We look into the current situation, B.I’s case, South Korea’s drug laws, and K-pop’s history with drug scandals
On June 12, K-pop fans around the world woke to the news that B.I (real name Kim Hanbin), the leader and songwriter for the popular seven-member boy group iKON, had allegedly attempted to purchase marijuana and LSD in 2016. B.I’s label, YG Entertainment, immediately issued a statement denying the story. “YG strictly manages its artists for drug use,” they wrote. “B.I has nothing to do with the alleged 2016 drug case. Every two months, YG purchases a drug diagnostic kit from the US and performs drug tests on all artists. All members of iKON including B.I submitted to the urine test ahead all of their activities. Not one member tested positive for drug use.”
Despite this, B.I shocked iKON fans – known as iKONICs – by announcing on Instagram that he was leaving the group, to “fully look back and reflect on my actions”. In the letter, he also stated he was “too scared and fearful to try so I did not go through with it”. Korean entertainment shows have since enforced a blackout on his upcoming appearances, stating that they’d edit him out of any episodes.
For anyone unfamiliar with K-pop and Korean culture, B.I’s departure in light of his statement that he merely thought about buying drugs appears drastic. To understand the situation, and B.I’s individual case, requires a look at South Korea’s strict drug laws, public opinion around substances, and K-pop’s history with drug scandals.
WHY DID B.I LEAVE iKON?
It’s not entirely clear what lead to B.I’s departure, as there are several conflicting details in the story of his alleged drug use, which was first broken by Korean tabloid Dispatch and reported by Soompi, and subsequent statements from his label, YG Entertainment. In 2016, an individual – referred to as “A” – was arrested for smoking marijuana and had their phone searched, revealing messages between “A” and B.I. in the messages, “A” tells B.I not to “talk about drugs with anyone else”, to which B.I responds, “Haha, I’m asking you since I’ve taken some with you.”
South Korean authorities said that “A” originally testified that they had delivered the requested drugs to B.I, but Dispatch reports that the police did not investigate the K-pop idol. A week later, “A” changed their testimonial to state that B.I asked for drugs but none were given to him, a move made because, Dispatch alleges, the CEO of YG Entertainment, Yang Hyun Suk, paid “A”’s attorney fee and asked them to change their statement, something that Yang Hyun Suk denies.
It’s since been reported by multiple outlets that “A” is allegedly Han Seo Hee, a former idol trainee who dated Big Bang’s T.O.P and told police she had smoked marijuana with him, which lead to his own drug scandal in 2017. In November 2018, T.O.P returned to social media after a year of silence, and Seo Hee promptly responded saying she should have revealed more of the “company’s secrets” to the media. There have also been petitions to Korea’s Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission to reopen B.I’s case and investigate YG’s alleged interference in it, as well as a petition to stop allowing any YG artists on Korean broadcast media.
HOW DID B.I’S FANS RESPOND?
International iKONICs reacted to B.I’s departure by turning Twitter and Instagram into a sea of red avatars and block colour posts – red being the colour of iKON’s fandom – and getting the hashtag #김한빈_탈퇴하지마 (#KimHanbin_DontQuit) to trend. Fans also began a petition, which has already garnered over half a million supporters, insisting that he’s done nothing wrong and shouldn’t leave the group, despite YG having already terminated his contract.
WHY ARE DRUGS SUCH A BIG DEAL, ANYWAY?
In South Korea, the laws around recreational drugs are, like many Asian countries, severe. Use of marijauna can result in a jail sentence of up to five years, or a fine of up to 50 million won (around £33,000). Korean nationals are even prohibited from using any form of drugs while abroad. Drugs, with marijuana and methamphetamine being the most popular, can be expensive in South Korea – in B.I’s alleged conversations with “A”, ten hits of LSD would have cost him nearly £1,000 – and they’re generally seen by the public to be used by celebrities, foreigners, criminals, and the rich, rather than the average citizen.
The idea of drug-testing artists might seem incredibly intrusive, but in light of South Korea’s laws and the public outcry over drug scandals, the Korean pop industry is structured in such a way that idols are trained and treated like athletes, who are routinely tested. As in sport, K-pop is about delivering peak performance, and idols, like athletes, tend to have a limited shelf life. A team wouldn’t risk having their best player removed because of a positive test, and a similar idea applies to K-pop.
Even if “A”’s messages and original testimony are true, many westerners would struggle to see why this matter could potentially end his career. Illegal substances are more often celebrated than demonised in the western music industry, which has them go hand in hand for decades and resulted in some of the most influential music committed to record. Psychedelic rock was established around LSD use in the 1960s. The Beatles used acid, speed, and cocaine. Bowie and Fleetwood Mac spent the best part of the 70s on cocaine, as did pop stars like Duran Duran and hair metal bands in the 80s. Hip hop: weed. Grunge: heroin. Punk rock: speed. Rave: ecstasy. Soundcloud rap: Xanax. Still, despite South Korea’s robust drinking and partying culture, drug use isn’t tolerated by officials. When you’re a celebrity relying on brand sponsorship and fickle public favour, why risk the potential loss of revenue? The moment the news around B.I’s allegations broke, YG stock began to drop and ended 4.05 per cent down on the previous day.
IS THIS THE FIRST K-POP DRUG SCANDAL?
Other artists have tested positive for drugs, been arrested and convicted, yet they’ve not been set adrift the way B.I has. In fact, YG Entertainment has seen its share of drug-related scandals for years, and is still reeling after Big Bang’s Seungri’s involvement with the Burning Sun nightclub, prostitution, and embezzlement scandal earlier this year. B.I, however, is the first YG idol to have his contract terminated for drug-related activity, alleged or otherwise.
K-hip hop has also had its fair share of rappers being taken to court for marijuana, including C Jamm (probation) and E-Sens (served jail time for repeat offences), and even old-school K-pop performers such as “Gangnam Style” hitmaker PSY have been caught out – he was arrested for marijuana in 2001 and spent 25 days in jail, but took only a six-month hiatus.
HOW HAS THE K-POP INDUSTRY REACTED TO OTHER DRUG SCANDALS?
In June 2011, G-Dragon, the leader and rapper of Big Bang, tested positive for marijuana, and while never criminally charged, he took a short hiatus amidst the media storm and public disapproval. G-Dragon still has pockets of detractors, but he remains signed to YG Entertainment, and is one K-pop’s biggest names. His rapper bandmate, T.O.P, admitted to four charges of marijuana use in 2017, and was placed under probation. The media scrutiny intensified as he overdosed on tranquilisers shortly after being indicted. Surprisingly, this didn’t earn him much public sympathy, and he returned to Korea’s mandatory military service, from which he’ll be discharged next month.
In contrast, the harsh treatment of Park Bom, of YG girl group 2NE1, is a cause of much debate for K-pop fans. In 2014, it came to light that she had previously attempted to bring 82 amphetamine pills into South Korea through the post. Despite the pills being legal medication in the USA, their illegality in Korea lead to Bom being put on indefinite hiatus and in 2016, the group broke up. Later, YG’s CEO publicly blamed her for 2NE1’s disbandment. In March, after years in the wilderness, Bom (with a new label) made a highly successful return to music.
Not all artists have made such a comeback. After four dropped sexual assault charges against Park Yoochun, a member of TVXQ and JYJ, a drug scandal earlier this year was the kicker. Although he’d vehemently stated, “I have never used drugs let alone suggested it”, he tested positive for methamphetamine, and was promptly dropped by his agency, C-JeS, amidst public disgust.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
There are no hard and fast rules about the aftermath of a drug scandal. Korean media tends to release celebrity scandals in dribs and drabs to prolong attention, so it’s possible that there are more revelations to come in B.I’s situation. Regardless of whether the police decide to reinvestigate the case, B.I is unlikely to be on social media for a while, and YG confirmed that iKON will continue without him. Even if he doesn’t take to the stage again, there’s every chance he’ll remain in-demand as a composer and producer once the public memory of this event has faded.