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Death Of K-Pop Singer Leads To Discussion About Online Bullying


Some fans of South Korea's K-pop music are mourning the death of one of its stars. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the 25-year-old singer and actress was known for being unusually outspoken.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Choi Jin-ri, stage name Sulli, was buried on Thursday, according to local media reports. Her manager found her body at her home in the Seoul suburbs on Monday. Police are investigating it as a possible suicide.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: On Wednesday night, a handful of Sulli's fans gathered in downtown Seoul to remember her. One of them is a Green Party politician named Shin Jiye.

SHIN JIYE: (Through interpreter) If Sulli had arrived in South Korea a bit later, I think she would have lived a full life here. It felt like she was someone from the future, and South Korea was too outdated to embrace her.

KUHN: Sulli spoke out in favor of a woman's right to have an abortion and to skip wearing a bra simply because it's more comfortable. For this, her fans believed she was cyberbullied into depression and finally suicide. Some describe it as a sort of death by social media.

YOUNGHEE PARK: This is a social murder.

KUHN: Younghee Park is a Seoul-based actress. She cautions people not to typecast Sulli as some sort of woman warrior. She was just an individual trying to speak her mind, Park says, and it pains her that such people are often not accepted in South Korea.

PARK: I'm so upset because I'm one of them, you know? I just want to speak freely. I just want to just be myself.


SULLI: (Singing in foreign language).

KUHN: Sulli released her first solo single, titled "Goblin," this July. She became a child actress at age 11 and joined the girl group f(x) at 15. She also appeared in movies, TV dramas and variety shows. In a video last year, Sulli explained that society's expectations of her as a child star were crushingly heavy. But when she reached out to others in pain, she says she found herself alone.


SULLI: (Through interpreter) I started to feel people's stares, and I felt scared. I suffered from social phobia and panic disorder. I didn't even take medication back then; I endured it alone. Even if I said I was in pain, there was no one to listen.

KUHN: Lee Yunso monitors media depictions of women at Womenlink, a Seoul-based women's rights group. She says that in South Korea, entertainers speaking out on issues of importance is widely accepted as long as they're men.

LEE YUNSO: (Through interpreter) When male entertainers voice their opinions, they are seen as doing the right thing as citizens. But when women speak out, they're told to stay in their place.

KUHN: What female entertainers think, Lee adds, is considered irrelevant because they're judged mainly on their physical appearance.

LEE: (Through interpreter) If they lose weight or if they gain weight, there are articles about them. There are always articles about how young an actress looks despite her age. It's an environment where female entertainers cannot stop taking care of how they look, regardless of their talents.

KUHN: Lee hopes that media and consumers will treat male and female entertainers alike as human beings and not commodities.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK BOX'S "THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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