The Korea Herald


K-pop in battle with sasaeng

Big name stars and agencies upping scrutiny of problem fans, but rookies still vulnerable

By Hong Dam-young

Published : Jan. 22, 2020 - 16:44

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(Yonhap) (Yonhap)

K-pop stars have always been subject to stalking, and it’s not confined to making non-stop calls or following their every move. More recently, their frequent flights overseas have been targeted by stalker fans who are willing to pay for pricey first-class seats to get closer to favorite stars.

V of K-pop juggernaut BTS recently shared that the group flies on a private jet to avoid obsessive fans who follow them on board.

“We actually want to fly on a regular plane. But when we travel abroad, some fans already know when and where we will be sitting and book their seats next to us or in front of us. To be frank with you, we don’t want you to do that. It’s really scary,” the singer said during a live chat with fans.

Earlier this month, JYP Entertainment also filed a complaint against a German stalker for attempting to approach Nayeon of Twice on a flight. The agency added it was also seeking a restraining order against him, saying “We have already warned him on several occasions but he never stops.”

Sasaeng fans are everywhere

K-pop stars’ connection with fans have only grown stronger over time. Spurred by an integral role of fandoms and their social media networks, K-pop followers have cemented their position as an engine powering the competitive industry.

They play a major role behind artists’ success, attaining them upper ranks on charts, win on online polls, trending on Twitter and even trophies at awards. Idols and their agencies reciprocate them with good music and stronger fan-artist relationship.

Such devotion, however, can have a negative effect beyond a certain point. “Sasaeng” fans -- the Korean nickname referring to stars’ private lives -- are notorious for tracking down their idols’ homes and monitoring their personal activities.

On Twitter, it doesn’t take much effort to find posts that sell K-pop stars’ personal information, including phone numbers, dorm addresses, uncensored photos, flight information and even the numbers of their parents. Because most of the purchases are made online using one-time KakaoTalk or Twitter accounts, it is almost impossible for agencies to track down how the information is leaked and traded.

“Sasaeng and ill-minded people who are living off them are everywhere. They could be airline official or a travel agency worker. I also found some sasaeng working at broadcasting stations with direct access to the sensitive personal information,” the manager of a K-pop boy band said on condition of anonymity. “We never know where they are hiding.”

Agencies fighting back

In the past, agencies used to tolerate the sometimes obsessive behavior of sasaeng fans considering the usually cozy relationship between K-pop stars and their ardent followers. But more recently, they are taking tougher actions to better protect their artists under no-tolerance policy.

One of the widely adopted ways is blacklisting them. Blacklisted sasaeng fans are not allowed to attend events, and the list is disclosed through the official fan community for heightened scrutiny.

In December last year, JYP Entertainment announced tightened blacklisting guidelines after Jackson of GOT7 fell down at China’s Qingdao Airport when a crowd waiting for him became disorderly. Behavior subject to blacklisting includes: following the artist’s vehicle to the JYP head office, the practice room, the house, the workshop or any other destinations; waiting or continuously observing the artist outside their home or studio; initiating physical contact with the artist on any official or unofficial schedules; and selling or buying event tickets that are not supposed to be available for purchase.

“Those who violate the guidelines will be permanently banned from all our events,” a JYP official said. “We will be ramping up efforts to protect artists, fans and the public.”

Big Hit Entertainment, home to BTS, is also stepping up its action against sasaeng fans by sharing the blacklist, their social media IDs and details of their violations such as illegal and excessive photo taking, illegal ticket sales and booking flight seats to get near the members.

“Big Hit is also known for its strict hiring process. It doesn’t matter if the applicant is not a BTS fan. Sometimes non-BTS fans are allegedly preferred. Even after they enter the firm, most of them have limited access to BTS members largely due to security issues,” said an industry source who wished to be unnamed.

Rookies more vulnerable

As big name artists and their agencies have come up with their own counter measures against sasaengs, stalking fans are turning their eyes to rookie artists who are more accessible than A-listers.

At an early stage of their career, rookies are eager to attract more fans and contact them directly. Agencies are also not that strict about their fans’ behavior.

“I was really surprised to find out that a herd of sasaeng were waiting outside our group’s studio even though it was not part of the official schedule,” said a manager of a rookie band who asked to be unnamed. “Agencies, especially small- and medium-sized ones, rarely have means to control obsessive fans. We don’t have an official fan club or any articulated, effective rules.”

He said agencies can’t help but turn a blind eye.

“Even though they sometimes cross the line, they are our only supporters who purchase our albums and goods at least for now. Frankly, it’s hard to be too harsh on them,” he said.

Experts call the nation’s lenient punishment for stalking as one of the key reasons why obsessive fans are hard to control. In Korea, stalking is considered a minor offence that is usually punished with a fine less than 100,000 won ($86) unless it leads to more serious crimes like assault.

Blurry line between fans and sasaeng 

K-pop fans seem unclear about defining which of them are sasaeng.

“Some fans call me a sasaeng. But I don’t agree with them,” said a K-pop fan who runs a sizeable fan account on Twitter, adding she still feels some pressure about how her activities are seen by others.

Many fans follow idols’ unofficial schedules to take exclusive photos and spot more private sides of them. While such acts are commonly seen as sasaeng behavior, she argues that there’s a fine line between stalking and tagging along them.

“There’s a difference between waiting at the airport just to see their faces and taking pictures and following them inside the immigration, even to their seats. Sasaengs don’t care whether their behavior disturbs artists or not,” she said.

Whether it’s a problem of lenient punishment of offenders or agencies’ lax management, it may be time for artists themselves to raise their voices to protect themselves.

“I think celebrities in Korea are more susceptible to sasaeng or stalking, as they are too afraid of criticizing others, let alone suing them. They tend to do so to protect their images. I don’t think it’s right to ask agencies (to take) full responsibility,” one K-pop follower said.

“They need to use their huge influence to create a healthier fandom culture.”

By Hong Dam-young (