South Korea's 'playground' for rich and famous hit by sex abuse scandal

James Rothwell
The sex scandal has shocked South Korea - Seongjoon Cho

South Korea’s playground for the rich and famous has been rocked by a major scandal over the alleged drugging and rape of young girls, exposing the underbelly of the country’s massively popular “K-pop” scene. 

Police have arrested more than 350 people in connection with claims of endemic sexual abuse and exploitation in Seoul’s Gangnam nightclub district, where k-pop stars mingle with wealthy businessmen and other VIPs. 

The case has led to intense scrutiny of South Korea’s multi-billion pound K-pop industry, a global export that was once synonymous with squeaky-clean pop bands but is now facing allegations which resonate with the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the United States. 

The names of several high-profileK-pop stars, such as boy band singer Seungri, have been dragged into the scandal and interviewed by police, though they strenuously deny any wrongdoing.  

According to a BBC investigation, victims were drugged with an undetectable substance known as GHB before being dragged into nightclub back rooms or alleyways and then raped by one or more men, sometimes while being filmed on mobile phones. 

According to the BBC investigation, VIP guests - who often spend more than £10,000 per night at Gangnam’s bars - collude with nightclub reps to drug and sexually abuse their victims.

Victims of abuse in Gangam told the BBC that their drinks were spiked at the request of VIPs and then fell unconscious.  One of them, “Kim,” which is not her real name, said she then woke up in a hotel room with a man looking down on her. 

A view of the Gangnam nightclub district Credit: Nukorn Plainpan

"He forced me to lie down but I didn't want to, so I kept getting up. When I got up, he would grab my neck and force me down on the bed over and over. I thought someone could die like this by having their neck broken,” she told the BBC.  A former nightclub host claimed that one particular “VVIP” - an elite guest - was "well-known for his crazy appetite for unconscious women". 

"He ordered me to bring two totally drunk or unconscious women to him," the former host told the BBC, adding that the specific request was "bring me zombies." Another Gangnam club regular said he recalled a waiter bringing unconscious women into a VIP club room.  "I don't know if someone drugged her but I had a woman who was clearly hallucinating and unconscious. I wondered if she was mentally ill, especially since she was drooling and her body was limp. I worried - what if she dies here?" he told the BBC. 

There have also been claims that the scandal was initially covered up police, prompting Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, to launch an investigation into police corruption. 

He later said there was evidence "suggesting that the prosecutors and police purposely conducted incomplete investigations, and actively prevented the truth from being revealed". 

Meanwhile, the Korean National Police Agency says it has created a special unit to investigate sex crimes against women in Gangnam. 

Many victims of rape in South Korea are reluctant to come forward as South Korean society remains strongly patriarchal and a stigma is attached to sex abuse survivors.