Suicide of K-pop star Sulli puts spotlight on cyberbullying

Kelly Kasulis
Sulli began her career as a child TV star before joining the K-pop girl group f(x). File Photo by Yonhap
Sulli began her career as a child TV star before joining the K-pop girl group f(x). File Photo by Yonhap

SEOUL, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- The apparent suicide of the popular K-pop singer known as Sulli has sparked a national conversation in South Korea about misogyny and cyberbullying.

Choi Jin-ri, known as Sulli of girl group f(x), was found dead in her home in Seongnam by police, sparking a closer look at her career as a musician and a feminist who was often the target of cruel Internet trolls.


"I was surprised and angry by Sulli's death. At first, I couldn't really process that it actually happened," Yudori, a South Korean comic artist who writes about feminism, told UPI. "I wanted her to thrive and live on because she represented survivors."

Some have blamed celebrity gossip reporters and online trolls for Sulli's death, prompting several anti-cyber bullying bills to enter the National Assembly in recent weeks. Others are worried about copycat suicides and have flooded social media accounts belonging to singer IU -- another feminist icon and a close friend of Sulli's -- with words of compassion.

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Since Sulli's death, IU's 2012 song "Peach" -- which was reportedly inspired by her friendship with Sulli -- re-emerged at the top of streaming charts. IU's label also postponed the release of her new album because of emotional stress.


A controversial career

Born in 1994, Sulli began her career as a child actress in several TV dramas before being cast as a trainee for SM Entertainment in the fourth grade. In South Korea, potential K-pop stars are often identified from an elementary school age and begin training with major record labels for several years -- often living out of a dormitory -- with no guarantee of being signed to an act.

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In 2009, around age 15, Sulli signed a record deal with SM and secured her spot in f(x) -- a girl group that went on to produce four No. 1 singles and international praise.

As early as 2013, the fame started to turn dark. Rumors spread that Sulli was dating Choiza, a rapper from Dynamic Duo whose stage name slickly alludes to having a large penis. Sulli received backlash from male fans who preferred to think of her as single. Her record label denied their relationship at first. Nevertheless, media reports continued to speculate about their relationship, including a false story that Sulli was pregnant.

Sulli became known for speaking up for herself.

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"She sort of stood out and challenged the traditional norm that women have to know their place and they should not speak out," Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor of international studies at Korea University, told UPI. "Korea has this mentality that everyone should conform, and that expectation is more harshly applied to women. The fact that [Sulli] was singled out for speaking her mind was really terrible."


"She seemed to be firmly on her ground. She would post deliberately sexual photos on her Instagram to provoke haters. She was such a bad ass. I loved her for that," Yudori said. "In the K-pop industry, it's extremely hard for a woman to survive in her career after a sexual scandal, including willing engagement in a romantic relationship."

In the months before her death, Sulli was criticized for a long list of supposed missteps, including: posing in a sweatshirt for Johnson & Johnson's baby oil (which prompted accusations of promoting pedophilia or infantilizing women), affectionately biting her hairless sphynx cat in a video, posting a photo of herself wearing tank top pajamas on Instagram or going braless, lightly pecking another woman on the lips at a birthday party and, most of all, using interviews or Instagram videos to address the online hate she received.

"There were certain feminists who scrutinized her for openly expressing her sexuality. Others accused her of endorsing pedophilia if she looked too young in a photo. Incels criticized her for being sexualized by her boyfriend. There was pretty much no way for her to win," Yudori said.

"For most K-pop stars, women or men, it pretty much means death of your career," she added. "But Sulli re-emerged and rebranded herself as a sex-positive influencer."


The ridicule Sulli and other female K-pop stars have endured has provoked conversation about misogyny, violence and harassment against women.

"Women are, of course, discriminated against much more partially in Korea than many other countries in the world," Kim said. "And bullying matters more, I think, for Korean kids and teenagers than Westerners. You can choose to be alone or different in the U.S. But here, there's a really strong stigma -- being different is something you really fear."

Suicide in K-pop

Sulli is not the only K-pop star to die by suicide in recent years. In 2007, singer and actor Lee Hye-ryeon -- known as U;Nee -- died at age 25, followed by actor Choi Jin-sil in 2008 at 39. The main vocalist from boy band Shinee, Kim Jong-hyun, died in 2017 at age 27. And the list likely goes, with South Korea holding the highest suicide rate of any OECD nation.

"Cyberbullying has been affecting Korean society a great deal as people spend more and more time on social media. In the last few years, several celebrities and a number of students have died because of cyberbullying," Min Byeong-cheol, a professor at Hanyang University, told UPI through an interpreter. "A middle school student killed herself by jumping from her family's 10th-floor apartment because five of her classmates bullied her in a social media chatroom. This is a serious social issue in Korea."


On Oct. 29, South Korean lawmakers held a press conference pushing for a bill that would require public institutions and employers to hold cyberbullying prevention classes. The amendment is on hold until members of the National Assembly review it and put it to a vote.

"The government should move this bill forward to prevent these incidents from happening again," Min said. "Since [these celebrity suicides], it's true that awareness among the public about cyberbullying has gone up. But unfortunately, it's always forgotten, again and again."

Peter W. Choi contributed to this report.

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