Korean Work Ethic and the Quality of Life


In today’s Shinhwa Broadcast episode, the girls of SNSD asked their seniors for advice regarding certain concerns they had as entertainers in the Korean entertainment industry. Mainly, the girls asked about how their seniors managed the quality of their personal lives with the demands of their work.

Now, for a bit of context, ShinHwa is the oldest and longest surviving boyband in the Kpop history, with all six original members still working together. They’ve moved from different management agencies and have ultimately arrived at a place where they’ve created their own to manage the group and have their own variety show. They are often listed by current idols and singers as a role model for their longevity and success in the merciless industry. They’ve always been known as somewhat of a rebel, the bad boys of the industry. Even in their younger days, there have always been rumors of ShinHwa members bending and breaking rules that the management had set for them.

So I found it shocking, actually when Shinhwa’s Minwoo confessed eating spoiled food to avoid scheduled work. Even with all the rumors of their escapades and antics, and their reputation as the rebels, he had to resort to such risky measures for a break in his work. Snsd’s Hyoyeon followed his confession by reporting that she had tried drinking milk that was 4 days expired to avoid work. Keep in mind, these groups are talking about the time when they are at the highest point. They are talking about their lives at the pinnacles of success.


Doesn’t this say something about the way the entertainment business is run in the Kpop world? And, to add to my speculations, SM Entertainment company have managed and is managing these groups. It is a double-edged sword. They are known to be the most successful management company in the Korean entertainment industry, and also the most ruthless and difficult. I knew this reality, even way back when, but it still shocks me that the top artists under their management felt they had to go that far to get some rest.

But this isn’t news really. I keep hearing quips from various channels of the girls of SNSD wanting some rest; of being tired and worn out. One of the biggest reasons speculated to add to the split of the DBSK at the height of their career is this expectation of work ethic. A few of the members found it unreasonable, and a couple decided to press on, saying it was the price to pay for their fame and fortune. There were always the intermittent news every now and then of singers falling ill or fainting from exhaustion, as well as those who would be hospitalized due to undernourishment and fatigue.

But the thing is–it’s not just the SM company or even the broader Korean entertainment industry. The entertainers suffering from extreme working schedules and lack of rest is more visible, because visibility is the nature of the industry itself. But it is my opinion that various working conditions in Korea overall needs to be re-examined. Salary men and women need to get home at a decent hour and get their weekends off. The stores need to close at night (even if I miss the convenience of these stores being open 24/7) so the owners could go home and tend to personal lives. The students need time to actually learn and grown, not just memorize and study, shuttling from school to academies to home for more work with just a few hours allotted for sleep.

I mean…

Well, I recognize how privileged I am to be living the life that I do, in a context far removed that allows me the time and the energy to be thinking this at all. I realize that these may be the words of an indulgent and privileged dreamer.

Work needs to be balanced with rest. I mean, that’s why we go to work in the first place, right? To make money so we could live.

I also recognize the benefits of such strong work ethic and sense of discipline. The sacrifice and the discipline required to sustain this sort of work ethic is revered, and the personal sacrifices are often worn as medals of honor. And there’s a very good reason why the Korean society as a whole values and treasures this aspect of their members.

Korea really did dig itself out of a grim and dark place in record time. They climbed out being a 3rd world country in the aftermath of an attempted cultural genocide and a war that left the country broken in two. That was less than a century ago. And now, they are one of the highest ranking countries in Asia for exporting their technology and media all over the world. The crazy Korean work ethic really was a big part of how fast and well they did it. So I don’t mean to dismiss that at all.

But isn’t it now the time to rest a little, and let the soul catch up to the body?


3 thoughts on “Korean Work Ethic and the Quality of Life

  1. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader, Feb. 16-22 | The Grand Narrative

  2. Pingback: Where are the ethics in K-Pop? | "Idol Factory": The Question of Ethics of the K-Pop Industry

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