There Is Something Wrong With Falling In Love: K-Pop Idols, Romance, And The Toxic K-Pop Industry
Jungmin Kwon / Portland State University

Still Cut of The World of the Married featuring the actor Hae-joon Park as Tae-oh Lee
Figure 1. Still Cut of The World of the Married

“There is nothing wrong with falling in love!” (Figure 1). For audiences of Korean pop culture, this is a famous line uttered by a middle-aged man to his wife after she uncovers his affair with a younger woman in the drama The World of the Married (2020). Despite raising a teenager together and being married for decades, he was able to defiantly (and somewhat sympathetically) claim to his wife (and wider audiences) that his falling in love with another woman was not a sin.

In stark contrast, in other pop cultural arenas, particularly those dominated by single young adults in their early twenties (arguably the very people who should be able to enjoy affairs of the heart freely), falling in love is seen as a sin, requiring forgiveness from others. This is particularly so in the K-pop industry, where fans of idol singers do not tolerate their stars’ romantic relationships or the public exposure of such affairs.

For instance, recently, Karina, a leader and one of the most cherished members of Aespa, issued an apology for being in a relationship with a male actor (Figure 2). The members of Aespa underwent rigorous training as trainees at SME for several years and debuted in 2020. Alongside other 4th generation girl groups such as NewJeans, IVE, and LE SSERAFIM, they have recently been striving to carve out their place in both the Korean and international girl group markets, and it was clear that the exposure of this relationship would limit their appeal to notoriously obsessive fans of K-pop. In late February 2023, news of her links to the male actor surfaced and were confirmed by both parties. Since then, Karina has faced an onslaught of criticism and protests from some of her fans. A week after acknowledging the relationship, she posted a handwritten letter on Instagram expressing her remorse, stating, “I simply want to convey to my fans how deeply sorry I am.” However, the fans have yet to fully recover from the revelation.

K-Pop idol Karina's Instagram post of her handwritten apology letter about dating
Figure 2. Karina’s Handwritten Letter on Instagram

To avoid such trouble, K-pop idols are usually quick to deny romantic rumors. Of course, there are exceptions where they may be able to confirm the rumors officially or may indirectly acknowledge them by neither admitting nor rebuffing them. For example, if their career has been prevalent in the music market for a while and their group is either impeccably positioned at the top or notably on the wane. Arguably, in some cases, when fans believe the romantic affairs of their beloved stars can contribute to boosting the celebrity image, they usually celebrate the relationship. One of the most interesting cases in this respect was the public acknowledgement that TWICE’s Jihyo and Wanna One’s Kang Daniel were dating. Jihyo had been active for about five years and had already reached the industry’s top, and her fans warmly embraced her romance. On the other hand, fans of Kang Daniel, who had just started his career as a solo singer, were disappointed with his “unprofessional behavior” and took a “break” from him.

In conclusion, it would seem that for K-pop audiences, it is unacceptable for emergent stars to have or announce a relationship that may interfere with their own or the group’s success when the concern should lie only with working hard to reach the top of the K-pop pyramid. This reflects that while some fans are undoubtedly disappointed to realize that their own intimate relationship with their beloved idols is entirely imagined and their fantasies are broken, others fear that their stars’ amorous liaisons may negatively impact their individual and collective career in the fiercely competitive K-pop industry. In this sense, it may not be the romantic activity of dating itself that troubles fans, but rather the potential negative professional factors surrounding idols’ social relationships that pose a problem relative to the fans’ own personal and economic investment in the group.

In this context, I posit that Karina’s decision to write the apology stems less from toxic fan culture and more from the toxic business model employed by the K-pop industry. Through social media such as YouTube and Instagram, K-pop groups share every detail of their career journey from their debut to post-debut professional life as musical artists, even showcasing elements of their personal lives. Mobile app services like Weverse or Bubble (Figure 3) enable fans to engage in intimate conversations with their favorite stars through paid private messages or video chat sessions. In this way, fans form what can be termed parasocial romantic relationships (yu-sa yeon-ae) with their idols. Building on such relationships, idols continually send messages urging fans to support album sales and increase real-time streaming (seu-ming) numbers so that they can surpass competitors in the industry.

A screenshot of the fandom platform Weverse
A screenshot of the fandom platform Bubble
Figure 3. Weverse and Bubble

Indeed, fans purchase large quantities of albums to help the band win this economic competition, to get a chance to attend fan meetings, or to obtain randomly included photo cards (po-ca) of individual members (Figure 4). Through these processes, fans are coerced into believing that their personal spending on tangible and intangible assets directly contributes to the idols’ triumph in the fierce K-pop market. Accordingly, when they perceive a lack of return on their investment, such as witnessing subpar stage performances, insincere attitudes during messaging and video calls, or the publication of romantic relationships, they express what they believe to be justified criticism towards the stars, feeling a sense of significant betrayal. In this environment, K-pop idols are relentlessly compelled to perform emotional labor. Rather than proving their worth as musicians through the production of their songs or stage performances, K-pop idols are expected (or forced) to relinquish their personal lives to cater to fans’ desires and continually respond to their requests. From a young age, K-pop artists, therefore, endure a far more grueling and exposed workload than most other professional showbusiness contexts, with no guarantee of privacy. Along the way, the possessive relationship between celebrities and fans is developed akin to that between a company’s stocks and its shareholders.

Pictures of idols' photocards
Figure 4. Po-ca (photo cards of individual members)

It is undeniable that both fans and idols have diverse desires and gains invested in this process. Fans find solace and fulfill their fantasies through their favorite idols, while the music performers, in turn, enjoy support and love from these fans as well as wealth and fame. However, the ultimate winners within this system are not the fans or the artists but the agencies that intend to maximize their profits from the intricate relationship that develops between the fans and the artists. On the day Karina’s relationship was made public, SME’s stock price plummeted by 3.5%. Trucks holding electronically generated messages of protest from fans lined up outside SME’s headquarters (Figure 5). The panic in response to these events was likely felt more by the giant entertainment company than by Karina herself, and corporate influence may have operated behind Karina’s handwritten apology letter. Ultimately, it’s the agencies that fear losing consumers (fans) of their product (artists) due to romantic relationships, as they may have the most to lose economically, which likely explains the existence of clauses prohibiting dating for several years after a performer’s debut.

A close-up photo of protest trucks that fans sent to SM Entertainment
A photo of protest trucks that fans sent to SM Entertainment
Figure 5. Protest Trucks Sent to SME by Fans

Generating revenue based on a solid fan following is not unique to the K-pop sphere. Many money-making strategies related to the hyper-commodification of singers used by K-pop music labels originated from the entertainment business in Japan, which laid the groundwork for idol culture. Hence, many of the occurrences in the K-pop scene have precedents in Japan. For example, a decade ago, a member of Japan’s AKB48 shaved her head, and her agency posted a video apology after facing criticism for being involved in a romantic scandal. This video has sparked a backlash urging fundamental social reflection on the toxic relationships that exist between fans and musicians, as well as the business strategies that excessively encourage such bonds.

In the commercial world of K-pop, fans are directed to consume not only idols’ music and performances but also the personal details of emotion and lifestyle that idols are compelled to sell. It is true that both sides can choose not to engage in this process. However, it is not easy to opt out once you are in the system. Given this situation, I find it specious for some K-pop experts, journalists, or even domestic or overseas fans to shift responsibility solely onto the fans themselves, suggesting that K-pop fans should adopt a mature (e.g., “Western” pop industry-like) culture and focus on supporting idols’ artistic endeavors, instead of violating their privacy. Ultimately, I would argue it is less the toxic fan culture and more the toxic K-pop industry that consciously or unconsciously perpetuates the idea that there is something wrong with falling in love in the K-pop universe.

Image Credits:
  1. Figure 1. Still Cut of The World of the Married
  2. Figure 2. Karina’s Handwritten Letter on Instagram
  3. Figure 3. Weverse and Bubble
  4. Figure 4. Po-ca (photo cards of individual members)
  5. Figure 5. Protest Trucks Sent to SME by Fans

BBC. “AKB48 Pop Star Shaves Head After Breaking Band Rules.” BBC. 1 February 2013.

Cho, Jae-seo, and Myung-eon Oh. “Aespa’s Karina and Lee Jae-wook admit to dating… ‘Getting to know each other.'” Yonhap News. 27 February 2024.

JTBC Drama. “Park Hae Joon’s Outburst ‘There Is Nothing Wrong With Falling in Love’ from Episode 5 of The World of The Married.” YouTube Video, 10 April 2020,

Kim, Bo-young. “Honest in Love, Fearless Against Injustice… Confident Female Celebrities!” Edaily. 8 August 2019.

Oh, Myung-joo, and Hye-jin Park. “‘What Are You Doing Now? Let’s Go on a Date’… Kang Daniel & Jihyo, the Birth of the Ultimate Couple.” Dispatch. 5 August 2019,

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