21st May 2024 – (Seoul) The glitzy, glamorous world of Korean pop music has been rocked by sickening revelations of sexual violence, hidden cam crimes, and a lurid celebrity chat group that shared videos of unconscious women being raped. At the centre of this sordid scandal are two of K-pop’s formerly biggest stars – singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young of the band Drug Restaurant, and Seungri, a member of the massively popular group BIGBANG.

Their shocking fall from grace was precipitated by the courageous work of two female journalists in Seoul – Park Hyo-sil and Kang Kyung-yoon. Their tenacious reporting not only brought these heinous sex crimes to light, but exposed the dark underside of the K-pop industry and its culture of misogyny, abuse of power, and the idolization of male celebrities.

“They were so disgusting, playing around with women as if they were toys,” Kyung-yoon says of the celebrity offenders in a gripping new BBC documentary. The film, titled “Burning Sun – Exposing the Secret K-pop Chat Groups,” pieces together the journalists’ years-long investigation and the personal harassment they endured for daring to speak truth to power.

It all began in September 2016 when Hyo-sil, then a reporter at a Seoul newspaper, got a tip from police sources about a “big case” involving illicit sexual recordings and a “big-name celebrity.” That celebrity was Jung Joon-young, whose pop star girlfriend had accused him of the “molka” crime of secretly filming her during sex without consent.

Hyo-sil quickly published the bombshell story, unaware of the nightmare that was about to unfold. “I had no idea how massive it was going to be,” she recalls. “Media outlets went into a frenzy.”

But Jung’s management swiftly went on the offensive, dismissing it as an “unimportant incident inflated by the press.” His rabid fanbase then turned on Hyo-sil and his girlfriend, who ended up retracting her allegations due to the immense public backlash.

“The media was the villain,” Hyo-sil says. She became the target of a torrent of vicious online abuse, from death threats to obscene phone calls and emails. At one point while pregnant, she was so “mentally shattered” that she suffered two miscarriages, which she believes were stress-induced. “Now I am childless,” she says sadly.

While Hyo-sil endured this trauma, Jung continued his pop career ascent unabated. But in 2019, new shocking allegations about his criminal conduct re-emerged that Kang Kyung-yoon, an entertainment reporter at broadcaster SBS, began investigating.

When Jung had handed over his phone for analysis during the 2016 probe, a third party had surreptitiously copied its contents. This leaked data, containing years of Jung’s chat logs and videos, eventually found its way to Kyung-yoon. What she discovered was utterly depraved.

The files revealed a putrid celebrity chat group where Jung and other K-pop luminaries like Seungri and Choi Jong-hoon of the band FT Island gleefully shared videos of unconscious, rape victims and engaged in grotesque discussion. One exchange even appeared to detail their gang-rape of an unconscious woman who had suffered a head injury.

“I got so scared yesterday… It sounded like her skull was cracking,” one member wrote. Jung replied: “Literally the funniest night of my entire life.”

“My heart still hurts when I think of that,” Kyung-yoon says about reviewing the vile materials. The messages also hinted the group enjoyed protection from a senior police official, allowing their criminality to go unchecked.

Despite the personal risk, Kyung-yoon bravely published her findings, detonating the scandal’s re-emergence. This time, however, the authorities took swift action – Jung was swiftly arrested, followed by others in the chat group.

Their arrests emboldened other victims to come forward and press charges against the once-untouchable pop idols they had been conditioned to idolize through a culture of misogyny. “It took great strength,” says Jo Elfving-Hwang, an expert on Korean society at Curtin University, noting how the victims had witnessed the same “silencing violence”endured by Jung’s original accuser.

However, even as justice was served through high-profile convictions, Park and Kang found themselves relentlessly trolled and threatened for daring to speak up. The harassment Kyung-yoon endured was especially appalling given her pregnancy at the time.

“They called me femi-bitch. Pregnant femi-bitch. Left-wing femi-bitch,” she recounts, her voice straining. Vicious slurs about her unborn child made her constantly fear for its safety. “My heart was incredibly lonely and exhausted,” she says. Yet, “I have no regrets.”

Their dogged journalism, however, dealt a landmark blow against South Korea’s pernicious celebrity-worship syndrome and male-dominated power hierarchies that enabled such systemic abuse. It catalyzed a cultural reckoning few could have foreseen.

“We threw a single pebble into a huge pond,” Kyung-yoon says. “It has calmed down again but I hope it’s still there in people’s memories so that if something like that happens again, we can call it out much earlier.”

In the documentary’s most haunting scene, Hyo-sil visits a convenience store bathroom – the same one where Jung’s original accuser had an emotional breakdown after retracting her allegations due to the crushing public backlash.

Staring into the bathroom mirror after all these years, you can see the lingering emotional burden etched on Hyo-sil’s face, but also a sense of resolution – that her suffering, and that of all the victims, was not in vain. Their bravery has shattered the veneer of K-pop’s manufactured fantasy and machismo, forcing a societal reckoning long overdue.

While other journalists have covered prominent sexual abuse scandals, few have provided such raw, unvarnished looks at the personal toll it takes to expose such criminality through rigorous reporting. BBC deserves immense credit for going to painstaking lengths to elevate these whistleblowers’ crucial voices.

The Burning Sun documentary is essential viewing, offering a searing underworld glimpse of an entertainment industry grown rotten from unchecked power, patriarchal privilege and the commodification of female bodies. It’s a startling reminder that even minds-hot pop cultures have accountability blind spots desperately requiring a disinfecting light.

At the scandal’s crux are haunting universal truths – that the path to justice is so often obstructed by intimidation, that those upholding ethical norms frequently pay the highest price, and that venerating celebrity too fervently can blind us to heinous transgressions happening in plain sight.

The bravery of Park, Kyung-yoon and the victims shows us a better way forward – to elevate moral courage over wilful blindness, choose truth over fantasy, and hold institutionalised misogyny to account through an uncompromising ethical lens, no matter how unpalatable the revelations.

“Burning Sun” is simply one of the most important #MeToo documentaries of our era, one that will reverberate far beyond the K-pop scene. It’s a potent look at depravity yet also a timely reminder of journalism’s indispensable role in exposing society’s most unforgivable transgressions – and the personal resilience required to do so.