The Korea Herald


Up high: K-pop stars and drugs

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : July 25, 2017 - 15:53

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When a Seoul court sentenced K-pop superstar T.O.P to 10 months in prison, suspended for 2 years, for marijuana use last week, the catchy hook by the rapper and his Big Bang bandmate G-Dragon likely popped up in the minds of many fans.

The 29-year-old may not have actually been “high” when he wrote the lyrics for the popular tune, but the public has been casting a suspicious eye on the duo nonetheless, especially given G-Dragon’s previous run-in with authorities over alleged marijuana use.

The Big Bang leader in 2011 admitted to marijuana use at a Japanese club in 2011, although he claimed he was unaware of the substance he was inhaling at the time.

T.O.P of Big Bang reads a statement in front of the press ahead of his first trial held at the Seoul Central District Court on June 29. (Yonhap) T.O.P of Big Bang reads a statement in front of the press ahead of his first trial held at the Seoul Central District Court on June 29. (Yonhap)
Drug use and the controversy that ensues have been an abiding presence in the entertainment business, like the bad hangover that follows a bachelor party.

It dates all the way back to the “Godfather of Korean rock” Shin Jung-hyeon in the 1970s, when he was arrested for marijuana use. Shortly thereafter, singing legend Cho Yong-pil was also slapped with a fine for smoking pot. Bombarded with criticism and ridicule, the superstar singer announced his retirement -- although he returned less than a year later.

Another Korean pop icon, Lee Seung-chul, was embroiled in a drug scandal in 1989. The singer said he decided to quit drugs for good after he was humiliated by being strip-searched at a jail cell.

Even global pop-sensation Psy -- who set the world on fire with “Gangnam Style” in 2012 -- was caught smoking marijuana in 2001, a few months after his debut.

For the most part, the public shows knee-jerk reaction to celebrities’ drug use and the stars lie low thereafter. Drug use here remains a taboo and can deal a severe blow to celebrities’ careers. Singer Hyun Jin-young, who was found guilty of methamphetamine use in 1993, mounted several attempts to return to the entertainment scene, but without much success.

Some experts attribute the recent spate of drug use by celebrities to the pressure of being in the spotlight 24/7.

Kim Hyung-geun, the director of the Seoul Addiction Institute of Psychotherapy, noted that celebrities tend to demonstrate a higher sense of self-attachment.

He pointed out that this tendency -- coupled with a fear of fading into obscurity and isolation from everyday people -- can lead to celebrities seeking comfort in drugs.

Winds of change?

While hard drug use can be a severe health hazard, some parts of the world have moved to legalize less harmful drugs.

Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy and the Netherlands have legalized the use of medicinal cannabis -- or medical marijuana -- which is categorized as a soft drug. In the Netherlands and some US states, recreational use of marijuana is also legal.

In Korea, actress Kim Bu-seon, who was arrested for smoking marijuana in 1989, waged a one-woman campaign calling for the legalization of marijuana. She filed a petition to the Constitutional Court in 2004, claiming the ban infringes upon the constitutional right of citizens to pursue happiness and evade excessive punishment.

Kim, whose career and reputation as one of Korea’s hottest actresses plummeted after the drug scandal, recently appeared on MBC talk show “Radio Star” and expressed disappointment that most Korean stars who were punished for their marijuana use have not joined her cause.

She appears to be fighting a losing battle, at least for now. But the fact that talk of legalizing marijuana can even surface in the mainstream media indicates times may be changing.

By Yoon Min-sik