Why South Korea is fascinated by the Yoo Ah-in drug scandal


SEOUL – South Korean authorities this week raided the home of one of the country’s top actors as the fallout continues over allegations of drug abuse that have captured the nation’s attention and again forced it to grapple with the realities of idol culture.

Yoo Ah-in – a household name in South Korea and beyond for her roles in the 2018 film “Burning” and the hit Netflix series “Hellbound” – has been under investigation after the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said last month that he had been buying suspicious amounts of the sedative propofol since 2021.

Subsequent drug tests showed that Yoo also had used marijuana, cocaine and ketamine, the semi-official Korean news agency Yonhap reported. Under South Korea’s strict drug laws, citizens can be prosecuted for using illegal drugs, even if they did so outside the country’s borders.

The revelations about Yoo, released in the Korean media in a slow trickle, have led to a sharp and steep fall from grace for the actor.

“It’s an unusually long fall for him because he’s won so much recognition and so many different awards,” said CedarBough Saeji, assistant professor at Pusan ​​National University and commentator on Korean pop culture and society. The New York Times named Yoo one of the best actors of 2018 for his lead role in “Burning”.

The speed and scale of Yoo’s downfall highlights how the South Korean culture of celebrity worship demands perfection from “idols,” as they are commonly called, leaving little room for error or human struggle.

The allegations against Yoo that have served fans worldwide not only for his acting, but also his outspoken nature on social issues—he declared himself a feminist in a 2017 interview with W Korea, a bold statement in a country where gender equality is a hotly debated topic—has revealed a gap between South Korea and large parts of the West in how drug use, addiction and mental health are viewed.

In the West, Saeji said, “when you hear about this level of drug use, the immediate expectation would be, ‘Oh, he needs drug addiction treatment.'” But in South Korea, where drug use is more stigmatized and views on mental health lag behind others community, “there’s not a strong infrastructure of things like drug treatment centers,” she said.

In the hour-long raid on Tuesday, investigators conducted a “search and seizure” operation at Yoo’s home in Itaewon, central Seoul, and another location in the adjacent affluent neighborhood of Hannam-dong, a police official familiar with the investigation said. who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Yoo was not in custody Wednesday, the official said, but has been banned from leaving the country. He declined to comment on whether Yoo had been charged, citing the “sensitive, personal” nature of the case.

Representatives for Yoo, who was born Uhm Hong-sik, did not respond to requests for comment.

For many in South Korea, the scandal is effectively the end of his career. Netflix dropped Yoo from the second season of “Hellbound,” local media reported. (Netflix did not respond to a request for comment.) The future of unreleased films starring Yoo is unclear, and his co-stars lament that their efforts may go to waste.

Musinsa, one of the top clothing brands in South Korea, said it was considering terminating its endorsement contract with Yoo, and told the Korea Herald that it has decided to limit Yoo’s “public exposure considering the impact on the company’s image.”

Yoo’s case is an example of the extreme pressure on Korean celebrities to present themselves in a healthy and flawless manner. In a society that is rapidly changing but still deeply conservative, actors and K-pop idols must juggle being flamboyant with being exemplary – profanity, drugs, tattoos and nudity are all frowned upon.

“You can get this amazing support from the fans,” Saeji said, “but it comes with this expectation that you’re not going to let people down.” Yoo has been “swallowed up” by fans in the same way as K-pop idols, having worked with them earlier in his career in Korean TV dramas and because he fits the bill of being an eloquent, handsome young man , she said .

And even in his downfall, Yoo is still consumed. There is no shortage of coverage in the local media; the series of stories in recent days includes scrutiny of Yoo’s previous interviews amid speculation that they show possible signs of drug use.

“There’s this aspect of bystanders,” Saeji said, comparing the situation to traffic surrounding a car accident as drivers slow down to watch the chaos. “People enjoy the autumn spectacle.”

Grace Moon and Andrew Jeong contributed to this report.

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