South Korean Cancel Culture in High Gear

Every nation has its obscure controversies that destroy productions and careers

In the world of South Korean entertainment industry gossip, usually K-Pop controversies rule the day. But March saw a very different dynamic, with three television dramas experiencing a serious threat of cancelation, paving the way for a much more cancelcentric industry over the coming year.

Volleyball and other bullies

It all started with volleyball. Back on February 7th, allegations appeared on the Korean website DCInside that the famed twin sister volleyball players Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young had engaged in vicious bullying behavior in middle school. Though the user who made them deleted the initial allegations, the team dropped the sisters on February 15th after similar allegations from other former classmates emerged on on other sites. A ban on playing for the national volleyball team followed. This incident sparked a national conversation on bullying that eventually bled into television.

While a large number of celebrities were accused of school days bullying in the aftermath of the Lee Volleyball Scandal, to date Ji Soo of the television drama River Where the Moon Rises is the only one to face definite consequences, with most other denying allegations outright. Ji Soo was a rising star. He first rose to fame for his role in the big 2017 hit Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, and more recently had acclaimed roles as a high school student in When I Was the Most Beautiful and a twenty-six year old cancer patient in Amanza. But River Where the Moon Rises was his first leading role in a project with high expectations. A retelling of the Princess and the Idiot myth, the action-based historical drama starred Ji Soo as the idiot, inspired by the princess to become a mighty general.

South Korean
Ji Soo, in a now-replaced episode of ‘River Where the Moon Rises.’

The accusations started on March 2nd, and by March 4th producers had removed Ji Soo from the drama. Despite the fact that they had filmed almost the entire series, they are reshooting Ji Soo’s scenes with his replacement Na In-woo, including the episodes which have already aired. While such incidents are not unheard of in South Korean dramas, until then such cancelations had only happened in extreme cases. The 2019 time slip drama Joseon Survival, for example, removed Kang Ji-hwan from the production pursuant to his arrest on charges of sexual assault. For quite some time the concern had been that production companies risked becoming to tied to the whims of the zeitgeist for killing a series or character for lesser charges, a situation that is rapidly coming to the fore.

The Joseon Exorcist scandal

Enter Joseon Exorcist, which was to be the big release of the spring season. The series was the latest from famed director Sin Kyeong-soo of Deep-rooted Tree and Six Flying Dragons, and featured major stars from past historical dramas to boot. But what was to be a fairly straightforward genre fusion of demons possessing people during the reign of King Taejong almost immediately became mired in controversy over a perceived bias toward Chinese style table settings in a gisaeng house, amidst other problematic nuances regarding disrespect of well-regarded royal figures of South Korean history. These criticisms had not completely come out of nowhere. Earlier released promotional material had implied them.

Consequently, they canceled Joseon Exorcist, which had only started airing on March 22nd, by March 26th despite filming having already been largely completed. Bewildered international fans have pushed for Netflix to adopt the orphaned drama but the prospects for this are grim. A country that prizes cultural content as a means of educating foreigners about Korean culture sees any such historical slight is seen, however imperceptible it may seem to a casual onlooker. The rise in anti-China sentiment, and the eagerness on the part of production companies to prove they aren’t catering to the Chinese market, have similarly doomed Joseon Exorcist.

South Korean
‘Joseon Exorcist’
Getting the drop on Snowdrop

And now another show is on the chopping block, for very different reasons, but with critics clearly emboldended by the recent moves. Netflix has already confirmed Snowdrop for an international release. Around March 24th, a synopsis for the drama leaked online and spread fast. Snowdrop takes place in the backdrop of the 1987 elections, the first democratically conducted elections in South Korea’s history. While the public had long known the male lead character of the drama, played by Jung Hae-in, to be North Korean, the new synopsis suggested that he is a spy sent to infiltrate the and disrupt the elections. Online commenters were furious, describing this as validation of an old right-wing conspiracy theory about North Korean support for left-wing activist movements in the 80s.

Unlike the previous incidents described in this article, jTBC, the network which will air Snowdrop in South Korea, has been defiant in the face of these calls for cancelation, releasing a statement on March 26th defending the creative integrity of the work. Purportedly, they are styling Snowdrop as a black comedy, with the character’s North Korean identity intended to warp his perspective and reaction to ongoing events. But people simply met jTBC’s statement with more anger about jTBC treating historical events of such importance with with such casual dismissiveness. This prompted another statement from jTBC on March 30th, where they attempted to further discuss the show’s thematic contrasts. That brought out even more outrage from online commenters. They mocked the distinction jTBC attempted to draw between the democratization movement and the election itself as distinct historical events.

The irony of this is that jTBC has long had a reputation as the most liberal of the major South Korean networks, with previous dramas from the network dealing with subjects such as unions, recent national tragedies, women’s issues or, in the case of the recent worldwide hit Itaewon Class, finding success as a young restauranteur in the backdrop of Seoul’s most ethnically-diverse neighborhood. The attempts by the network to engage with criticism likely stems from a sincere belief that they can explain they mean no disrespect. But with Snowdrop months away from airing, and the public knowing almost no real information about the drama save for the very limited and incomplete synopsis, jTBC is experiencing firsthand that you can’t negotiate with outrage, and that equivocating just makes them look more guilty.

The future of Snowdrop remains murky. As Netflix has paid for the international streaming rights to the drama, they have little reason to pull it based on a domestic controversy unlikely to be understood far outside of South Korea proper. Indeed, both at home and abroad fans of Jisoo of BLACKPINK (no relation to Ji Soo from earlier in this article) have been vocal in their defense of the drama solely because it will be the popular singer’s first lead acting role. With cancel culture in South Korea at a high point, Netflix may yet offer an inadvertent escape from the pressure. This may further empower Netflix’s strong position in the South Korean market, particularly if in the long run Snowdrop criticism fails to so much as even mobilize a boycott.

 

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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