It has been a genuinely horrible year for the K-pop universe with 25-year-old Sulli, a former member of superstar girl group (f)x allegedly taking her own life on October 14.
Her untimely death comes on top of a raft of sordid scandals in 2019 that have shattered K-pop's carefully curated, wholesome image.
K-pop — or South Korean pop, to be precise — has over the last decade, evolved into a global music phenomenon, with a hyper obsessive fandom, including an enormous Australian fan base, that intensely follows their idols' every move, reports News.com.au.
Sulli, whose real name was Choi Jin-ri, was a child actor before joining (f)x in 2009. However, after malicious comments from anonymous cyberbullies, Sulli left the group in 2015 to pursue her film career.
She had only returned to K-pop this year releasing a single called Goblin in June 2019.
However, Sulli wasn't like other K-Pop female singers.
It was her defiance and refusal to conform to social norms in a culture where women are expected to be respectful and reserved that opened her up for continuous online harassment. She openly rebelled, advocating for abortion reform and speaking out about her mental health struggles.
In 2018, she revealed on a talk show that she had had panic disorder from a young age. "Even close people left me. I was hurt by them and felt there was nobody who understands me, which made me fall apart."
She was called the Kim Kardashian of K-pop, as well as an attention seeker after she unapologetically posted a series of photos of herself not wearing a bra in some vaguely see-through T-shirts.
Sulli came in for much criticism after she appeared drunk on a live-streamed drinking session at a restaurant. However, it was accidentally exposing her breast while straightening her hair in a loose-fitting robe in a live Insta feed on September 28 that enraged trolls and saw her relentlessly harassed and bullied online.
She was found dead in her luxury home in Seongnam, South Korea on October 14 this year.
"She wasn't just an issue-maker, but I hope she will be remembered as a women's rights activist who was free-spirited, who could truly speak her mind," said Kwon Ji-an, a fellow South Korean singer and painter.
But her death isn't the only dark cloud hanging over South Korea's $7.3 billion music industry.
BAD BOY BANDS
In the make-believe world of Korean pop, the stars — with their coiffured coloured hair, matchy-matchy outfits, makeup and catchy pop love songs — are supposed to act as perfect role models.
But this year, some of K-pop's best-known boy band members were embroiled in a sex, drugs, police corruption and spycam scandal that shook the industry and made headlines worldwide.
Centre stage was 28-year-old Lee Seung-hyun, better known by his stage name Seungri, now a former member of one of K-pop's most famous boy bands, Big Bang. Pioneers of the genre, they sold over 140 million records since their 2006 debut and were known as the "Kings of K-pop".
When he wasn't performing, Seungri fancied himself as an entrepreneur, dabbling in business ventures including a noodle empire, music labels and night-life.
It was in his role as co-director, public relations director and occasional DJ at the Burning Sun nightclub in Seoul's up-market district of Gangnam, (made internationally famous by PSY in his 2012 hit, Gangnam Style) that saw him questioned about drugs and procuring prostitutes for the club's top VIP clientele, comprising of foreign investors.
In January 2019, the South Korean investigative news program Straight broke a story reporting that female customers had been drugged with the "date rape" drug GHB and raped inside the Burning Sun nightclub.
The story came to the surface after a male customer accused club managers of attacking him after helping a woman who had been drugged and was being groped by a VIP client in November 2018.
Seungri has denied all allegations against him, stating in an Instagram post: "I think it would be good for me to retire from the entertainment industry at this point. I have decided to retire because the controversy has become so big. I will sincerely participate in investigations into all allegations."
More bombshells followed when it was revealed Seungri, along with K-pop boy band members Lee Jong-hyun of CNBlue, Choi Jong-hoon of FT Island, Yong Jun-hyung of Highlight and singer-songwriter Jung Joon-young were part of a disgusting group chat on KakaoTalk, a social media network.
The group members shared non-consensually filmed sexual encounters with women and used sexually abusive language, including explicitly discussing rape.
Joon-young was charged with aggravated rape and secretly filming and sharing videos of at least 10 women, some of whom were unconscious. He was charged along with Choi Jong-hoon. Other group members, including Seungri, were charged with distributing the videos.
The case has brought to prominence a growing epidemic infecting South Korea called "molka", or sexualised spycam videos, where women are unknowingly filmed on public transport, in schools, bathrooms, offices, and even in their bedrooms by men.
On March 13, Joon-young wrote a letter to his fans, admitting filming the women.
"In regards to what is being said in relation to me, I admit to all my crimes. I filmed women without their consent and shared it in a social media chatroom. And while I did so, I didn't feel a great sense of guilt. As a public figure, it was an unethical act worthy of criticism, and such a thoughtless action," he wrote.
"More than anything, I kneel and apologise to the women who appear in the videos who have learned of this hideous truth as the incident has come to light, and to the many people who must be angry at the situation over which they cannot contain their disappointment and astonishment."
However, Joon-young denied the alleged aggravated rape charges and the case appeared before court on October 21 but a verdict is yet to delivered.
The scandal widened further when a superintendent at Gangnam Police Station, in charge of supervising entertainment allegedly accepted bribes in return for special favours from K-pop stars and their associates. The officer has denied the allegations but has been suspended from duty.
It brought the country's treatment of women to the forefront of national consciousness. Thousands of women protested at the Burning Sun nightclub in May, and over 200,000 people signed a presidential petition to demand an investigation into the revelations while others disavowed their former K-pop idols.
Whether Sulli's death will change the way young outspoken female K-pop stars are treated, is yet to seen.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.