheds light on the importance of terms and their ability to dictate power dynamics, highlighting the risk of abuse when contracts are not carefully drafted. 


Similarly, in 2011, three members from the girl group KARA terminated their contract with their entertainment company DSP Media due to unfair distributions of profit from their sales. The Claimants argued that even though they had made ₩410 million from six months’ worth of music sales, each member had only been given ₩860,000 and additionally, members had only received 1% to 2% from their Japan sales. Despite the fact that DSP Media settled with KARA members a few months later, the initial discrepancy underlines potential issues with good faith towards artists in their contracts. Article 5 of South Korea’s Labor Standards Act (‘LSA’) mandates that both employers and employees fulfil their contractual obligations in good faith. Had KARA’s contract with DSP Media stipulated a specific income percentage from the sales, the company’s failure to honour these terms would constitute a breach of good faith. Such breaches could render disputed provisions null and void under the LSA, with the Act’s relevant provisions superseding any non-compliant clauses. Hence, this underlines the importance of good faith in contractual relationships, promoting honesty and fairness between the contracting parties. 


Does the law truly provide legal protection? 

With the increasing presence of young artists in the K-pop industry, concerns about their rights and welfare have become more pronounced. In 2014, the Popular Culture and Arts Industry Development Act was introduced with the aim of safeguarding minors in the entertainment sector. This Act prohibited minors from participating in overnight performances and set limits on the maximum number of working hours per week: minors under the age of 15 were limited to 35 hours and minors between the ages of 15 to 18 were limited to 40 hours. These measures can be seen as a significant step towards providing legal protection for minors, aiming to prevent exploitation and prioritising the well-being of minors within the industry. 


In 2023, there was a partial amendment to the Popular Culture and Arts Industry Development Act following the Lee Seung-gi incident. Lee Seung-gi, an idol who had an 18-year long contract with Hook Entertainment, filed charges of fraud and embezzlement against the company, revealing that he had not      received payment for his music since 2004. This led to the enactment of what is better known as the ‘Lee Seung-gi Crisis Prevention Act’, which introduced three major changes aimed at bolstering legal safeguards for minors.


Firstly, the bill decreased the maximum number of working hours for minors: minors below the age of 12 are limited to 25 hours with no more than 6 hours per day; minors between 12 to 15 years of age are given 30 hours; and minors above 15 years of age are given 35 hours with no more than 7 hours a day. By lowering the number of working hours per week, the Act acknowledges the need for enhanced protection, particularly for young performers who may be susceptible to exploitation by entertainment companies. Secondly, the bill mandates entertainment companies to disclose financial statements to artists annually, which was previously only disclosed upon request. This obligation of transparency is a crucial safeguard for artists. By ensuring that they have access to information regarding their music earnings and financial dealings, this prevents exploitative contracts from occurring. Lastly, the bill prohibits school absences, school dropouts and actions which possess risks to physical and mental health of minors. By prioritising the educational rights of minors, their access to continuous learning is guaranteed and the importance of education being a fundamental aspect is reinforced. The Act also acknowledges that the welfare of minors extends beyond their professional obligations and obliges authorities to ensure a safe working environment for minors. Whilst limitations on the number of working hours per week are important, the new bill advances this by taking on a more holistic approach to labour protection which tackles the challenges faced by minors and underscores a significant improvement in committing to safeguarding them. 

     

What Are Some Next Steps?

Despite the government’s efforts thus far, there remains a pressing need for further action to improve the legal protection for minors in the K-pop industry. Firstly, although current laws have laid the groundwork for safeguarding minors, they lack specificity in delineating roles, responsibilities of key stakeholders, and what they should be doing to better support legal rights of minors. For example, the ‘Lee Seung-gi Crisis Prevention Act’ aims to protect the health of young artists, yet it fails to pinpoint what the exact measures are. Incorporating protections like provision of psychological therapy for minors would demonstrate a tangible step towards improving the well-being of young performers and in keeping the entertainment companies accountable. 


Secondly, it is imperative to focus on other key factors that drive the K-pop industry such as plastic surgery.  The industry’s relentless emphasis on appearance and adherence to beauty standards often places immense pressure on young artists to undergo cosmetic procedures. But, the potential physical and psychological impacts of these procedures must not be overlooked. Thus, there is a need to ensure that legal measures are enforced to regulate and mitigate these risks for minors. The drafting of contracts would also play a pivotal role in this regard. Contracts can establish clear guidelines, determining for example, the extent to which entertainment companies can influence decisions regarding plastic surgery for young artists. Therefore, it is vital to identify the elements of K-pop in order to build a better legal protective framework for young artists.


Lastly, with much of the current law predominantly focusing on minors during their lifespan as either a trainee or an idol, this overlooks the individuals who may not debut or choose to transition out of the industry. It is crucial to address the needs of minors who opt for an alternative career path or who require guidance beyond their own involvement in entertainment. Legal mandates for counselling services tailored to career exploration and transition planning are essential to ensure that minors receive the necessary support. This proactive approach will not only foster a healthier work environment, but also provide      comprehensive support throughout the entirety of the minor’s journey in the K-pop industry.


Conclusion 

Whilst the K-pop industry has evidently had immense success and international recognition, challenges still remain with regards to the legal protection of minors within the industry. Even though recent legislative efforts have made strides, there is still more room for improvement. Moving forward, proactive collaboration among relevant stakeholders, focusing on key areas and ongoing evaluation of existing laws are essential. Hence, this will help South Korea to further solidify its position as a global entertainment leader by addressing these challenges while prioritising the rights and interests of its young performers. 


REFERENCES

[1]  Lee Young-ryeol, ‘From K-pop to a ‘Hallyu economy’ (Korea JoongAng Daily, 2023) https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2023/03/12/opinion/columns/Kpop-Kculture-Hallyu/20230312200322387.html


[2] Lucy Williamson, ‘The dark side of South Korean pop music’ (BBC News, 2011) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13760064>


[3] Translation of November 2009 Court Judgment; Translation of TVXQ Exclusive Contract, art. 11s


[4] 김민지, ‘한일 최강 걸그룹 ‘카라’ 이별의 롤러코스터 타나?’ (Woman Donga, 2011) <https://woman.donga.com/people/article/all/12/142997/1>


[5] ‘Kara members sever ties wirth DSP Media in lawsuit’ (Korea JoongAng Daily, 2011) <https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2011/01/19/etc/Kara-members-sever-ties-with-DSP-Media-in-lawsuit/2931199.html>


[6] 1997 Labor Standards Act


[7] ‘Employment Law in South Korea: In-depth’ (Croner-i, 2023)  <https://app.croneri.co.uk/topics/employment-law-south-korea/indepth>


[8]  Lee Hyo-Won, ‘South Korean Law to Protect Young K-Pop Stars from Sexualization, Overwork’ (The Hollywood Reporter, 2014) <https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/south-korean-law-protect-young-717098/>


[9]  Julia Malleck, ‘South Korea passed a bill to protect underage K-pop idols from exploitation’ (Quartz, 2023) <https://qz.com/kpop-idol-lee-seunggi-act-underage-labor-exploitation-1850369563>


[10]  ‘Lee Seung-gi, ‘Hook Entertainment back in court over wage dispute’ (Korea JoongAng Daily, 2023)


[11]  Reena Koh, ‘ A new bill in South Korea prevents K-pop stars under the age of 15 from working more than 35 hours a week and prohibits 'over-emphasis' on their looks’ (Business Insider, 2023) <https://www.businessinsider.com/korean-bill-prohibit-underage-kpop-idols-overworking-looks-2023-4?>


[12]  설승인, ‘소속 연예인에 수익 의무 공개…'이승기 사태 방지법' 소위 통과’ (연합뉴스, 2023)


[13] Koreaboo ‘Korean Politician Propose Bill In Response to Lee Seung-gi’s Feud With Former Label’ (Koreaboo, 2022) <https://www.koreaboo.com/news/korean-government-working-bill-prevent-second-lee-seung-gi-incident-happening/>




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