When an autograph isn’t enough
Despite it being the early morning hours of a Wednesday in late March, 17-year-old Kwon and two of her friends were already hovering around the entrance of a beauty salon in trendy Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.
The “they” was simply understood, referring to the members of the popular K-pop group Beast, who the girls have also affectionately named oppadeul, meaning older brothers.
Kwon, who used to live with her grandmother in Daejeon, said she dropped out of school two years ago as it “cost too much to go back and forth from Daejeon to Seoul” to meet her favorite idol group.
“I promised my grandmother I would take the high school qualification exam when I turn 19,” said Kwon, who now lives with her aunt in Seoul.
In the mornings, when her favorite idol groups make reservations for their makeup and hair, Kwon calls up a couple of friends and waits outside salons to catch a peek of the members.
“I shouldn’t say this, but I know a girl who works at the salon as a helper,” Kwon said. “She texts me when the members make a reservation at the parlor.”
If there are no appointments in the morning, Kwon rests at home as she works at a convenience store overnight to earn the extra money that is required to chase after the stars. During the day, she mostly follows them around according to their schedules and hardly ever misses a concert or television show taping in which her “older brothers” may appear.
But Kwon insists she is no longer an obsessive or sasaeng fan, as they are called in Korean.
“I used to follow stars systematically around the clock and even knew the security code for one of my idol’s homes,” Kwon said. “But I don’t go that far these days, as sasaeng fans have drawn some heat recently, but I have to admit that I can’t quit fandom entirely.”
She said she “no longer tries to break into their houses or steal their items,” but admitted that she can’t sleep at night if she doesn’t know what her idol stars are up to.
Kwon is just one example of the obsessive fans with which K-pop stars - and the industry itself - have begun to grapple with. Entertainment agencies and the stars they manage make no secret of their appreciation for fans, with many stars routinely holding meet-and-greets for them. And in return, fans don’t hesitate to open their wallets to purchase pop stars’ CDs, download songs, purchase expensive tickets for concerts and even donate large amounts of money to charities under their favorite stars’ names.
But all this schmoozing can backfire by fostering fanatic sasaeng fans who take their devotion to stars more than just a little too far.
The Korean word “sasaeng” means “privacy,” and fans with this title have no compunction about violating it to draw closer to their stars’ private lives. They break into stars’ houses and steal their belongings, grope them at public events and even send them letters written in blood.
Sasaeng fans have been in the spotlight since early last month when audio recordings of JYJ member Kim Jae-joong physically and verbally attacking female fans surfaced online. The band drew criticism and later held a press conference to apologize, but also asked fans to see the issue from its perspective. Constant pestering by sasaeng fans for the past eight years has made the members feel as if they are “living in a jail without bars,” they said.
“Sasaengs used our ID cards to obtain our call histories and followed us around by secretly installing a location tracking device on our cars,” said Kim Jun-su, a member of JYJ, during the press conference. “They also break into our houses and take pictures of our belongings, and one of them even tried to kiss me while I was asleep.”
Celebrities say that simply chasing stars or sending text messages is considered rudimentary to sasaeng fans, and that these obsessed followers often compete with each other to perform the most outlandish acts. Past sasaeng undertakings include fans invading stars’ houses during the night for a surprise kiss or to steal underwear. Others scratch idols’ arms with their fingernails to collect some blood.
In a television appearance early last year, Chang-min from boy band TVXQ said that he changed his phone number after receiving endless text messages, only to receive another message five minutes after the change took effect that read, “You changed your number.”
TVXQ’s Yunho said on the same show that he received pictures of his belongings inside the group’s dormitory, calling the invasion of privacy “hair-raising.”
Sasaengs compete with each other to get the most up-to-date location information about stars and post the information as an “exclusive.” The more exclusives that fans obtain, the more respect they earn from other sasaengs.
“Sasaeng fans are evolving,” said an idol group manager surnamed Park. “They are becoming more systematic in sharing information while money goes back and forth as well.”
It’s not difficult to find posts on online fan cafes that sell cell phone numbers or resident registration numbers of stars for 5,000 won ($4.40) to 10,000 won, depending on the stars’ level of popularity.
A 15-year-old sasaeng fan who went by the name Lee Ji-sun in a JoongAng Ilbo article last month said that she spends about 1 million won per month to chase around her idol stars, mostly by paying drivers of special sasaeng taxis.
Sasaeng taxis are commonly located outside entertainment agencies, concert halls and beauty salons - basically anywhere that sasaeng fans frequent. Drivers of these cars go at high speeds to help their customers follow celebrities and even give out cards with the names and telephone numbers of stars they have chased in the past.
When a Korea JoongAng Daily reporter called a sasaeng taxi driver to inquire about pricing, the driver said he receives 150,000 won for three hours of work - a reasonable fare because drivers “have to speed at the risk of their own lives and deal with the potential for car accidents.” The driver even recommended that the reporter call him again after asking his friends to “go Dutch” if the cost was too burdensome.
Lee said she does part-time jobs at convenience stores and lies to her parents about attending a hagwon (private school) to get the 800,000 won per month she needs to follow her idols.
“To be a sasaeng, some girls are even brave enough to earn the money by prostitution” she added.
Teenage sasaeng fans who can’t afford sasaeng taxis use information from the Twitter and Facebook accounts of stars’ close friends to get location information as the friends tend to upload what they are doing with the stars when they add pictures to their accounts.
For many sasaeng fans, behavior that may be seen as erratic by others is perfectly normal for them.
“I think that if I go to a concert or wait for stars at the airport, I am just another ordinary fan among thousands of others,” said a self-described “avid” fan of Big Bang surnamed Joo. “But I feel like they notice me when I behave in a way that disturbs them. Of course, sometimes I feel sorry for making them frown by approaching them too closely, but as long as they notice me and say things like ‘Not you again!’ I literally feel on top of the world.”
As Hallyu spreads around the globe, other countries have their share of hardcore K-pop fans, but foreign followers of the Korean Wave find the level of sasaeng fans’ obsession quite unusual.
Irina Belyakova, 23, is the leader of a thousands-strong online forum for K-pop fans in Russia, and often posts advice for Russia fans traveling to Korea to see their favorite stars. She takes a decidedly more low-key approach than do the most obsessed of Korean fans.
In an e-mail interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, Belyakova said K-pop fans in Russia were “literally terrified” after reading articles about sasaeng fans.
“Russian people are very open to others, but we have a clear border between private life and job,” she explained. “So for us fans, what idols do is their job, therefore we don’t have intentions to get closer or to know about their innermost lives. There are some curiosities, but it never goes farther than just a usual curiosity.”
Belyakova was approached by sasaeng taxi drivers several times during her recent stay in Seoul with friends to see a Super Junior concert.
“When we are in Korea to meet our idols, we follow their schedule, but only at ‘work’ places such as television shows, radio studios or airports. But I can’t imagine Russian fans stalking their idols by a taxi,” Belyakova said. “I was approached by taxi drivers several times asking me if I wanted to go and follow Eun-hyuck [of Super Junior], and I refused, of course.”
When asked what might spark such excessive fandom in Korea, experts emphasized that the issue of sasaeng fans is not simply a problem for entertainment agencies and their clients, but rather a social issue here that needs to be addressed on a national level.
“As social networking and instant messaging services such as Twitter or KakaoTalk become more widely used among young people in Korea, such obsessive fandom has become a serious problem,” said Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University. “As they can upload information instantly, fans compete to take pictures of celebrities and are eager to become the first ones to do so.”
According to Kwak, sasaeng fans have an “urge to show off to others how much they know about celebrities as they can’t feel satisfied being just one fan among millions” and that is why they “pry into the privacy of celebrities in an attempt to stand out.” She also added that they “are afflicted with the hero syndrome in some degree and try to show they are more exceptional to the crowd by acting out, regardless of how it may torment stars.”
Public officials have begun to recognize obsessed fans as a national concern, but the unfamiliarity of the issue means that the government is still catching up with the unique challenges they pose.
Unlike countries like the United States, which has stalking laws on the books, Korean police have no specific legal provisions applicable to cases of extreme fandom, instead relying on related - though potentially more severe - statues. For instance, breaking and entering carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison with a fine of less than 5 million won under the criminal code. According to the National Police Agency, a bill on misdemeanors passed the National Assembly on March 27 and included provisions on stalking. When the law goes into effect next March after a one-year waiting period, stalking will be punishable as a misdemeanor with a fine of up to 100,000 won.
As the government and the entertainment industry begin to grapple more seriously with the issue, the ones who struggle the most will continue to be the stars themselves, who rely on fans in an industry where they are constantly judged by their album and ticket sales but suffer when admiration turns to stalking, home invasion or worse.
“We have been receiving unwavering love from fans since our debut eight years ago,” said TVXQ’s Park Yu-chun in a typical response during a television appearance when asked about his fans. But he added, “We have been suffering for the past eight years, too, at the hands of sasaeng fans.”
By Yim Seung-hye [email@example.com]