Chapter Title: Of the Fans, by the Fans, for the Fans:

Chapter Title: Of the Fans, by the Fans, for the Fans: The JYJ Republic
Chapter Author(s): Seung-Ah Lee
Book Title: Hallyu 2.0
Book Subtitle: The Korean Wave in the Age of Social Media
Book Editor(s): Sangjoon Lee and Abé Mark Nornes
Published by: University of Michigan Press
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Of the Fans, by the Fans,
for the Fans
The JYJ Republic
Seung-Ah Lee
On July 31, 2009, with their recently released Secret Code well on its way to
becoming the second best-selling album of the year in Japan, the Korean
idol group Tong Bang Shin Ki (hereafter TVXQ) announced that they
were leaving the company under whose management they had become
international stars in the five years since their debut. Three of its five
members—Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu, who would go on to combine
their initials and form the group JYJ—had filed for a provisional injunction to void their exclusive contract with S.M. Entertainment (hereafter
S.M.) (Ch’oe 2009). Charging that the contract they had signed with S.M.,
the mammoth Korean record label, music producer, and talent agency
widely credited with launching the K-pop portion of Hallyu, was no better
than a “slave contract,” JYJ entered into a protracted legal and publicity
battle with the company. Waged precisely at the moment when K-pop
seemed poised to emerge as a truly global phenomenon, announcing the
full arrival of the phenomenon that S.M.’s founder Lee Soo-man would
term the “New Hallyu” (shin hallyu), the ensuing battle would go on to
reveal some of the more somber aspects of the reality behind the celebrated glitter of the K-pop wave. It would establish a new baseline standard for the protection of individual artists in an entertainment industry
dominated by a powerful “management system.”
The battle would also mobilize fans at an unprecedented scale and with
a remarkable degree of organizational intricacy. At the time of the group’s
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split, TVXQ boasted a fandom 800,000 strong, the largest for a Korean
idol. Despite the immediate rifts that appeared within this fandom in the
aftermath of the announcement, fans who sided with the three members
succeeded in consolidating themselves into a significant force as a new
entity. Throughout the sustained confrontation between JYJ and S.M. that
followed, a confrontation that invited a much larger question about what
the proper relationship between an entertainer and his management company ought to be within the rapidly transnationalizing K-pop industry,
these fans took on a role of unparalleled importance. Alternately asserting
their rights as K-pop consumers and their self-appointed duty as industry
watchdogs, JYJ fans organized advertising campaigns, consumer boycotts,
and even legal actions against S.M., and threw their collective weight
against the existing system of power that heavily favored the entertainment management company over the individual entertainers. Fans’ support for JYJ’s claim against “slave contracts” further evolved into a discourse of human and labor rights within the fandom, and helped pave the
way for a culture of charitable contributions on the one hand and greater
political participation on the other among K-pop fans at large.
Following Henry Jenkins, I view these actions as examples of “fan activism.” As “forms of civic engagement and political participation that
emerge from within fan culture itself,” fan activism is “often conducted
through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and
often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory
culture” (Jenkins 2012). While much existing literature on the phenomenon of fan activism has focused on the mobilization of fan networks by
celebrities through social media toward particular causes they espouse
(Lady Gaga against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Bono for Africa, etc.), or the
mapping of “fictional content worlds onto real-world concerns” (Harry
Potter Alliance), the fan activism under analysis in this chapter focuses on
a fascinating example of spontaneous mobilization of the fans by themselves aimed at changing the industry infrastructure that they saw as simultaneously infringing on their rights as consumers and violating the
rights of the idols as employees, if not as creative agents. In this regard, the
mobilization was civic-minded from the start. Spurred into action by a
sense of crisis that the idols they love may be permanently expelled from
the entertainment industry, JYJ fans played a pivotal role in turning what
the Korean media initially described as “a fight between David and Goliath” into a landmark case that helped to shed light on the mechanisms of
power within the Korean entertainment industry, establish a new societywide consensus about fair labor contracts, and set a powerful precedent
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110 | Hallyu 2.0
for civic-minded fan culture that would be imitated in large numbers
across different idol fan communities.
In this chapter, I approach the case of JYJ vs. S.M. as a fascinating point
of entry into what might be called an ecology of fandom, locating it within
multiple Korean contexts: the history of youth culture (ch’ŏngnyŏn munhwa) and its ambiguous relationship to politics, the systematic and institutionalized promotion of Hallyu by the state as a cultural export, the entertainment management system and its practices of both idol and fan
production, and practices of online and mobile fan communities. How
did the forty-month legal battle that ultimately resulted in a “mutual noninterference” settlement between JYJ and S.M. transform an idol fandom
that had been heavily embedded in networks of mobilization and consumption controlled by the management company into a relatively autonomous and self-policed community? How, in other words, did TVXQ
fans become members of the JYJ Republic and find themselves politicized
in the process of pursuing their pleasure? We will begin with an overview
of the place of fans within the idol-centered media environment of K-pop
industry, and then trace both the micropolitical and macropolitical contours of JYJ fan activism.
Idol Production
At the heart of the global K-pop phenomenon sings, raps, and dances the
idol. Far from being a creative agent in his or her own right, whose popularity is commensurate with the public’s appreciation of the artist’s skills
and talents, the idol is a consummate product of what has been called the
“management company system.” Indeed, the Korean word for management company is kihoeksa, where kihoek literally means to “design” or
“plan” a project.1
Like the “studio system” or “star system” of old Hollywood—in the famously overconfident words of Louis B. Mayer, “A star is
created, carefully and cold-bloodedly; built up from nothing, from nobody. . . . We could make silk purses out of sow’s ears every day in the
week” (quoted in Basinger 2009, 11)—the management companies that
dominate the K-pop industry manufacture idols from scratch, not only
through the more overtly commercial operations of distribution and promotion, but by maintaining control over every aspect of the idol’s life and
work that take place in the public eye. Jimmy Jeong (aka Jeong Wook), the
CEO of JYP Entertainment, has commented that idol production occurs
through an “in-house system” (Shin 2009, 507–23).
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Of the Fans, by the Fans, for the Fans | 111
While Hollywood may have pioneered the vertically integrated approach to entertainment, the more temporally and geographically proximate model for the current K-pop industry comes from Japan’s so-called
agency (jimusho) system. Indeed, the term “idol” itself in Korea’s current
usage hails from Japanese media culture, where the word was popularized
starting in the late 1960s as a name for young performers “designed to
contribute to the industry’s establishment in the market by virtue of their
abilities to attract people and perform as lifestyle role models” (Aoyagi
2005, 3). Idols typically appear on the covers and inside pages of magazines, star in television dramas and variety shows, sing on television and
radio and in concerts, and endorse products in numerous commercials.
Their hypervisibility in Japan’s highly crisscrossed and intertextual media
environment makes them the nodal points of the entire entertainment
industry, and links entertainment to consumerism. This is the reason why
Galbraith and Karlin argue that idols in Japan have long functioned as
“interchangeable and disposable commodities . . . produced and packaged
to maximize consumption” and as “the currency of exchange in the promotion and advertising of all manner of other products and services”
(Galbraith and Karlin 2012, 2). Over these valuable commodities, the
agency maintains complete control in terms of production, circulation,
and consumption. Indeed, if the idol is the currency, the agency may be
the bank and much more. W. David Marx observes that agencies are responsible for “creating performers from zero, full coordination of artistic
content by company employees, long-term market planning, and demands
to control all media content pertaining to the idol” (Marx 2012, 37).
It was S.M. that imported this business model into Korea in the 1990s
and perfected it through multiple iterations of boy bands and girl groups,
such that it became the industry standard for the entertainment industry at large. A key aspect of the management system is the labor-, time-,
and capital-intensive process that turns what Mayer so uncharitably
called “sow’s ears” into the highly lucrative “silk purses.” This training
process typically begins with auditions during which talent scouts seek
to spot young girls and boys with the right stuff. The right stuff includes
raw talent in singing and dancing, but as these can be acquired later to a
large extent, they also look for evidence of personal qualities that are
likely to allow the potential idols to withstand the strenuous training
regime that is seen as essential to manufacturing idols as commodities.
This is a highly selective process. According to Lee Dong Yeon, for every
100,000 teenagers who audition, only 1 percent will go on to become
trainees, and only 0.1 percent of the trainees will eventually go on to
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debut as idols (Lee 2011, 14–48). Training requires daily lessons not only
in singing, dancing, acting, and stage manners, but even in foreign languages such as Japanese, Chinese, and English. The training process usually lasts two to three years before the trainees, constituted into specific
groups, are allowed to debut. The constitution of the group act follows a
typical formula as well: at least one of the members should have strong
vocal skills, one member should be good at rapping, one member should
be a good dancer, one should be good at speaking, and finally, one must
be especially good-looking. The group is then packaged according to a
concept chosen by the management company. As this formula reflects,
the idol group is from the start a commodity created to appeal to the
broadest possible audience within the targeted demographic, and to take
the fullest possible advantage of the cross-platform media environment
into which it would be inserted.
While the kihoeksa system’s indebtedness to the jimusho system is unmistakable, it is the very rigor and intensity of the training process on the
one hand and the global ambitions of the industry on the other that distinguish the Korean system from its Japanese counterpart. S.M.’s BoA, for
example, was picked up as a trainee at the age of eleven when she accompanied her older brother to S.M.’s break-dancing audition; JYP Entertainment’s Jo Kwon underwent eight years as a trainee from the age of twelve
to twenty before he was allowed to debut as a member of the four-men act
2AM. The training system and global ambitions go hand in hand with the
industry practice of long-term exclusive management contracts. Such
contracts are necessary, the companies argue, given the degree of risk that
they undertake in order to turn unproven prepubescents into global stars.
(S.M. is said to have invested some 300 million won just to bring BoA to
her debut.) Asked in 2011 about the practice of long-term exclusive
contracts—TVXQ’s “slave contract” specified the length of thirteen years,
for example—Lee Soo-man defended it as absolutely necessary in order to
sustain the Korean Wave: “By thirteen years, we are taking into account
three years in Korea, three years in Japan, three years in [other parts of]
Asia, and three years [elsewhere] in the world. During this period, the
company makes an investment on the future based on trust. It trains [the
idol] meticulously in singing, dancing, acting, and even foreign languages.
This is what’s required to make a star. Agencies in the U.S. are limited in
how much they can invest in an entertainer because their relationship is
merely contractual” (Chŏng 2011).
What then is the nature of the relationship between Korean management companies and the idols, a relationship that cannot be encapsulated
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in “merely contractual” terms? Lee Soo-man’s comment points to the intangible, less-than-fully-transparent aspects of the management system
and idol production in Korea—collectivist ethos, an understanding of Kpop heavily inflected by what Jeongsuk Joo has called “pop nationalism,”
and a patriarchal management style, to name just a few (Joo 2011, 489–
504). The youth of idols when they first sign up as trainees makes them
particularly susceptible to the management system’s demand that they
relinquish their autonomy not only over how their performances and their
image is sold, but also how their private lives are conducted. What they
receive in return for giving up autonomy is the protection of the “total
package.” However, what frequently drops out from view in this exchange
is the question of labor. As commodities whose consumability is heavily
contingent on their youth, idols have limited shelf-life; the fact leads the
management system to seek to make most of the idols while their popularity lasts. Because of K-pop’s structural dependence on its global consumability, the management company’s drive for maximum exposure and
profitability in a short span of time frequently leads to inhuman workload
and performance schedule for the idols. TVXQ, for example, made three
round trips (total of six flights) between Japan and Korea in a period of
five days between December 27, 2008, and January 1, 2009, and thirty-five
round trips between Japan and Korea in the year 2008 alone (Ha 2011). In
June 2011, Girls’ Generation flew to Korea, then to Taiwan, then to Paris,
and then back to Japan during a four-day period, all in the midst of a grueling nationwide “Arena Tour” in Japan; exhaustion led Girls’ Generation
member Sunny to collapse during a concert in Saitama, Japan.2
Thus, Lee
Soo-man’s reluctance to reduce the management system to the “merely
contractual” dimension opens up a gray area within which clear cases of
labor exploitation are glossed over as something else not only by the management companies but also the idols themselves, who know that both
their place within the group act and the group’s place within the highly
competitive idol industry are far from permanent. And it is precisely this
gray area that JYJ’s lawsuit against S.M. brought into spotlight.
From TVXQ to JYJ
To date, TVXQ remains both the crowning achievement of the S.M.
model—proof of concept for what Lee Soo-man termed CT, short for “culture technology,” a technology “much more intricate and complicated than
information technology”3
—and its biggest threat. A five-member act that
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debuted in 2004, TVXQ was modeled after the Backstreet Boys and trained
heavily in a cappella ballad singing, in addition to dance-pop choreography. The group was an almost instant success in Korea; their first album,
Tri-Angle, reached the top of the charts. TVXQ’s debut in Japan the very
next year, however, was a disappointment. S.M. adopted a localization
strategy of introducing TVXQ as a J-pop group rather than as a K-pop idol,
collaborating with the Japanese agency Avex Trax, and working with Japanese producers and songwriters. With few exceptions, TVXQ’s songs were
originally written in Japanese, and not Japanese versions of songs already
released in Korea. Despite rough early going, the localization strategy
proved successful in the long run, paying big dividends by 2008. Three
years after their disappointing debut, TVXQ’s popularity had grown to
such a degree that they were able to hold the coveted “Arena Tour.”4
TVXQ’s success marked the beginning of the second Hallyu in Japan.
Before TVXQ, Hallyu was largely classified as an obasan phenomenon,
with the Japanese media focusing on “frenzied” women in their forties or
above who had suddenly turned into giddy teenagers before their beloved
Korean drama stars like Bae Yong-joon (aka.Yon-sama or “Lord Yon”),
Won Bin, Choi Ji Woo, and others (Kaori and Lee 2007, 202–4). Reports of
the Korean Wave in the Japanese media routinely featured interviews of
teenagers who confessed that they were ashamed about their mothers’ devotion to Korean dramas. S.M.’s decision not to ride the wave of the Korean drama fever in Japan or turn to the already established fandom of
primarily middle-aged women allowed TVXQ to break the existing generational barrier in Hallyu fandom in Japan.5
TVXQ went onto break all
manner of records on Oricon Chart for foreign performers. Its fourth album, The Secret Code, sold some 310,000 copies and attracted 300,000
fans to concerts, including two back-to-back events at Tokyo Dome, a feat
that not even BoA had accomplished. BoA, in fact, had previously enjoyed
considerable crossover popularity in Japan but had not succeeded in creating a sizable fandom. In contrast, TVXQ boasted a fandom of 200,000
members in its official Japanese fan club called “Bigeast” by 2009. By all
indications, it was clear that S.M. had succeeded in establishing K-pop as
an attractive brand of popular music that combines the singing and dancing skills associated with performers considered as “artists” in Japan, with
the fan appeal and currency value of idols-as-commodities. TVXQ’s tremendous success would open the door through which numerous other
K-pop groups would subsequently walk, all the way to the bank, taking
world’s second largest music market by storm. Taking a page from the jiThis content downloaded from on Thu, 15 Oct 2020 05:44:43 UTC
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musho system’s playbook and modifying it aggressively, Korea’s largest
kihoeksa had heralded Hallyu 2.0.
At the pinnacle of such success in Japan, however, came the news that
three members of TVXQ were seeking to challenge the entire management system by filing a lawsuit to terminate their contract with S.M. The
lawsuit shed light on the exact terms of the contract that had provided the
basis for a relationship between the management company and the idol
that was supposed to stretch beyond the “merely contractual.” The terms
of the contract, which TVXQ members had signed while they were still
minors, was thirteen years from the date of release of the group’s first album, excluding the years of military service. (South Korea enforces universal male conscription.) Considering that the average lifespan of idol
groups was about five to six years, a thirteen-year contract essentially
meant a lifetime contract. The contract stipulated that the group would
receive a certain percentage of the net profit, but profit calculations were
never transparent.6
The group was obligated to make promotional appearances for the company without pay, and had no power to adjust its own
schedule. In addition, members had to transfer over to the company all
rights pertaining to the songs they themselves had composed. In the case
of a breach of contract, the members had to compensate the company an
astronomical sum: “three times the company’s basic investment + two
times the profit that artist would be expected to earn were the contract
term to be observed + $ 100,000.” According to this calculation, TVXQ
would have had to pay S.M. $40 million to end the contract. The same
contract, however, stipulated no obligations for S.M. If S.M. wanted to
cancel the contract, it would be able to do so at will.
The Seoul Central District Court concluded that the contract was indeed unfair and issued the provisional injunction to void exclusive contract that Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu had sought. (The other two members of TVXQ, Yunho and Changmin, had decided to stay with S.M.) The
provisional injunction gave the three members the legal basis to continue
on as performers under their initials, JYJ. The battle between JYJ and S.M.,
however, was only beginning. S.M. filed an appeal against the court’s ruling, and began to move the entertainment industry to block JYJ’s appearance on television, radio, magazines, and even in concerts. In this, the
second round of the conflict when the weapon that S.M. wielded was not
the law but its tremendous influence over the entire entertainment industry in Korea, JYJ was indeed the proverbial David to S.M.’s Goliath. No
fellow entertainer and no organization expressed public support for JYJ
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against S.M. Public opinion remained uninterested for the most part in
the human rights of the idols whose image and lifestyle they associated
with wealth and glamor. Some even expressed sympathy for the management company’s need to recoup their heavy investments. It seemed only a
matter of time before JYJ would buckle under pressure, and it was precisely at this juncture that the JYJ fans sprang into action.
Youth Subculture as Sites of Resistance
Idol fandom occupies an interesting place in the history of music-mediated
youth subculture in Korea. Until the 1990s, youth subculture was strongly
associated with resistance, not only of the dominant culture but also of the
state authority. From the late 1960s to the 1970s, jeans and the acoustic
guitar became symbols of the folk music movement through which Korean youths expressed their desire for freedom from the oppressive regimentation of life under the military dictatorship. In the 1980s, resistance
songs functioned as catalysts for mass protests and campus-wide democratization movement. According to Kim Ch’angnam, “The liberal youth
subculture of the early 1970s turned to purism and romanticism in dreaming of an escape from the unjust society, and the 1980s’ youth subculture,
with its orientation toward people’s struggle and basis in a powerful political ideology, sought liberation from the oppressive state power” (Kim
2004, 29). It was with the appearance of Seo Taiji and Boys in the 1990s
that youth subculture moved to the very front of popular culture, shedding its close association with political resistance. The explosive popularity of Seo Taiji’s marriage of hip-hop and dance-pop made the teenagers
recognizable for the first time as active consumers.
S.M. was the first management company to take this generation seriously as consumers, and manufacture a product packaged specifically to
appeal to its tastes. Speaking about his motivation for putting S.M.’s first
idol group together—the five-member boy band H.O.T., short for Highfive of Teenagers—Lee Soo-man acknowledged that the idol group was indeed created “carefully, cold-bloodedly,” based on available research about
adolescents’ aspirations. Relying on the results of a survey that found that
teenagers were most envious of good dancers and wanted to own a motorcycle the most, S.M. recruited good dancers for the act and put them on
motorcycles for their first music video (Chŏng 2011). Thus the idol system
was born in Korea, and with it an idol fandom. The idol business is a fandom business in the end, as the saying goes; because the idol-as-commodity
depends absolutely on the existence of loyal consumers, the management
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companies have developed a fandom system concomitantly with the idol
system. S.M., for example, launched an official fan club for H.O.T., created
regional chapters, and instituted a pyramidal officer system in each. The
fandom was mobilized systematically on the day of the album’s release to
make the album take the top spot on the charts.
Consumption thus becomes a measure of the fans’ dedication and the
primary vehicle of expressing their identity. Ahead of album signing, fans
purchase multiple copies of the same album in order to increase their
chances of being selected to attend the signing. The management company
produces multiple versions of the same album to induce more consumption.
For example, S.M. produces fourteen versions of the same album for Super
Junior with a different cover for each of the thirteen members of the group,
and one showing all thirteen on the cover. Dedicated fans purchase all of the
different versions. If the idol stars in a show, the fandom “offers tribute”
(chogong) by organizing support activities such as sending gifts or catering
meals for the actors and staff. All these activities are recognized as exhibiting
the “firepower” of the particular fandom, and fandoms compete with one
another to prove their love. (In self-derision, several fans I talked to referred
to themselves as “ATM machines” for the management companies.) While
it may certainly be possible to see the everyday micropolitics of what John
Fiske called “semiotic, enunciative, and textual productivity” at work within
the idol fandom (Fiske 1992, 37–42), no one today would deny that the kind
of macropolitical struggles that had defined the youth subcultures of the
1970s and 1980s have receded. Idol fandom, subordinate to the commercial
logic and readily mobilizable for consumption, is part and parcel of the
larger management system.
Though brief, the history of idol fandom presented above helps us see
what is so remarkable about the kind of fan activism spawned by JYJ’s litigation against S.M. Bridging the micropolitical and the macropolitical, JYJ
fans foregrounded their rights as consumers and mobilized fan practices of
information sharing, discussion, and organization, in order to embark upon
a highly intricate, coordinated, and sustained campaign against the power of
the entertainment industry. The next section details the major milestones in
JYJ fandom’s sustained and multifaceted struggle against S.M., the management system, and the entire entertainment industry in Korea.
The Fans against the Industry: Journey into JYJ Fandom
At the time of TVXQ’s split, there were three main online fansites devoted
to TVXQ in Korea—Ikadong, DC Inside’s TVXQ Gallery, and DongneThis content downloaded from on Thu, 15 Oct 2020 05:44:43 UTC
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Bangne (tongne pangne, hereafter DNBN). DNBN quickly emerged as the
locus of JYJ fan activism in the early days of the members’ lawsuit.7
an initial period of confusion and some internal dissension, DNBN
quickly rallied around JYJ and began to organize. In the first year of the
lawsuit, fandom activities in support of JYJ fell into three different categories. The first was a publicity campaign. The campaign was felt to be particularly important since the media coverage tended to focus not on the
contract dispute but on JYJ’s “lucrative” side-deal with a cosmetics company, essentially taking S.M.’s side and painting the three young men as
“selfish ingrates” who had turned against the company that had made
them superstars in the first place. The fans were also angered by the way
the media portrayed their petition drive as “crazed” and “fanatical.” With
spontaneous contributions from individual fans, DNBN took out a frontpage ad in the liberal daily Hankyoreh (Han’gyŏre) with the main copy that
read, “What do your work conditions look like?”
1. Contract period to last at least thirteen years
2. A seven-day work week, no monthly days off
3. Salary to be determined by the employer, no negotiation allowed
4. All scheduling and job-related decisions to be determined by the
5. In the case of early termination, several tens of millions of dollars
to be paid to the employer as penalty
6. In the event of personal time off, the contract period to be extended
These, of course, were the exact terms of TVXQ’s contract with S.M.
The ad called upon the readers to reflect on whether they would accept
such working conditions for themselves, thereby underscoring the fact
that the essence of JYJ’s lawsuit was a question of systematic labor exploitation. The creation of the ad also reflected a process of online consensus
building within the fandom. The emotions were high in the early days of
the lawsuit, and many fans wanted to include incendiary language in the
ad itself. A lively online discussion followed regarding the most effective
approach. Ultimately, the view that a more measured tone and a message
highlighting the labor rights of the three members should be adopted held
sway. DNBN followed up with a second ad twenty days later. The second
ad featured three “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys in
bondage, with the accompanying lines, “Don’t try to see anything, don’t
insist on anything, and don’t expect to hear anything in response.” If the
focus of the first ad was the artists’ labor rights, the second ad brought
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Of the Fans, by the Fans, for the Fans | 119
their human rights into sharp relief and pointed an accusatory finger at
the industry practice that had robbed them of autonomy. The universal
values to which the fans appealed in these ads combated the negative image of TVXQ fandom as consisting of motley, screaming teenagers, and
helped consolidate a sense of purpose among the fans themselves. DNBN
supplemented these ads with a number of press releases as well, and collected more than 120,000 signatures in support of JYJ.
The second type of activity concerned the fans’ rights as consumers.
The revelation of the terms of the contract, especially as it concerned the
payment of profits to TVXQ, filled the fans with indignation. The realization that all of the different ways they had supported TVXQ over the years
as consumer-fans had actually fattened S.M.’s pockets and not the idols’
led fans to call for a boycott of all S.M. products. In addition, fans took
S.M. to court in a class action suit for the postponed SM Town concert in
the aftermath of the TVXQ split. S.M. had already refunded the full price
of the concert ticket, but the fans succeeded in getting the court to decree
that S.M. should pay an additional 10 percent of the full value of the ticket
to everyone who had purchased a ticket for the concert (Chang 2010).
Finally, fans appealed to government agencies, submitting multiple petitions to the National Human Rights Commission and Seoul Central District Court, and also filing a complaint with the Fair Trade Commission.
In these pleas they drew attention to the unfairness of the contract between JYJ and S.M. and called on the commission to provide a revised
standard contract for the industry (Kim 2009). Due in no small part to the
fans’ continued activism, in October 2011, Fair Trade Commission finally
issued a revised standard contract for management companies and singers. The specific terms of the recommendation touched upon every single
point of grievance that JYJ had brought to light in regard to their old contract with S.M., suggesting that the group’s demands were largely justified.
We can examine several of these provisions in detail. The first, of
course, concerns the term of the exclusive contract. The revised standard
contract limits the term to a maximum of seven years save in exceptional
cases. The contract also provides for the protection of the idol’s right to
privacy and other human rights, making the relationship between the idol
and the management company more symmetrical and giving the idol a
legal basis for refusing unreasonable demands by the company. Another
provision stipulates that the idol has the right to determine his activities in
accordance with his physical and mental condition. In other words, the
company cannot unilaterally determine the idol’s schedule and force it
upon him. In the case of TVXQ, the team’s Japanese debut was a unilateral
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120 | Hallyu 2.0
decision in which the members had no say. Such a practice would be prohibited under the terms of the new standard contract. In addition, companies now have to protect copyright and neighboring rights of idols over
their own compositions. Nor can companies demand exorbitant penalties
from idols for terminating the contract early.
JYJ’s early victory in court, however, marked only the beginning, not
the end, of their struggles. A few weeks before the Seoul Central District
Court’s ruling granting the group an injunction to void the exclusive contract with S.M. in October 2009, thereby clearing the way for the trio to
resume their careers under a different management company called C-JeS,
S.M. had come together with other major management and production
companies in the entertainment industry to launch a powerful new private organization consisting of industry CEOs called the Korean Popular
Cultural Industry Federation (KPCIF). KPCIF became an oligopolistic
conduit for administering pressure on the industry and blocking media
exposure for JYJ when the trio released their first English album, The Beginning, the following year. In fact, the album itself was a direct outcome
of the way the industry had ostracized JYJ in the aftermath of their challenge to S.M. The trio could not get any support from their colleagues. No
one would give them a song to sing and no recording company would
produce their album. In Japan, too, Avex suspended JYJ’s activities without releasing them from the contract; it would take another two years for
JYJ to win a legal victory in Tokyo District Court.8
Thus locked out of the
music industry in both Korea and Japan, JYJ had to find producers and
composers in the United States. Eventually, they worked with Kanye West
and Rodney Jerkins, and released their album via Warner Brothers Music.
Following the release of The Beginning, KPCIF circulated letters to all television networks, cable companies, radio stations, and online music stores
“requesting” that they refrain from playing or selling JYJ’s songs. The reason the letter gave for the necessity of such an extraordinarily repressive
measure was that JYJ was in litigation with S.M., and would therefore
dampen the momentum of Hallyu. KPCIF thus appealed to and reproduced the virulent nationalist discourse surrounding the Korean Wave
The actions of KPCIF and the response of the Korean entertainment
industry opened a new chapter in JYJ fan activism. Within the South Korean media environment, television is the all-important hub that connects
all the spokes of the entertainment wheel together. Therefore, preventing
an entertainer from appearing on television is like delivering a death sentence. Acting like a cartel, the management companies brought their
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Of the Fans, by the Fans, for the Fans | 121
weight against JYJ to prevent it access to airwaves, public and private. JYJ
could not promote its album at all in the media, let alone have its music be
heard, and had it not been for the concerted efforts of the fans, The Beginning could very well have been dead on arrival. The fans’ identity as consumers took the front seat again. Rallying their purchase power, fans catapulted album sales to the top, with preorder and presale requests for
99,999 limited-edition CDs numbering more than 400,000. Fans also deployed their identity as consumers to condemn the industry’s violations of
antitrust laws. In a thirteen-page petition filed with the Fair Trade Commission, fans meticulously detailed all the ways in which KPCIF and S.M.
violated their rights as consumers. One concrete example concerned online music services like MelOn, JukeOn, and BugsMusic. These services
charge monthly membership fees to allow the user to stream or download
the latest songs. The fans argued that they were being barred from enjoying the very product they had purchased when the music service refused
to carry JYJ’s music despite its tremendous popularity. In addition, six
thousand overseas fans from 118 countries submitted petitions to Seoul
Central District Court demanding that JYJ be allowed to appear on music
and variety shows on television, and fans also demanded explanations
from the broadcast companies as to why they were barring JYJ from appearing on their programs.
Two other instances of self-organization on the part of the JYJ fandom
deserve mention here in terms of their logistical creativity and sophistication. One was the advertising campaign that ran in early 2011. With contributions amounting to $160,000 collected in ten days, with overseas fans
from Taiwan, Japan, and the United States joining the efforts as well, fans
published ads supporting JYJ on 120 buses and twenty-one subway stations. The process of creating the ad itself was a collective affair: out of
numerous suggestions made by fans, the copy “JYJ, we root for your
youth!” was selected after numerous rounds of discussions and voting, all
of which took place in cyberspace. While the first advertising campaign
that DNBN had led in 2009 was primarily aimed at the urgent task of getting what the fans saw as the truth of the situation out to the public at a
time when the major channels of communication were controlled by S.M.,
the second advertising campaign performed the additional function of
drawing fans closely together and encouraging their own struggle as well.
JYJ had become a cause, and its fight had become the fans’ as well, not by
proxy but in very real terms. In my interviews with several fans who took
on leadership roles within the fandom, for example, I heard of several different ways that the fans themselves had been physically bullied and othThis content downloaded from on Thu, 15 Oct 2020 05:44:43 UTC
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122 | Hallyu 2.0
erwise intimidated to drop the struggle. Thus, this advertising campaign
was an act of both self-production and self-consumption. In rooting for
JYJ’s youth, a slogan that deliberately revived youth subculture’s historical
association with resistance in Korea, the fans were also rooting for their
own youth and exhorting themselves to persevere. As advertisers, producers, and target consumers all at the same time, JYJ fandom consolidated
both their sense of community and their identity as social activists.
Another notable event occurred in early 2012 when CGV, one of the
largest multiplex chains in Korea, decided to cancel the screening of The
Day, a documentary film about JYJ (Cho 2012). CGV is a subsidiary of CJ
Group, a conglomerate with a thriving entertainment wing. CGV had
agreed with C-JeS to premiere The Day around Valentine’s Day. Fans had
been eagerly awaiting the premiere because the limitations that the industry placed on JYJ’s media exposure had severely curtailed the venues
through which fans could consume their idol. When CGV thus reneged
on the contract without an explanation and ignored both the fans’ and CJeS’s vociferous protestations, the fandom sprang into action. Fans decided to boycott any and all products of the CJ Group, the parent company
of CGV, and used social media to perform and publicize the boycott. They
took a picture after breaking their CJ membership card in half, and posted
the image of the destroyed card on Twitter. While the boycott and the
publicity campaign on twitter did not lead CGV to reverse its decision, an
earlier campaign surrounding what fans viewed as false reporting actually
did lead to immediate, appreciable results. When September 2011 issues of
GQ and Allure carried articles about JYJ in which the reason for JYJ’s departure from S.M. was attributed to the trio’s cosmetics business, fans
tweeted the writers of the articles to explain that these were unfounded
rumors (Chang 2011; Shin 2011). However, the writers treated them as if
they were fanatics who could not accept any criticism of their idols. Angered by the patronizing suggestion that they were irrational and puerile,
JYJ fans adopted a different tactic and started tweeting the CEO of the
Doosan Group, the company that publishes GQ and Allure. They knew
that Doosan Group’s CEO was an avid user of Twitter. Fans from all over
the world sent tweets to the CEO in which they explained the situation
surrounding JYJ’s contract dispute with S.M. The strategy worked. The
CEO ordered the editors of the two magazines to publish an apology and
a correction in the subsequent issue. It was a meaningful triumph for the
fans. They had learned to use the existing hierarchy of power to resolve the
given conflict in their favor.
Even though JYJ fans did not win all of the battles they engaged in,
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their macropolitical struggles did lead to real, appreciable changes to the
industry. On July 24, 2013, three years after KPCIF had circulated its letter
to the various media outlets, the Fair Trade Commission concluded that
S.M. and KPCIF had indeed exercised undue influence on the industry to
obstruct JYJ’s career (Shin 2013). “Considering the nature of KPCIF as an
organization consisting of entertainment-related businesses and S.M.’s influence as one of the three largest management companies, the document
it circulated did have the effect of pressuring related companies,” found
the Fair Trade Commission. “The meaning of the current decision lies in
prohibiting a large management company from working with an industry
organization and using its influence in order to obstruct the activities of a
group of entertainers with which it is undergoing a contract dispute.” Even
though JYJ has yet to make an appearance on a music or variety show on
television, the Fair Trade Commission provided a clear warning against
the oligopolistic practices of the entertainment management companies,
puncturing the discourse of nationalism surrounding Hallyu to reveal the
JYJ case as one of labor exploitation and influence peddling. It was fans
who had played an instrumental role in bringing about this ruling. The
lengthy and arduous process had made the JYJ fandom aware of itself as
capable of constituting a power bloc that can influence the political economy of idol entertainment. No longer the ATM machines into which the
management companies can expect to insert the card called “cultural contents” and draw cash instantaneously, JYJ fandom has managed translate
participatory fan culture into highly visible forms of civic engagements.
The JYJ Republic
An enduring bone of contention within the former TVXQ fandom after
the splitting of the group in 2009 concerned the question of proprietorship over the TVXQ name. For majority of the fans, the name TVXQ belonged to the idols themselves, the five members of the group whom they
loved so dearly. For S.M., however, TVXQ was a commodity and the name
belonged to the creator of the brand, the management company. Lee Sooman suggested as much when he stated during his Stanford Graduate
School of Business talk that the culture technology of Hallyu inhered not
in the contents themselves but belonged to the producer of those contents.
As had been done with the Japanese idol group Morning Musume—
members could “graduate” out of the group, be “lent” out to other acts, be
reshuffled, or added altogether, all without damaging the group itself—S.M.
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124 | Hallyu 2.0
had the ambition to turn TVXQ into a brand that would not be attached
to the vagaries associated with individual performers, like growing old, for
example. With the biggest fandom in the world, the TVXQ brand was very
valuable indeed.
Many JYJ fans also rooted for the two performers, Yunho and Changmin, who had decided to stay with S.M., and hoped for the day when the
five members would be reunited as TVXQ. S.M.’s 2010 decision to release
a comeback album for TVXQ with Yunho and Changmin only thus struck
many fans as an act of betrayal. Fans had expected the two members to
resume performing, but under a different name altogether. JYJ had done
the same out of the respect for the TVXQ name, which they felt belonged
to all five members. Moreover, the lead song of the new album, “Why?
Keep Your Head Down,” contained lyrics that many fans believed were
meant to “disrespect” JYJ. The album killed the hope that the five-member
TVXQ could one day return. Now fans had to decide whom they would
support: the two-member TVXQ or JYJ. The JYJ Republic was born precisely from this choice. Despite some heated disputes, all three major fansites decided to support JYJ exclusively in the end. The sites still used the
name TVXQ, but identifying themselves as supporters of JYJ, the fans
conveyed their belief that the legacy and tradition of TVXQ rests with JYJ.
While fandom has more frequently been imagined as a “nation”—for
example, Celtic Nation for Boston Celtics and A-Nation for the idols belonging to Avex Trax label in Japan—I use the metaphor of the republic in
order to highlight the horizontal organization and emphasis on autonomy
that characterize the JYJ fandom. Indeed, there is a strong sense of citizenship among the fans, born of the experience of sustaining an organized
and multifaceted struggle against S.M. and the Korean entertainment industry over several years. Anyone who has spent even a short period of
time within these JYJ online communities readily discerns a sense of pride
that permeates the fansites for having defended not only the artists they
love but their own conscience and indeed the cause of justice. The culture
is very much participatory and the collective good is highlighted. Not surprisingly, the fandom’s motto invokes the word justice: “Justice is helping
the weak.” Citizenship is open all, though most members are women.
(About 90 percent of JYJ fans in Korea are women, of which about 70
percent are in their twenties and thirties.)
Moreover, the fandom is highly effective in self-policing. As with any
idol fandom, JYJ fandom has its share of ugly fans, and yet, possibly because
of the fandom’s high moral tone and remarkable vigilance in protecting the
artists, the ugly fans are systematically marginalized as illegal immigrants to
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Of the Fans, by the Fans, for the Fans | 125
the republic. In addition to the well-studied phenomenon of antifans,10
there are two other notable types of such illegal immigrants: stalker fans
(sasaeng) and vicious individual fans (akkae). Sasaeng fans are those who go
to criminal extremes to stalk JYJ. Some JYJ sasaeng fans in the past have
duplicated the members’ cellular phones, installed video cameras in their
garages, or snuck into their homes to take candid photos. Akkae fans favor
one member of the group to the detriment of the other two. Such fans routinely sabotage other members in vicious ways in the process of putting
their favorite forward. Within the JYJ Republic, citizens restrict sasaeng and
akkae activities by refusing them interaction and blocking their posts.
If, as Henry Jenkins has argued, “fandom may represent a particularly
powerful training ground for future activists and community organizers,”
then the JYJ Republic should provide an extremely fertile ground indeed.
Starting with a simple but urgent desire to protect their beloved idol group
from being destroyed by a powerful entertainment machine to which the
members had pledged their lives in their youthful ignorance, the fans embraced the cause of labor rights, human rights, and antitrust laws. The
universalist orientation of these causes expanded the horizon of civic engagement. For many fans, moreover, activism in the wake of JYJ’s litigation was a politicizing process in a very literal sense. During the National
Assembly elections of April 2012, for example, JYJ fans turned out in large
numbers to cast their vote. Following Jaejoong’s tweet encouraging the
fans to get out and vote, and then post their selfies for proof, fans turned
the act of voting itself into an occasion for fan activism. They took selfies
holding up messages ranging from “Go JYJ, Fuck S.M.” to “JYJ to the Television Station, Us to the Polling Station.” Hundreds of selfies were collected, and the montage thus created was shared on the fansites and
through social media. Newspapers covered the phenomenon under headline such as “JYJ—fan devotion with a conscience” (kaenyŏm p’aensim),
and even the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, took notice. Continuing
this pattern of political participation, JYJ fans voted in large numbers in
the 2012 presidential election as well. Within the most politically disinterested demographic in Korea—women in their twenties have historically
shown the lowest voting rate—the JYJ Republic had made its mark.
On November 28, 2012, the forty months of dispute between Kim Jaejoong, Park Yoochun, and Kim Junsu of JYJ and S.M. came to an official
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126 | Hallyu 2.0
end.11 The parties agreed to go their separate ways, without interfering in
each other’s business and without seeking damages from each other. While
fans celebrated the occasion by calling it “The JYJ Independence Day,” the
compromise that concluded the lawsuit left many dissatisfied. Despite the
public recognition of the ways in which S.M. and KPCIF had exercised
undue influence to keep JYJ off the air, no fines were assessed and no specific actions prescribed as compulsory. As this article is being written, JYJ
has been free for over a year, but the trio has yet to appear on music and
variety television programs in Korea. The link between the S.M. brand and
the Korean national brand has grown even stronger, thanks to the global
popularity of S.M. idols such as SNSD and EXO, and to the promotional
genius of Lee Soo-man in couching his company’s phenomenal success in
terms of Korea’s triumph in the world. What this means for the JYJ Republic is that the fight continues.
If the JYJ Republic had remained within the consumerist play culture
of the idol fandom, buying tickets, albums, and idol goods, engaging in
pseudo-romance and writing fan fiction, and producing and circulating
secondary texts, this chapter would not have been written. This is not to
deny the tremendous importance of social meaning-making and everyday
empowerment that occur within this play culture, an aspect of fandom
highlighted in works of popular culture theorists ranging from Fiske to
Jenkins who have sought to combat the reification of fandom as the pathological Other (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007, 2–5). But it is precisely the way fans of JYJ managed to bridge the micropolitical and the
macropolitical that drew me to the phenomenon. Women and teenage
fans took on S.M., perceiving JYJ indeed as a boy with a slingshot pitted
against a giant and identifying with such a figure from the place of the
socially weak. In the process, they underwent political empowerment as a
collective. Expanding outward from a specific grievance against one company, the fans grew to share a pointed sense of concern about the entertainment industry at large and embrace the cause of social justice more
broadly. In addition, at a time when the fans saw themselves as engaging
in a publicity battle with S.M. over the image of JYJ, the belief that their
actions could reflect positively or negatively on the idol served as a powerful incentive to engage in actions that would further the common good.
The culture of donation, not only of money and material goods toward the
society’s most marginalized, but of skilled labor ranging from translation
to copywriting to video editing, thrived within the JYJ Republic during
the lawsuit. It thrives still and combines with an emphasis on political activism to confer a powerful sense of collective identity on the fandom. It
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Of the Fans, by the Fans, for the Fans | 127
remains to be seen what the future holds for the JYJ Republic, but as an
“aca-fan” who first went to visit and ended up staying,12 I hope that the
inside story we have examined here will remain an importance case study
for both historians of youth subculture in South Korea and scholars of fan
activism in the late capitalist world.
1. Another frequently used word for the management company is sosoksa. Sosok
means “to belong.” The word suggests that the individual idol’s identity is closely tied to
the management company.
2. Other female idols who lost consciousness during a performance include Crystal
of f(x), Jeeyeon of T-ara, and Hyeri of Girls’ Day.
3. Speaking in 2011 before a crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs gathered at Stanford
Graduate School of Business, Lee Soo Man elaborated his concept of culture technology,
dividing the Korean Wave into three stages depending on the degree of transnational
collaboration and localization. See
4. An arena in Japan holds up to ten thousand people.
5. The fact was brought personally home to me in 2009 when I watched a Japanese
TV show called Sanma (Dream Special). The popular variety show centers on making
the viewers’ wishes come true. On this particular episode, a reporter went out to the
streets, approached three high school girls, and asked them about their wish. The girls,
all members of a dance club at a local high school, responded that their dream was to
dance with TVXQ. Their dream was granted, and when TVXQ showed up at their
school, 1,500 teenage boys and girls gathered in the auditorium went wild. The scene
impressed upon me the extent to which TVXQ’s music and dance had become cool to
consume among Japanese teenagers.
6. Yoochun’s “A Song Without a Name” (2011), in which he exposes working conditions for an idol at S.M., suggests that S.M.’s net profit calculations left the members of
TVXQ mysteriously in the red even after their album had become a chart-topper in Japan. The members’ demands to see how S.M. was tabulating itemized expenses to be
subtracted from the members’ pay were routinely ignored by the company.
7. Even before JYJ’s litigation against S.M. became public, rumors that TVXQ might
disband had circulated within the fandom. On DNBN, the site’s manager, who sided
with S.M., posted an announcement that accused Jaejoong, Yoochun, and Junsu of trying to leave TVXQ because of their private business interests, and urged the fans to try
to stop the members from leaving. The majority of fans, however, did not follow the
manager’s call, arguing instead that the decision should be left to the three members.
The manager then decided to step down since she had lost her credibility among the
members of DNBN, and announced that the site would be closed down in three days’
time. If DNBN were closed, an entire archive of pictures, articles, exchanged messages,
and memories that had been built up over the five years since TVXQ’s debut would be
lost. One person stepped forward to take charge of moving the archive to a new domain.
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128 | Hallyu 2.0
more, a level of distrust was high in the fandom at the time surrounding TVXQ’s split.
In order to gain the fans’ trust, the new manager disclosed her residence registration and
student identification. She incurred considerable risk in thus exposing her identity on
the Internet, but she felt that there was no other way to gain the fans’ trust. DNBN successfully settled under a new web address.
8. Avex had been supportive of JYJ’s split from S.M. at first, but likely reconsidered
the decision when its support of JYJ hindered its access to a pipeline of other K-pop acts.
In early 2010, for example, S.M. signed its hugely profitable girl group SNSD with Universal rather than Avex for its Japanese release. On January 18, 2013, the Tokyo District
Court ordered Avex to release JYJ from the exclusive contract and pay the group 660
million yen in damages.
9. See, for example, the study by Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington (2007).
10. It is in the report from KBSTV News, November 19, 2012.
11. For an informative debate surrounding the term, coined by Henry Jenkins, see
the transcript of the conversation between Henry Jenkins and Suzanne Scott in Jenkins
2013, viii–xiv.
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Chang, U-ch’ŏl and In-yŏng Hwang. 2011. “Who is the Best?” Allure. October.
Cho, Yŏn-gyŏng. 2012. “Cancellation of JYJ documentary, ‘we’ll confront it squarely.’” In
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