Kim Jong-hyun: Shinee star dies amid an unforgiving K-pop industry

The 27-year-old singer was one of the beautiful, well-drilled entertainers who make K-pop so thrilling and who are often treated miserably by their management companies

The death of Kim Jong-hyun of South Korean boyband Shinee marks, if not definitely the end, then a crushing blow to one of the countrys most enduring pop outfits. With their earnest, keeningly romantic songs, paired with immaculate choreography, Shinee marked the apotheosis of their countrys boyband craft.

While in the west there have only been a handful of successful boybands in recent years, in Korea and Japan where Shinee also had a huge following, leading to a string of Japanese-language albums the appetite for ultra-emotional ballads and energetic dance tracks, performed by impossibly beautiful and well-drilled young men, is apparently insatiable.

K-pop fandom is obsessive, and fans openly rank their favourite members; bands are sometimes created as the result of reality TV competitions, an example being new eight-piece IN2IT, freshly minted from a 27-strong boyband called Boys24 being whittled down. Shinee are part of a generation who have had this fandom weaponised by social media the most tweeted-about celebrities on Twitter worldwide in 2017 were not Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber, but Korean boyband BTS.

To western eyes, some of Shinees aesthetics may seem corny. Anglophone boybands from the Simon Cowell stable, such as One Direction and now Rak-Su and Pretty Much, are less given to synchronised dance moves and more to impetuous boisterousness. Not so Shinee, whose smooth, nimble-shouldered take on hip-hop dance is reminiscent of 1990s US giants such as Backstreet Boys and NSync. Their songs, meanwhile, cleave to pretty safe boyband production staples: predominantly light, fluffy disco-funk tracks, with occasional forays into gnarly pop-rock and gauzy alt-R&B.

But even if their choreography and songcraft has precedent, their fashion sense is absolutely contemporary. Often shaped by designer Ha Sang Beg, sharp-edged dance tracks are met with even sharper tailoring, while more relaxed songs prompt gloriously clashing streetwear.

The band formed in 2008, manufactured by Korean music industry behemoth SM Entertainment, the company behind successes such as girl band Girls Generation, solo singers Kangta and BoA, and, of course, numerous other boybands: TVXQ!, Super Junior, HOT and more.

Even accounting for a recent break, as member Taemin released a solo record, Shinee are a rare case of a band reaching a decade in the business; K- and J-pop can have a ruthless, disposable feel. The managers of Japanese girl band AKB48 whose members number up to 130 and are voted in and out by the public were criticised in 2013 after one member, Minami Minegishi, filmed herself shaving her head in penitence for spending a night with her boyfriend, contravening a no-dating rule for the groups members.

BTS perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in the US. Photograph: Randy Holmes/Getty Images

Artists in both territories are often signed up to draconian contracts in their early teens, keeping them tied to specific management companies, such as SM Entertainment. They train in a competitive environment alongside other potential stars, with only the best idols making it into the manufactured bands. As well as the aforementioned dating rules, band members diets are closely monitored. In 2012, girl group Nine Muses revealed their paper cup diet, where their meals had to fit inside a tiny paper cup.

After TVXQ! took their management company to court for keeping them in a 13-year contract, a 2008 ruling brought in more standardised contracts and a seven-year limit to their length. But there are arguments that the rules dont go far enough and can be circumvented one agency spokesperson told the Korea Times that only 40% of management agencies use the standardised contracts, leaving musicians open to exploitation.

Even under standard contracts, if a band member wants to leave early, they have to pay the company a fee based on projected profits for the remainder of the contract. Two Chinese members of SM-managed K-pop boy band EXO left the group in 2014, citing wage disputes and brutal work schedules; EXOs band members have been made to perform during illness and dance while recovering from injury. The threat of conscription to the army is another stress even one of the countrys biggest stars, G-Dragon, has been called up and will begin in 2018, knocking a two-year hole in his music career.

The lockstep perfection of Shinees dance routines is undeniably thrilling but there is something troubling about them too, knowing that only the absolute best will be tolerated. Kim Jong-hyuns death is currently being treated as a suicide, after he sent his sister a note via text message. The reasons for his death are not yet clear, but given his history in a Hunger Games-like musical culture where only the strongest survive, one line from it is chilling: Tell me I did well.

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at

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North Korea: US and its allies face shortage of good options

Pyongyangs latest missile test has revived calls to deal with Kim Jong-un. But all possible strategies carry huge risks

North Koreas successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could one day carry nuclear warheads to the United States has revived talk of military intervention in the reclusive state.

Pyongyangs nuclear ambitions, once a somewhat abstract strategic concern for bureaucrats in Washington, have suddenly become more pressing. The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said earlier this year that all options are on the table for blocking its nuclear weapons programme.

Talk of a surgical strike often surfaces when politicians are contemplating military intervention in conflicts or troubled areas around the globe, perhaps because it carries connotations of a focused, efficient attack, with minimal collateral damage, like a clean surgical incision. That is a distracting illusion.

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North Korea launches missile salvo at area where US aircraft carrier fleet had sailed

Missiles land in part of Sea of Japan where USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan had been conducting manoeuvres this week

North Korea has fired a volley of what appeared to be land-to-ship missiles, hours after a senior US official said the regimes recent advances in missile technology were causing great concern in Washington.

South Koreas joint chiefs of staff said several missiles which are not thought to be ballistic were launched from the North Korean eastern coastal town of Wonsan on Wednesday morning.

They flew an estimated 200km and were intended to demonstrate the Norths ability to target a large enemy warship, the South Korean military said.

The salvo was aimed at an area in the Sea of Japan recently visited by two US aircraft carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan. The vessels left the area earlier this week after conducting joint manoeuvres with South Korean and Japanese forces.

North Korea likely wanted to show off its ability to precisely target a large warship, in relation to the joint military drills involving US aircraft carriers, Roh Jae-cheon, South Koreas joint chiefs of staff spokesman, told reporters. By testing different types of missiles, North Korea also appears to be aiming to secure the upper hand in relations with South Korea and the United States.

At the end of last month, the North fired a short-range scud missile that landed in Japans maritime economic zone, drawing strong protests from Tokyo. The regime claimed that the rocket was equipped with a precision control guidance system and had landed within seven metres of its target.

In mid-May, it tested a powerful new midrange missile that it said could carry a nuclear warhead. That rocket flew higher and for a longer period than any other missile previously tested by North Korea.

Thursdays multiple missile launches present an early diplomatic test for South Koreas new president, Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning liberal who supports engagement with Pyongyang as way of reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea has conducted four missiles launches in just over four weeks, in defiance of warnings from Donald Trump that the US would not rule out military action to prevent the regime from developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of striking the US mainland.

Pyongyang is believed to be at least three years away from building an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with sufficient range, but it already has conventional missiles capable of striking US military bases in South Korea and Japan.

The head of the US missile defence agency, vice admiral James Syring, warned that officials should assume that the US would one day be within reach of a North Korean nuclear missile.

I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat; I would say we are addressing the threat that we know today, Syring told a hearing of the house armed services committee on Wednesday. The advancements in the last six months have caused great concern to me and others, in the advancement of and demonstration of technology of ballistic missiles from North Korea.

It is incumbent on us to assume that North Korea today can range the United States with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead.

Experts said Thursdays launches were designed to show North Korea would not be pressured into abandoning its nuclear and missile programmes, a week after the UN security council adopted sanctions targeting North Korean officials and companies.

North Korea has been stepping up missile tests … to project an image to the world that international sanctions can never bring it to its knees, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Yang said the regime was also responding to the arrival earlier this week of a US nuclear submarine, the USS Cheyenne, in the South Korea port of Busan.

North Korea insists it has the right to develop nuclear weapons in response to US aggression, citing the recent presence of the US aircraft carriers in waters off the peninsula.

The foreign ministry in Pyongyang said in a recent statement that Washingtons opposition to missile tests was the height of shameless arrogance, self-righteousness and double standards given that the US was engaged in its own military buildup.

In response to the higher frequency of North Korean missile tests in recent months, the US and South Korea accelerated the deployment of a controversial missile defence system earlier this year.

But on Wednesday, South Korea said it would suspend further deployments of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence known as Thaad system until it has completed an environmental impact assessment, amid concern from local residents that its powerful radar could affect their health and livelihoods.

The review, ordered by Moons office, will not affect two launchers already in operation in the south-eastern region of Seongju, but it could delay the introduction of a remaining four launchers by more than a year, according to officials at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

The review was ordered after Moons office complained that it had not been told about the arrival of the additional launchers which have not been installed last week.

It doesnt make sense to withdraw the two initial launchers which had already been deployed and installed, but additional installation will be decided after the environmental impact assessment is over, a South Korean administration official told reporters.

The Pentagon said it would work with Seoul to ensure transparency, but added that it did not think the review would threaten Thaads future. The US trusts the [South Korean governments] official stance that the Thaad deployment was an alliance decision and it will not be reversed, a Pentagon spokesman said.

China has urged South Korea to abandon Thaad, whose deployment was agreed by Moons conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

Beijing claims that the system could be used to track its own missile programme and represents a threat to Chinas security.

Chinas position is very clear. No matter what happens, we are firmly opposed to the deployment of the Thaad system by the US in the Republic of Korea, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday.

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