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[Editorial] Reopen the probe

Jang Ja-yeon, an aspiring actress, killed herself in March 2009, claiming that she had been forced into prostitution by her management agency. Those who had allegedly been provided with sexual favors included top business managers and news media representatives.

Her suicide caused a public uproar, forcing the police to launch a seemingly extensive probe into the sexual slavery case. But the investigation, when ended, left many questions unanswered.

After two months of an investigation by a 40-strong team, the police closed the case, making a dubious conclusion that her death was nothing but a simple suicide. They said she was afflicted with depression.

Wrapping up the investigation, the police acquitted all of the people suspected of being provided with sexual favors, citing lack of hard evidence. But the prosecutors’ office indicted the manager of the actress and the head of the management agency on charges of coercing her to serve their guests at drinking parties.

But from the beginning, doubts were cast on the sincere desire of the police to delve into the case. Instead, questions were raised about an attempt by the police to cover up the truth about coerced prostitution under pressure from influential suspects.

The suspicions had appeared buried for good before the SBS-TV network recently shed new light on the case. The broadcaster made public 50 letters she had allegedly written to one of her acquaintances, describing the numerous occasions in which she was forced to attend drinking parties and offer sexual favors to 31 people.

Few additional allegations were made in the letters, whose pages totaled 230. But the new descriptions about sexual abuse were more specific than those contained in her seven-page note found two years ago.

In one of the letters, she said she “changed into a new dress to go to meet the devils.” In another, she said she was summoned to a drinking party on the eve of an “anniversary of the death of my parents,” who were killed in a traffic accident in 1999. SBS-TV claimed the letters were confirmed to authentic.

Since the SBS-TV report, pressure has been mounting on the police to reopen the case. The first thing they will have to do is to ascertain authenticity. This should require a simple job of commissioning the National Forensic Service to make comparisons between the letters and the actress’s known handwriting samples.

If they prove to be authentic, the police will have no other way than to launch a renewed investigation. In that case, they will have to leave no stone unturned. Otherwise, they will turn themselves into a target of public mockery.

However, a watertight investigation alone will not be enough, given the sexual abuse case involving Jang is not just her personal tragedy. If the allegations are proven correct, they will show the ugly side of the thriving entertainment industry, in which fledgling drama stars, singers and other entertainers fall victim.

At the core of Jang’s tragedy are “slave contracts” with management agencies. Under the long-term exclusive contracts, many young talents are forced by their managers to work long hours for low pay and provide sexual favors more often than not, as shown by Jang’s case.

Since Jang’s death, there has been much talk about tightening regulations on talent-management agencies. But not much has been done, with the legislation process, initiated in 2009, not moving forward in the face of lobbying by management agencies.

From the perspective of human rights protection, the National Assembly will soon have to jump-start the legislation process. Sexual abuse committed in the entertainment industry is little different from the sexual slavery “comfort women” were forced into during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. Either way, it is a heinous crime of coerced prostitution.