Notes on a K-pop Scandal with the ‘Korean Nation’s Little Sister’

A K-pop star known as the “Korean nation’s little sister” has become caught up in controversy over a photo she accidentally tweeted of herself in pajamas with an apparently shirtless male K-pop star. I’m probably going to betray my limited knowledge of Korean culture and K-Pop here, but it looks like the uproar is considerably more than the usual pop culture buzz surrounding photos of Western celebrities canoodling.

It’s not entirely clear what the solo K-pop singer IU (Lee Ji-eun) was doing with Super Junior member Eunhyuk (Lee Hyuk-jae) in the photo. But the prevailing opinion of K-pop fans and Korean netizens suggests IU had snapped an unusually intimate photo of herself with Eunhyuk on a couch or bed, according to K-pop news site Allkpop. The fact that IU deleted the photo less than a minute after posting it certainly suggests she didn’t want it to be public.

I’m sure someone more knowledgeable about the contrasts between Korean and Western culture, such as James Turnbull at The Grand Narrative, can provide better insight about the issues at play in this particular controversy. My impression is that there are at least two big reasons for why this has caused a stir among Korean netizens:

  1. Cultural attitudes on female sexuality — K-pop music videos and performances play up the sexualization of female stars all the time, but Korean society as a whole still retains a Confucian sense of horror at the idea of girls and women having sex at a young age. IU had to perform a particularly tricky balancing act because her public persona was of a young, innocent girl who was given the nickname of being the “nation’s little sister” — an act that may have been fatally upset by her recent photo. (In fact, an online forum thread has already started up with the revealing title “Nations Little Sister down…need a new one?“)
  2. K-pop stars and dating — The culture of K-pop seems to cultivate the idea of Korean idols existing in an eternally single state of being so that both younger and older fans can obsess over them as their ideal future mate. But fans may be coming around to the idea of celebrity couples with more public acknowledgements of K-pop stars dating, changes in company policies on dating, and variety shows such as “We Got Married” that pair off celebrities to live the mock married life.

IU’s management company, Loen Entertainment, seems to have only added fuel to the fires of speculation by issuing a statement explaining that Eunhyuk was visiting IU at her home while she was ill when the photo was taken. It also denied any broader implications about a possible relationship between the K-pop stars, but acknowledged the stars being “close sunbae-hoobae” (honorific Korean terms for addressing work colleagues with more or less work experience than yourself).

Tellingly, there does not appear to be much debate about Eunhyuk’s reputation or image being tarnished by the supposedly scandalous photo. But that’s just because boys will be boys, right?

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