Plagiarism, sexualisation, paedophilia – all things soloist IU has been accused of in the past couple of weeks. IU is possibly a topic that has been exhausted, even The Guardian has covered it. There’s been accusations, apologies, official statements, and plenty of reaction to the themes in IU’s Chat-shire releases; but is there a much bigger picture here? Many of the accusations raise questions about Kpop as a whole, and leave one wondering if IU was simply an easy target after Dispatch revealed her relationship with Jang Ki Ha, eleven years her senior.

Besides the controversy over her Zeze lyrics (Beyond Hallyu wrote an article that objectively sums this up well), IU’s Twenty-three is still involved in much talk about its apparent Lolita concept.

Being the writer of MV Breakdowns for UnitedKpop I’ve watched more Kpop releases than I’d like to recall. My interpretation of Twenty-three would have revolved around childhood whimsy, and the fight between growing up and wanting to keep hold of childhood. To me, Twenty-three is more a portrayal of what is known as a Peter Pan Complex, a need to hold on to the innocence of childhood as one grows up.

And though not in the same words that is essentially how mv director Yong Seok Choi, the founder of Lumpens and creative director at Tiger JK’s FEELGHOOD, explained his motives and feelings regarding the controversy around his work.

Today, my wife asked me what I’m going to do if my child goes to school, sees what’s being written on the Internet, and asks if I’m a pedophile.
My colleagues and I always enjoy hearing the fans’ analyses after we finish a production. There are people who analyze far beyond our expectations. As there are so many possible interpretations, please listen to my own interpretation and production process as a person who was directly involved in the video.
When I heard her lyrics, I felt the same way as when I read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as a child. We started with the image of the Cheshire Cat, who asks you questions and never answers. We wanted to show an IU that she had never shown before.
We wanted to express the contradictory content of the lyrics in an organic way. But if we were to pour water on the actress, it would have been a problem if the scene wasn’t shot correctly. So we decided to pour water on the doll instead. However, our assistant director felt that this did not sell the line ‘I want to be a child forever’ properly, and we replaced the water with a formula bottle instead.

Choi doesn’t dispute purposefully creating the image he did, he simply clarified the interpretation used to create that image. He also agrees that a visual can have many interpretations, and he often enjoys hearing these.

Given their contextual explanations of their thinking and intentions it should no longer be assumed that IU purposely wrote sexualised lyrics about a child, and Choi purposely created a Lolita concept.
Kpop’s long history of debuting artists in their mid-teens with sexualised concepts renders the accusations towards IU and Choi a little moot.

Kpop has a Lolita Complex, it’s undeniable. But to explore it in more detail we must first correct the terminology being bandied around with regards to the accusations towards IU and others.
The words paedophile and paedophilia are often misused and in fact refers to attraction to those 11 and under, these terms apply to the Zeze controversy, but not to the Twenty-three mv.
The terms hebephilia or ephebophilia are more accurate to cover the ages associated with a Lolita Complex, attraction to people who look 12-17, though their real age is actually irrelevant. Case in point IU is 23, yet made to look much younger in her mv.

The idea of the Lolita is big business in Japan. The Japanese Manga and Anime industries are somewhat proud of their ‘Lolicon’ productions (often pornographic, and a media form that would be considered illegal to buy in the UK). Organiser of Japan’s Sunshine Creation manga exhibition, Hide, explained earlier this year why Japan’s ‘Lolicon’ products are, at present, still legal.

“Everyone knows that child abuse is not a good thing, but having that kind of emotion is free, enjoying imagining some sexual situation with a child is not prohibited.”
 – ‘Why hasn’t Japan banned child-porn comics’; James Fletcher BBC; January 2015

Korea doesn’t have the same forwardness to their use of the concept, being more conservative in their mentioning of taboo subjects, though creative avenues allow for that which is unspoken to be explored.

Just last month JYP came under fire for his own involvement alongside his rookie girl group Twice in an advertising campaign for school uniforms. Many of the adverts saw JY Park looking at the girls in their ‘sexy’ school uniforms from behind mirrored sunglasses.

Twice are aged 16 to 20 and are prime examples of young girls being debuted into the Kpop industry with a sexualised image.

As male Kpop artists age we are likely to see a move towards groups and individuals asserting their masculinity through sexualised interactions in their concepts and visuals. A good example of this would be Quit Playing by U-KISS. Their Mono Scandal release included a title mv that strongly implied the sexual confidence of the members.

For female idols you see this far less. Even the sexualised choreography of groups like Stellar will be interspersed with pure white sets that imply virginal innocence.
Some female artists are granted a sexual awakening, such as GaIn or HyunA, notably far after their image has been sexualised. Though many of the older girl groups are still promoting the innocence of their members, despite many of them being in public relationships.
This innocence is billed as targeting Kpop’s primary audience, females under fourteen. Though the underlying sexual messages, and images, attract a whole other audience of older males, whose focus lies more on the visual than the music.

In Kpop, sex sells – but so does youth and innocence, and so utilising the Lolita Complex as a recurring concept has paid well for kpop.

So, which Kpop females have used the Lolita concept? Almost anyone with a pure white mv, a fairytale concept, school uniforms, even excessive use of aegyo.

Orange Caramel’s A-ing mv plays strongly on fairytale stories, but see’s the then 18+ members wearing short, provocative versions of the fairytale costumes.

You won’t escape it in the male Kpop world either. Seungri’s VVIP sees a child turn into a young woman, wearing exactly the same fairytale dress.

Unfortunately Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, has been long misinterpreted as a tale of sexual discovery, placing Lolita as a teenage seductress rather than an abused 12 year old. Thus the idea of the lolita and the nymphet being interchangeable. The use of the Lolita concept in Kpop keeps these lines blurred by sexualising innocence. Considering the young target audience age it seems clear Kpop’s moral compass was lost may years ago, and will probably never be found.

Accusers may do well to remember in future that throwing around words such as ‘Paedophile’ can damage a career when unfounded. Exploring a creative concept is in many cases completely disconnected to the implications of that topic in a real-life situation.
IU’s controversy isn’t going to stop the use of the Lolita themes in Kpop, or the countless netizen crusades to tarnish reputation with little real evidence; but maybe the scale of this controversy may open at least some target audience eyes to the underlying images and issues surrounding Kpop visuals.


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Graphic Designer. Perfectionist. Gothy weirdo. Korean Indie Guru. Supreme witch of UnitedKpop and BritROK covens.