Members of the K-pop group Omega X seemed to be riding high a few weeks ago when their first international tour ended with a successful gig in Los Angeles.
But that feeling of triumph was short lived.
After the October show, an executive from their management agency screamed at the group at an L.A. hotel and pushed one band member to the ground, footage of the encounter appeared to show. The band members then flew home to Seoul at their own expense and later took their entertainment agency to court.
At a hearing on Wednesday, a South Korean judge will consider the request of the group’s 11 members to be released from their multiyear contracts with the agency, Spire Entertainment. Lawyers for the band have said the executive’s behavior in Los Angeles was the latest episode in a yearlong pattern of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. The executive, Kang Seong-hee, resigned last month but has denied any wrongdoing.
“I took care of all of them like their mother,” Ms. Kang told The New York Times in a phone interview, adding that Kim Jaehan, 27, the band member who fell at the hotel, had collapsed on his own. She said she hoped the band would resume its normal activities with the agency.
Experts on K-pop say the band’s accusations against their agency, if true, would be consistent with other stories from industry insiders and whistleblowers. They say some management companies, especially smaller ones, routinely exploit young artists who are desperate to become K-pop idols by imposing strict controls on their behavior and in some cases subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse.
Since the 1990s, “the level of exploitation has been systematized and also normalized because the K-pop industry has become dominant” and more ambitious young people have been drawn to it, said Jin Lee, a scholar of Asian pop cultures and a research fellow at Curtin University in Australia.
“Everyone wants to be an idol,” she said.
The Fine Print
Workers in South Korea, a deeply hierarchical society, are increasingly speaking up about bosses who abuse their authority. But experts say that most working K-pop artists don’t publicly criticize their agencies because they fear the consequences of violating their contracts.
Kim Youna, an entertainment lawyer in Seoul, said smaller agencies in particular have tended to sign rising musicians to contracts that don’t define work hours or set limits on what the artists can be reasonably asked to do.
Regulations governing contracts between artists and their agencies have been around for only about 25 years in South Korea, Ms. Kim said. Other industries in the country have robust labor laws. “In this context, it seems that idols, considered the less powerful parties, have no choice but to suffer a little loss,” she said.
Some of the losses are financial. It is common, for example, for agencies to ask artists to pay back the costs of the training they received, such as dance lessons, vocal coaching and other preparation. But there are often questions about how transparently those debts are calculated, said Lee Jongim, a scholar of South Korea’s entertainment industry and the author of “Idol Trainees’ Sweat and Tears.”
Aspiring K-pop stars “debut in their teens, but entertainment agents are adults,” she said. “So they start out in a structure in which it is difficult to establish an equal relationship.”
Some K-pop musicians have waited until their contracts ended to accuse their agencies of mistreatment.
In one example, Heo Min-sun, a member of the former group Crayon Pop, told the YouTube channel Asian Boss in 2019 that the band’s agency had withheld band members’ salaries for a year and half after their debut. She said it had also forced them to go on diets and prohibited them from socializing without the agency’s permission.
“Our private lives were strictly controlled. Even if I wanted to make a new friend, I couldn’t,” Ms. Heo said in the 2019 interview. Crayon Pop’s agency, Chrome Entertainment, did not respond to a request for comment.
In a 2019 criminal case, two K-pop musicians successfully took legal action against their agency before their contracts had expired.
Those musicians — Lee Seok-cheol, now 22, and Lee Seung-hyun, now 20 — are brothers who performed in the boy band The East Light as teenagers. They accused their producer, their agency and its chief executive of assaulting and verbally threatening them. A court fined the agency, Media Line Entertainment, about $15,000 and sentenced the producer to 16 months in prison for child abuse. The chief executive received eight months for aiding and abetting child abuse.
Another case, though technically successful, is widely seen as a cautionary tale.
Three former members of the group TVXQ struggled for years to appear on television after ending their contract with SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s most powerful agencies.. The country’s antitrust regulators eventually ordered SM Entertainment to stop pressuring cable channels to blacklist members of the band from appearing on TV.
The agency denied the commission’s findings. But CedarBough T. Saeji, an expert on the K-pop industry at Pusan National University, said that the band members had been “unofficially blacklisted from the K-pop industry.” The episode sent “a chilling message to younger idols that crossing a powerful company could be the end of their career, even if they achieve a legal goal,” she added.
‘A Lot of Anxiety’
After Kim Jaehan’s altercation with Ms. Kang at the hotel in Los Angeles on Oct. 22, a South Korean television network published blurred-out footage of the episode that a bystander had filmed. When the band returned to Seoul, its members took the rare step of creating an Instagram account without permission from their agency, as would normally be required. In another rare step, they aired their allegations of abuse at a news conference.
“Every one of us is experiencing a lot of anxiety,” Mr. Kim said at the news conference last month.
The band members say that a few months after Omega X debuted in June 2021, Ms. Kang, Spire Entertainment’s chief executive at the time, began habitually making sexual remarks, touching their thighs, hands and faces against their wishes, and regularly forcing them to drink alcohol after rehearsals.
Lawyers for the band have also said that Spire, a small agency founded in 2020, ordered each band member pay the agency about $300,000 in debt incurred from their training.
So far the band’s lawyers have not filed a criminal complaint or presented any physical evidence to corroborate their accusations, citing concerns that doing so would suggest they were trying to influence the civil proceedings that begin on Wednesday. They said their current focus was on getting the band out of their contract, not pressing charges.
In an interview last week, Ms. Kang denied the band members’ accusations. Her request for them to cover her agency’s debts was justified, she added, and she believes that the band members have accused her of abuse in order to justify moving to a larger agency.
“In their opinion, our company does not have enough to nurture them,” Ms. Kang said, referring to the company’s financial resources. “So they are conducting a witch hunt.”
Omega X’s fate may depend on how the South Korean public reacts to the band’s side of the story, said Ms. Lee, the pop culture scholar. If the dispute escalates and its members can rally more public support, she said, Spire Entertainment may allow them to break their contract.
At least two companies that work with Spire abroad have cut ties since the scandal broke: Helix Publicity, which had been responsible for Omega X’s public relations in the United States, and Skiyaki, the company that held the license for Omega X’s activities in Japan.
A number of people who worked or volunteered at concert venues on its recent two-month, 16-city tour of the United States and Latin America have also spoken up for Omega X.
Gigi Granados, 25, a cosmetologist who attended a show at Palladium Times Square in New York City, said she had witnessed Ms. Kang screaming at members of the band at their hotel after the performance. “No one deserves to be yelled at that way,” she said.