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'Stars Have Feelings. We Are Not Dolls': South Korea Mourns K-Pop Star Goo Hara

A memorial to K-pop star Goo Hara is seen at St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul on Monday. Hara was found dead at her home in Seoul on Sunday, police said.
Chung Sung-Jun

The half-dozen people waiting outside a shrine in Seoul on Monday evening seem at a loss. Students wearing puffer coats and middle-aged men in wool jackets loiter and glance around before walking into a hallway lined with funeral flowers. A young woman smiles in a portrait hanging on the wall.

The memorial is for South Korean singer Goo Hara, a former member of the K-pop group Kara, who was found dead in her apartment in Seoul on Sunday — the second K-pop celebrity in less than two months thought to have taken her own life.

Police said the cause of the 28-year-old star's death is under investigation and not immediately known. The police told local media that it is investigating all possibilities, including suicide. Seoul's police commissioner told reporters Monday that a handwritten note had been found in Goo's home.

In recent years, as Goo fought a public legal battle against a former boyfriend who allegedly assaulted and blackmailed her, she became a target of intense media attention and cyberbullying. It is the latest of several recent scandals that have exposed the dark side of the K-pop industry, South Korea's top cultural export.

In May, Goo's manager found her unconscious at her house after an apparent suicide attempt. Goo apologized to her fans and vowed to keep up her work. A month later, she publicly discussed her mental health on her Instagram account and urged cyberbullies to show empathy. Suffering depression "isn't easy," she wrote.

Her last public message was an Instagram post on Saturday that simply said: "Good night."

The news of Goo's death came days after she had successfully completed a solo tour in Japan. Her single "Midnight Queen" was released Nov. 13.

Goo made her debut in 2008 at 17, as a member of Kara. With a series of dance hits like "Rock You," "Pretty Girl" and "Honey," the group of five women was among several — along with Wonder Girls and Girls' Generation, all of which debuted around the same time — that helped K-pop leap onto the international stage.

Kara was one of the first — and one of the few — Korean groups that found devoted fans in Japan. Starting in 2010, theyrapidly topped the charts and collected awards, becoming the first Korean girl band to perform in Japan's prestigious Tokyo Dome concert venue.

After Kara disbanded in 2016, Goo continued to perform in both South Korea and Japan. But a messy, publicized dispute with her former boyfriend Choi Jong-beom loomed over her final years.

In September 2018, Choi reported Goo to police for physically assaulting him. Goo, in return, claimed Choi assaulted her and accused him of blackmailing her with an illicitly filmed sex video.

Seoul Central District Court convicted Choi in August of assault and threat and sentenced him to a year and a half in jail, with suspension. The court acquitted him on the charge of illicit filming, saying even though there wasn't "an explicit agreement to filming, it doesn't appear that the video was filmed against the victim's will." Both the prosecutors and Choi appealed the suspended sentence. The appellate court has not decided when to resume hearings.

Voyeuristic public attention on sensational details surged. Shortly after the blackmailing charge was publicized, "Goo Hara video" and similar search terms trended on Google in South Korea. Online commenters attacked her with malicious rumors and accusations, and Goo warned of taking legal action against them.

Secretly filmed videos or pictures of intimate moments or body parts and their circulation online have been a widespread crime in South Korea. Perpetrators, if convicted, can face up to five years in jail or fines of $25,500. Tens of thousands of women protested in the streets of Seoul last year, demanding harsher punishment and raising wider public awareness of the issue. In March, four Korean entertainers retired after their involvement in cases of exploitation of women became known.

Although many South Korean women share a fear of illicit filming and physical assault in intimate relationships, Goo endured additional scrutiny because of her stardom. Public attacks on personal affairs were not new to her. Shortly after her debut, when Goo was still a teenager, old pictures taken with her boyfriend resurfaced. They were circulated on the Internet and on television, and "slut-shaming" comments followed.

In April, forced by online comments accusing and mocking her for plastic surgery, she admitted to a procedure that creates a fold on the eyelid. Implying that she had medical reasons for getting the surgery, Goo spoke out about "numerous abusive comments and mental pain I've suffered from a young age."

When Goo reappeared in public after her apparent attempt at suicide in May, she seemed ready and determined to resume work in Japan. She said she would "work hard to overcome" any hardships and promoted an upcoming single on her Instagram account.

Last month, after her friend and fellow K-pop star Sulli died in an apparent suicide — in circumstances similar to Goo's death — Goo pledged in a tearful Instagram video message addressed to Sulli that she would "live harder" and "live the share of your life you didn't get to live."

After Sulli's death, the Korea Entertainment Management Association vowed stronger action on behalf of entertainers, saying, "We will root out malicious commenters, and we will make requests and petitions to investigative bodies and to the government so that the commenters can be strictly punished."

To Goo's grief-stricken fans visiting the shrine in her memory at St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul, the news of Sulli's death is still fresh in memory. Lee Hyun-cheol, a 37-year-old middle school teacher, stopped by on his way home from work. Listing Kara's hit songs, Lee says he has been a fan for years.

"Just like with Sulli, people failed to respect celebrities as humans and thoughtlessly post comments behind the mask of anonymity," Lee says. "Celebrities, too, have parts of their lives they want to keep private."

The passion Kara showed on stage and the "sweat and tears they must have shed offstage moved me," Lee says.

Another visitor laments the lost talent.

"It's such a painful loss," says Kim In-soon, a 62-year-old singer known by her stage name, Insooni.

A veteran industry insider who has endured hateful words as a rare mixed-race public figure in largely homogeneous Korean society, Kim says Sulli and Goo "must have felt alone" in hard moments.

"Stars have feelings. We are not dolls," she says.

Of young K-pop artists, she says, "They live in this small sphere, not knowing what the outside world is like."

Stars often spend years as teen trainees under talent agencies' strict management. Public display of personal details, including romance, is often frowned upon and sometimes forbidden by entertainment agencies.

"It is too cruel to demand that celebrities should be different. They have the right to love, make mistakes and even break up with someone," Kim says. "They're still so young."

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the by texting HOME to 741741.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.