Cancel Culture in the Global K-Entertainment Industry: From Drinking Starbucks to Bullying Controversies

“Miss Starbucks Huh Yunjin”

If you’ve been into Kpop for a while or even just for a few months, you might have heard of Le Sserafim’s Huh Yunjin’s controversy. Just in March this year, the idol was photographed drinking Starbucks amidst calls to boycott the brand for its perceived support of Israel’s genocide against Palestinians in Gaza (Rajvanshi & Serhan, 2024). Huh Yunjin’s Instagram page was flooded with criticism and comments from her own fans and other groups’ fans expressing their disappointment either over the idol’s lack of awareness or her alleged support for Israel. One fan referred to a statement Yunjin made before their debut in 2022 – “‘I’m gonna change the industry’ by drinking Starbucks and doing nothing.” In TikTok and X (formerly Twitter), similar sentiments were echoed with netizens calling to stop streaming the group’s music and to stop buying their albums.  

Later, it was clarified that South Korea’s Starbucks operated independently from the US-based Starbucks which was reported to have sued its workers for posting pro-Palestinian content. Despite this information, netizens claim that the idol should have been aware of the boycott and how her actions influence fans as a global figure. Last December 2023, Kpop soloist Jeon Somi was ‘cancelled’ by fans for using a Starbucks logo on a TikTok video. Somi deleted the video promptly, but still receives comments such as “Free Palestine” until today. Huh Yunjin was observed to have deleted an Instagram photo with the coffee brand following the backlash her fellow artist received. Following logic, this means the artist was already aware of the boycott, but for her to be seen with the brand again, netizens claim “she never cared.”

Kpop fans compared Huh Yunjin and Jeon Somi’s case with Enhypen’s Australian member Jake who was similarly seen drinking Starbucks in a live video with fans. Fans were quick to comment about Starbucks’ connection to the ongoing genocide in Gaza, prompting Jake to transfer the drink into a clear cup. After the live video, the boy group member quickly apologised and thanked their fans for informing him about the issue.

Huh Yunjin and Jeon Somi’s case are among multiple cases of idols and celebrities in South Korea facing online criticism and being ‘cancelled’ following events they may or may have been aware of. With Kpop becoming a global phenomenon, idols, artists, actors, and influencers are not just subjected to the Korean standard of maintaining a clear professional image that extends to their personal lives but are now also expected to be aware of ongoing global issues from which their fans and audiences may be from. A small act such as buying a drink can now lead to getting bombarded with hate comments and allegations of being a Zionist if you are not careful enough. Unfortunately, this is not the first time a public figure has been punished or ‘cancelled’ in the industry and will unlikely be the last. What exactly is cancel culture and how has it pervaded in the Kpop industry?

What is Cancel Culture?

            Cancel culture is a form of public shaming initiated on social media and has been defined to be an attempt “to ostracise someone for violating social norms.” While cancel culture is considered by others to be an act of pursuing social justice, it is recognised that the culture interprets a target’s opinions to be completely antagonistic (Trigo, 2020). In Urban Dictionary, the most agreed upon definition of cancel culture is “the act of damaging someone’s life or career because they made human error”.

            In the case of Huh Yunjin, she was the target of ‘public shaming’ in pursuit of social awareness for the genocide in Gaza, which, at the same time, can be interpreted as an act of damaging her career due to the human error of not knowing about the boycott.

Cancel culture is certainly not limited to Korea. In the UK, we’ve seen JK Rowling fans boycotting her Harry Potter series after her transphobic statements. In the US, comedian Ellen DeGeneres discontinued her TV show after allegations of a toxic working environment resulted in low ratings with viewers calling for #ReplaceEllen on Twitter. But what makes South Korean entertainment different?

What can we learn about Cancel Culture in the Kpop industry?

  1. Celebrities are pressured to have a clean personal and professional character record

Celebrities such as actors,  artists, and influencers are faced with less tolerance for moral misconduct and stances on political issues due to their public visibility. In comparison with Western celebrities, South Korean celebrities often stay away from voicing support or criticism for sociopolitical events aside from advocating for relatively less contentious causes such as animal rights and climate change. As a figure followed by a large audience from different age groups and backgrounds around the world, they are expected to maintain an image that does not attract controversy (Shin et al., 2022).

Although cancel culture is a prevalent issue worldwide, certain issues are more sensitive in South Korea. In the past decade, celebrities were cancelled for dodging mandatory military service and drunk driving. In more recent years, celebrities have been subjected to cancel culture revolving issues such as school bullying and drug use. In addition, while Western celebrities do not often get cancelled for their personal lifestyle and relationships, Kpop celebrities are expected to uphold a good character through and through.

Song Ji-ah, a beauty influencer, rose to fame in 2021 for her participation in a dating show called Single’s Inferno. After the show aired, she was cancelled for wearing fake designer clothes. While this might not warrant a massive backlash against an influencer in the West, Song Ji-ah deleted all her Instagram and YouTube content, and went on to prove that only a few of her items were fakes before going into a hiatus.

  1. Cancel culture has been an effective tool in achieving justice

Although Huh Yunjin was able to come back and release music with her group weeks after facing backlash online, several high profile cases in the Kpop industry have had longer-lasting and serious repercussions on their careers. Among these include one of Kpop’s most influential boy groups, Big Bang’s, youngest member Seungri and his involvement in the Burning Sun Scandal. The artist was sentenced to three years in prison for facilitating prostitution and embezzlement. Until today, his fans believe he hasn’t issued an apology for his actions and that “70% of his letter was about him whining about how the media treated him.”

Another high profile case involved former EXO member Kris Wu who left South Korea in 2014 and continued promoting as a solo artist and actor in China and in Hollywood. Although no longer making K-music, his global fans from his days promoting in EXO were influential in retaining his career. In 2022, he was convicted to 13 years in prison for the serial rape of minors. The cases were brought to investigation after China’s #MeToo Movement prompted the victims to come forward. While details of the case remained unclear initially, multiple brands including Louis Vuitton and Burberry were quick to drop their contracts with Kris Wu. A day after the artist’s arrest, his music and content were erased from multiple Chinese streaming platforms.

In these cases, cancel culture can be seen to have been an effective tool in achieving social justice as it is difficult for victims who are ordinary people to be heard and to obtain legal redress when the perpetrators are high status individuals who are prominent in the industry. The role of media in these cases cannot be ignored since the public perception of those involved in a case rely on the portrayal of the media.

  1. Cancel culture is not always stimulated by progressive thought and has led to irreversible harm

In 2018, girl group member Irene of Red Velvet was the subject of criticism by male fans after sharing in a fan gathering that she had just finished reading the novel Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982. The book is a renowned contemporary feminist literature in South Korea and follows the life of an ordinary woman named Kim Ji-young and the everyday sexism she experiences. On top of hate comments, male fans uploaded cut and burned merchandise of the idol (Lee, 2018).

In 2022, 16-year old Kim Garam who had just debuted in HYBE’s girl group Le Sserafim, was expelled from the group after bullying allegations in middle school surfaced from anonymous accounts online. Some of the allegations included throwing a flower pot and brick at a classmate, underage drinking, smoking, skipping school with friends, badmouthing her girl group members, and ‘sexual deviance’ among a few more. Kim Garam became the subject of online hate following the allegations, with many fans calling to kick her out of the group. Despite the agency denying the claims of the anonymous accounts, Kim Garam’s contract was eventually terminated and was removed from the group. Months after the termination, she released the records of the school violence reports herself to provide context to the allegations surrounding her and the ‘victim’. After this release, netizens’ opinions on the issue have shifted and many now believe that Kim Garam was wrongly accused and penalised.

We see in Irene;s case how cancel culture is not always motivated by progressive worldviews. Feminism in South Korea has become demonised due to a stigmatised perception of feminism to be equivalent to misandry. Korean men perceive themselves to be ‘victims of feminism’ and proved to have organised themselves to shame celebrities who are accused of being feminists. In Kim Garam’s case, we see a minor who was stripped of her career opportunities in the Kpop industry and was subjected to mass criticism online over incomplete facts.

  1. Online platforms foster emotional attachment between celebrities and their fanbases

Despite confirmation of facts on celebrity ‘misconducts’, we still see many fans dismissing previous misconduct as if it did not happen or refusing to believe their idol’s involvement. Many of Big Bang’s Seungri’s fans have remained convinced that the artist was innocent and was merely a scapegoat. The hashtag #SeungrisRealStory made rounds in social media platforms as fans hoped for the artist to re-enter the entertainment industry. Choi Jong Hoon who was found guilty of rape in the Burning Sun Scandal with Seungri was able to release an album in Japan this 2024.

Online platforms have allowed the development of intimacy between the artist and the fans, with each interaction allowing a personality to share their private selves with their fanbase. Kpop fanbases are a huge market and have been known to organise at various levels for their celebrities. As such, fans’ reactions and assessments to allegations against their beloved celebrity are a key player in cancel culture and whether a cancelled figure can continue their career. While some fans do not deny past wrongdoings and welcome the celebrity with the mindset that they have reflected on themselves and will be doing better, we see that digital platforms have become a tool in developing new levels of intimacy and a bond between a Kpop artist and their fanbase.

Media and Digital Policy in Cancel Culture

Cancel culture proves to be a complex issue involving multiple factors and dimensions for consideration, with social media and the internet serving to be the mechanism on which it runs on. The issues underlying cancellation are usually systemic problems that are prevalent in society: war, genocide, gender inequality, school violence. Cancel culture serves to ensure that individual cases that contribute to systemic problems are not ignored and addressed sufficiently. However, the nature of the culture remains to be punitive and subjects its targets to scrutiny and trial without the due process present when abiding by the law. Content moderation against online hate that celebrities are bombarded with and verification of allegations against subjects are called for. In 2023, Parasite actor Lee Sun-Kyun died by suicide after he was dropped from films and endorsements following drug use allegations. The media’s role in sensationalising the cancellation of the actor was brought into question, with Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho stepping forward to advocate for a law to protect artist’s human rights, although there are no details yet as to what it would entail (Song, 2024).


Al Jazeera (2023). South Korean actor and Parasite star Lee Sun-kyun dies at 48. [online] Al Jazeera News. Available at:

Hines, S. and Song, J. (2021). How Feminism Became a Dirty Word in South Korea. [online] Available at:

Lee, C. (2018). [Feature] Feminist novel becomes center of controversy in South Korea. [online] The Korea Herald. Available at:

‌Mao, F. (2022, February 16). Single’s Inferno: Why “fake” Rich Girl Song Ji-a Enraged South Korea. BBC News.

Nast, C. (2022, November 11). A complete breakdown of the J.K. Rowling transgender comments controversy. Glamour UK.

Rajvanshi, A., & Serhan, Y. (2024, February 14). What to Know About the Global Boycotts Against Israel. TIME.

Shin, G., Gordon, H., & Webster, M. (2022, April 21). It’s Time for K-pop Stars to Speak Out on Human Rights [Review of It’s Time for K-pop Stars to Speak Out on Human Rights]. Stanford University Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Stanford University.

Song, S. (2024, January 24). Loved like idols, canceled like demons. The Korea Herald.

Trigo, L. A. (2020, September). Cancel Culture: The Phenomenon, Online Communities, and Open Letters. PopMeC Research Blog.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply