K-pop singer Jonghyun's death turns spotlight on pressures of stardom
A harrowing note left by the K-pop singer Kim Jong-hyun, who has died in a suspected suicide, has highlighted the pressures facing young people in South Korea's intensely competitive entertainment industry.
Kim, the lead singer of the boy band SHINee, died in hospital in Seoul on Monday after he was found unconscious in his apartment.
Better known as Jonghyun, he had attracted a huge following in his native country and across Asia both as a band member and solo artist, and was among the most marketable figures in K-pop, South Korea's most successful cultural export.
Over the past decade, SHINee, Super Junior, Girls' Generation and other bands have been the driving force behind the Hallyu Wave that has helped South Korean films, music and TV dramas establish loyal followings in Asia and Europe.
However, in a note made public a day after his death, the 27-year-old had said he felt "broken from inside".
"The depression that gnawed on me slowly has finally engulfed me entirely," Kim wrote, adding that he "couldn't defeat it any more".
His friend the singer Nine9 released the note on her Instagram account, saying he had asked her to make it public in the event of his death.
"I was so alone," Kim continued. "The act of ending is difficult. I've lived until now because of that difficulty. Please tell me I did a good job." He ended the message: "You've worked hard. You've really gone through a lot. Goodbye."
K-pop stars are subjected to severe competition and years of training, with every aspect of their lives – from their musical style and fashion to diet and even mobile phone use – dictated by powerful management agencies.
Like their Japanese counterparts, many are forced to forgo romantic relationships to maintain the wholesome image crafted by their industry handlers.
In Kim, many fans saw a supremely talented singer and dancer who had managed to avoid the hazards, such as alcohol and drugs, that had destroyed the careers of some of his peers.
The shock felt among his fans worldwide was compounded by the fact that he appeared happy and at ease with himself during public appearances only days before his death.
But in echoes of his longer note, he had sought what appeared to be assurances about his achievements from his sister in text messages he sent on Monday. "This is my last farewell," he told her. "Please let me go and say I did a good job."
The relentless pressure to achieve can be found in every sector of South Korean society, from its highly competitive education system to a corporate culture that has little tolerance for failure – factors that experts say contribute to the highest suicide rate in the industrialised world.
Several high-profile figures, including the country's former president Roh Moo-hyun, as well as business executives, have killed themselves in recent years.
In 2009, the actor Park Jin-hee wrote a master's degree paper in which she said 40% of South Korea's actors had considered suicide at least once due to a lack of privacy, online bullying, unstable incomes and the fear that their talents were not appreciated by the industry or the public.
Some of the hundreds of fans paying their respects on Tuesday at the hospital where Kim died spoke of the intolerable pressures that can accompany stardom in South Korea.
"I came here to say my last farewell … since we fans apparently couldn't be there for him when he needed help most," 19-year-old Jung Min-kyung told AFP.
"I think our country has very high expectations of celebrities."