Omega X members say their K-pop agency abused them

The members of the K-pop group Omega X seemed to be on a roll a few weeks ago when their first international tour ended with a successful performance in Los Angeles.

But this sense of triumph was short-lived.

After the October show, an executive from their management agency yelled at the group at an LA hotel and pushed a band member to the ground, footage of the encounter appeared to show. The band members then flew home to Seoul at their own expense and later sued their entertainment agency in court.

At a hearing on Wednesday, a South Korean judge will consider the group’s 11 members’ request to be released from their multi-year contracts with agency Spire Entertainment. Lawyers for the band said the Los Angeles executive’s behavior was the latest episode in a years-long pattern of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. The executive, Kang Seong-hee, resigned last month but denies any wrongdoing.

“I took care of them all like their mother,” Ms. Kang told The New York Times in a phone interview, adding that Kim Jaehan, 27, the band member who fell at the hotel, collapsed on her own. She said she hopes the band will resume normal activities with the agency.

K-pop experts say the band’s allegations against their agency, if true, would align with other stories from industry insiders and whistleblowers. They say some management companies, particularly smaller ones, routinely prey on young artists desperate to become K-pop idols by imposing strict controls on their behavior and, in some cases, subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse.

Since the 1990s, “the level of exploitation has been systematized and also normalized because the K-pop industry has become dominant,” and more ambitious young people are drawn to it, said Jin Lee, an Asian pop cultures scholar and research associate at the Curtin University in Australia.

“Everyone wants to be an idol,” she said.

Workers in South Korea, a deeply hierarchical society, are increasingly speaking out when bosses abuse their authority. But experts say most working K-pop artists don’t publicly criticize their agencies, fearing the consequences of breaching their contracts.

Kim Youna, an entertainment attorney in Seoul, said that smaller agencies in particular have tended to sign aspiring musicians with contracts that don’t define working hours or put limits on what the artists can reasonably ask for.

Regulations on contracts between artists and their agencies have only existed in South Korea for about 25 years, Ms Kim said. Other industries in the country have robust labor laws. “In this context, it seems that idols, who are seen as the less powerful parties, have no choice but to suffer a small loss,” she said.

Some of the losses are financial. For example, it’s common for agencies to require artists to pay back the cost of the education they received, such as dance classes, vocal coaching, and other preparation. But there are often questions about how transparently that debt is calculated, said Lee Jongim, a South Korean entertainment industry scholar and author of Idol Trainees’ Sweat and Tears.

Aspiring K-pop stars “make their debuts in their teens, but entertainment agents are adults,” she said. “So you’re starting out in a structure where it’s difficult to create an equal relationship.”

Some K-pop musicians have waited until their contracts ended to accuse their agencies of mistreatment.

In one example, Heo Min-sun, a member of the former group Crayon Pop, to the YouTube channel Asian Boss in 2019 that the band’s agency had withheld band members’ salaries for a year and a half after their debut. She said it also forced them to go on diets and banned them from socializing without the agency’s permission.

“Our private life was strictly controlled. Even if I wanted to make a new boyfriend, I couldn’t,” Ms. Heo said in the 2019 interview. Crayon Pop’s agency, Chrome Entertainment, did not respond to a request for comment.

In a 2019 criminal case, two K-pop musicians successfully took legal action against their agency before their contracts expired.

These musicians – Lee Seok-cheol, now 22, and Lee Seung-hyun, now 20 – are brothers who performed in boy band The East Light as teenagers. They accused their producer, agency and manager of assaulting and verbally threatening them. A court fined the agency Media Line Entertainment around $15,000 and sentenced the producer to 16 months in prison for child molestation. The CEO received eight months for assisting in child abuse.

Another case, although technically successful, is widely regarded as a cautionary tale.

Three former members of the group TVXQ fought for years to appear on television after ending their contract with SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s most powerful agencies. The country’s antitrust authorities eventually ordered SM Entertainment to stop pressuring cable channels to blacklist members of the band from appearing on television.

The Agency disputed the Commission’s findings. But CedarBough T. Saeji, a K-pop industry expert at Pusan ​​National University, said the band members were “unofficially blacklisted from the K-pop industry.” The episode sent “a chilling message to younger idols that even if they achieve a legal goal, joining a powerful corporation could be the end of their careers,” she added.

After Kim Jaehan’s altercation with Ms. Kang at the Los Angeles hotel on October 22, a South Korean TV station published a blurry report filming of the episode that a viewer had filmed. When the band returned to Seoul, its members took the rare step of forming one Instagram account without authorization from their agency, as would normally be required. In another rare move, they made their allegations of abuse public at a press conference.

“Every one of us is very scared,” Mr Kim said at the press conference last month.

The band members say that Ms. Kang, then-CEO of Spire Entertainment, began making habitual sexual remarks, touching her thighs, hands and face against her will, and regularly prompting her to do so, a few months after Omega X debuted in June 2021 forced to drink alcohol after rehearsals.

Lawyers for the band have also said that Spire, a small agency formed in 2020, has ordered each band member to pay the agency about $300,000 in debts they incurred from their education. ‌

To date, the band’s attorneys have not filed criminal charges or presented physical evidence to support their allegations. They cited concerns that this would indicate they were trying to influence the civil trial, which begins on Wednesday. They said their current focus is getting the band out of their contract, not filing charges.

In an interview last week, Ms. Kang denied the band members’ allegations. Her demand to cover her agency’s debt was justified, she added, and she believes the band members accused her of abuse to justify moving to a larger agency.

“In your opinion, our company does not have enough to support them,” Ms. Kang said, referring to the company’s financial resources. “So they’re conducting a witch hunt.”

The fate of Omega X may depend on how the South Korean public reacts to the band’s side of the story, said Ms. Lee, the pop culture scholar. If the dispute escalates and its members can garner more public support, she said, Spire Entertainment could allow them to break their contract.

At least two companies working with Spire overseas have severed ties since the scandal broke: Helix Publicity, which was responsible for publicizing Omega X in the United States, and Skiyaki, the company that licensed the activities of Omega X in Japan.

A number of people who worked or volunteered at concert venues on the last two-month, 16-city tour of the United States and Latin America have also spoken out in favor of Omega X.

Gigi Granados, 25, a beautician who attended a show at the Palladium Times Square in New York City, said she saw Ms Kang yelling at members of the band at their hotel after the performance. “No one deserves to be yelled at like that,” she said. Omega X members say their K-pop agency abused them

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