A K-pop trainee's alleged suicide has brought focus to the often-discussed issue of the harsh lifestyle that trainees face in Korea.
After the passing of a well-known K-pop trainee, Korean media reported about the difficult lifestyle of K-pop trainees. In the past, there were many trainees competing for spots in top idol groups, but the situation has widened to the point where idol-wannabes have to fight to be included in pre-debut groups, and even then there will be line-up changes prior to debuting a new K-pop act.
A former DSP Media trainee Sojin (Ahn So Jin,) passed away after being found outside her apartment building on February 24 after falling ten stories. Police reported that Sojin appeared to have committed suicide.
Shortly after the news broke, it was revealed that Sojin's contract with DSP Entertainment had ended, despite Sojin being a highly publicized member of the company's pre-debut group known as Baby Kara. DSP Media announced upcoming girl group April earlier in February without announcing the lineup. Sojin, despite appearing in a pre-debut competition show, was not included in April's final lineup.
The fact that Sojin came so close to debuting, and appeared in a competition show to join popular girl group Kara, but ultimately was cut months before the new, long-awaited DSP Media group debuted, brought the issues with K-pop's extended training process.
Ilgan Sports spoke to entertainment industry insiders about the trainee situation. One representative explained that debut groups and the final lineup are completely different, with trainees having to struggle to simply survive. Between getting accepted as a company's trainee, then struggling to get into a pre-debut group, then finally debuting, trainees have to continuously show their strengths and compete with other trainees.
"An institutional mechanism is needed to stop the vicious cycle," he said.
Trainees hardly get paid during years of training, and many have to work part time despite training order to afford the trainee lifestyle. Insiders also admitted that there are problems with trainees being isolated socially, as well as worries about the fact that many trainees do not gain proper educations due to putting there all into training.
In a 2013 interview, 2AM's Jo Kwon discussed how insecurity about debuting or being asked to leave the company caused him to clean the JYP Entertainment building and make coffee for CEO Park Jin Young, hoping that the little bit extra effort he would be thought well of by the decision makers within the company.
After the exodus of several K-pop stars from SM Entertainment's Girls' Generation and EXO in 2014, the trainee system, and K-pop in general, was criticized for not being lenient enough to allow for idols to pursue personal goals; Girls' Generation's Jessica was asked to leave the group after her plans as a fashion designer came into conflict with SM Entertainment's plans.
In 2015, NBC News highlighted the trainee system through a variety of pictures with commentary highlighting the vigorous trainee life, and interviews with ex-trainees who left the industry to pursue other careers.
And while Ahn So Jin's death recently raised attention to the risks of the trainee system, the system still continues.
"I am thinking only one thing - our song keeps being played," said Sowon of newly debuted K-pop girl group G-Friend to NBC News. The 20-year-old singer claims to have spent five years as a trainee prior to the release of the group's first single "Glass Bead" on January 15. "I hope to perform anywhere, anytime, even if I can't sleep or I am tired."