The Korean entertainment industry continued to struggle in 2021 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
But despite the challenges, there are many bright moments this year including the rise of “Squid Game” and return of in-person events like K-pop concerts. There are also scandals, controversies, deaths, breakups, dating and marriage news for the year.
Here are the top 10 Korean entertainment stories in 2021:
1. “Squid Game” and the rise of video streaming platforms. “Squid Game” emerged as the biggest Korean series on Netflix this year. OTT (over-the-top) or video streaming platforms became popular in 2021 as people stayed home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Netflix announced last October that “Squid Game” was now its No. 1 show of all time with 142 million household viewers in its first four weeks since its release on Sept. 17 and ranked first in 94 countries. “Squid Game” centers on 456 debt-ridden people who join deadly games to win a prize amounting to 45.6 billion won (about $38.8 million). It stars Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi, Kim Joo-ryoung and Wi Ha-joon. Other OTT platforms such as iQiyi and Viu stepped up their efforts by offering new and original Korean shows.
2. BTS emerges on top in 2021. From record album sales, speaking at the United Nations, setting world records, winning numerous awards, earning a Grammy nomination to returning to in-person concerts, BTS became the No. 1 K-pop artist of 2021.
Korea’s Gaon Music Chart recently announced the top K-pop artists based on physical album sales in 2021 based on the period from week 1 to week 50 (around the second week of December). According to Gaon, BTS sold a total of 7.2 million copies of their albums in 2021 to emerge as the No. 1 best-selling Korean artist.
This year, BTS won numerous international awards this year. At the 2021 American Music Awards (AMAs) held on Nov. 21 in Los Angeles, BTS won Artist of the Year, the highest honor, and Favorite Pop Duo or Group and Favorite Pop Song for “Butter.”
“Butter” ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for 10 weeks while “Permission to Dance” became No. 1 for one week. Coldplay and BTS’ “My Universe” also topped the chart for one week.
Last Nov. 23, the Recording Academy announced that BTS bagged nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Butter” at the 64th Grammy Awards, which will be held on Jan. 31. This is the second straight year that BTS got nominated for the Grammys.
On Sept. 20, BTS spoke before world leaders at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Moment meeting convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and held in the UN General Assembly Hall. In July, Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed BTS as his Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture.
After two years, BTS held their first in-person concert “Permission to Dance on Stage-LA” at SoFi Stadium on Nov. 17 and 28, and Dec. 1 and 2. According to Billboard, based on Billboard Boxscore figures, BTS’ four-day LA concert sold 214,000 tickets, or an average of 53,500 tickets per day, and earned $33.3 million.
3. Korean star Youn Yuh-jung wins an Oscar. Veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung, 74, made history by winning best supporting actress for the film “Minari” at the 93rd Academy Awards held in April in Los Angeles. She became the first South Korean to get nominated and win an acting award at the Oscars. She was also the second Asian to win best supporting actress after Miyoshi Umeki of Japan won in 1957 for “Sayonara.” Before the Oscars, Youn Yuh-jung won best supporting actress at the 74th British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) held on April 11 and at the 27th Annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards.held on April 4 in Los Angeles.
4. Bullying and school violence allegations, and other controversies. Korean stars were accused by former classmates of bullying and school violence. Among them were Korean actor Ji Soo, (G)I-DLE’s Soojin, Seventeen’s Mingyu, Stray Kids’ Hyunjin and The Boyz’s Sunwoo.
Ji Soo was accused of school violence in middle and high schools. After his admission, he was removed from the drama “River Where the Moon Rises” in March and was replaced by actor Na In-woo.
(G)I-DLE’s Soojin was accused of school bullying in February and left the K-pop group in August. Mingyu, Hyunjin and Sunwoo resumed their careers after being embroiled in bullying allegations.
Actor Kim Jung-hyun and actress Seo Ye-ji were involved in gaslighting controversy, resulting in the two stars undergoing hiatus in their careers.
5. Relationships. 2021 became a year when romance blossomed and ended for several Korean stars. A few even announced their upcoming weddings.
The new year of 2021 came with a bang as Korean media outlet Dispatch reported on Jan. 1 that “Crash Landing on You” stars Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin are in a relationship. On the same day, the agencies of the two stars confirmed their relationship. Hyun Bin’s agency, VAST Entertainment, said, “Actors Hyun Bin and Son Yejin met through work and after the drama ended, they developed into lovers with good feelings for each other.”
On Feb. 24, Dispatch reported that Big Bang member G-Dragon and BLACKPINK’s Jennie are dating and that they have been in a relationship for a year. The next day, YG Entertainment said, “It is difficult for the company to confirm the personal life of an artist. Thank you for your understanding.”
In July, it was confirmed that K-pop boy band Super Junior member Kim Heechul and girl group TWICE’s Japanese member Momo after being in a relationship for one year and six months.
In August, K-pop girl group Red Velvet member Joy, 24, and R&B singer Crush, 24, confirmed they are dating.
K-pop boy band iKON member Bobby announced in August that he was getting married and that his girlfriend was pregnant. In September, he became a father to a baby boy.
In November, it was confirmed that K-pop boy band EXO member Chen’s wife was pregnant with their second baby. Their first baby was born in April 2020.
On Nov. 23, it was announced that actress Park Shin-hye was pregnant and that she and boyfriend-actor Choi Tae-joon will get married on Jan. 22. They have been in a relationship for four years.
Last Dec. 15, 2PM’s Hwang Chansung, 31, announced that his girlfriend was pregnant and that they would get married early next year.
6. Convictions. Korean stars got tangled up with law in 2021 due to illegal drugs and other cases.
In March, the Daegu District Court sentenced singer Wheesung to one year in prison suspended for two years for abusing the psychotropic drug propofol, an injectable anesthetic.
In June, the Seoul Central District Court convicted former K-pop boy band BTOB member Jung Ilhoon of using marijuana and sentenced him to two years in prison and imposed a fine of 133 million (about $117,400). He was released from prison last Dec. 16 after the Seoul High Court gave him a two-year prison sentence suspended for three years.
Last July, it was reported that the Suwon District Court earlier found K-pop girl group Brown Eyed Girls member Son Ga-in guilty of illegally using propofol and fined her 1 million won ($855).
On Aug. 12, a general military court sentenced former K-pop boy band Big Bang member Seungri to three years in prison on various charges such as prostitution mediation.
In September, Seoul Central District Court found Korean actor Ha Jung-woo, star of the films “Ashfall” and “Along with the Gods,” guilty of illegal use of propofol, and imposed a fine of 30 million won (about $25,654) against him for violation of Korea’s Narcotics Control Act.
Last Nov. 8, Choi Jong-hoon, 31, former leader of K-pop band FT Island, was released from prison after serving two and a half years in prison for gang rape.
7. K-pop group disband. Several K-pop groups disbanded in 2021. K-pop girl group IZ*ONE, composed of nine Korean and three Japanese members, officially disbanded on April 29 upon the expiration of their exclusive contracts of two and a half years.
K-pop group GFRIEND disbanded after their exclusive contracts with their agency Source Music ended on May 22. “The exclusive artist contract with GFRIEND and Source Music will be concluded on May 22. After careful consideration and extensive discussion, GFRIEND and Source Music have come to an agreement to follow separate paths to continued growth,” the agency said. On May 19, GFRIEND members confirmed they were disbanding with leader Sowon posting online, “GFRIEND will officially end but it is not the end for us so please don’t be too hard on it.”
In August, K-pop group Solia disbanded just five days after they were launched. The group was composed of Soree, Seona, Soyeon, Hayeon and Eunbi.
In November, K-pop girl group Lovelyz disbanded after being together for seven years since their debut in 2014. Mijoo, Sujeong, Yein, Jiae, Jisoo, Kei and Jin left Woollim Entertainment while leader Baby Soul renewed her contract with the agency.
8. The rise and fall, and rise again, of Kim Seon-ho. Korean actor Kim Seon-ho became one of the hottest stars of 2021. His rise to stardom started when he was cast in the Korean drama “Start-Up,” which aired in 2020. This year, he starred in “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha” with actress Shin Min-a, which became a hit in South Korea and on Netflix. The final episode of the drama aired on Oct. 17 and the following week was supposed to be a celebration for its success. However, on the same day of the last episode, his former girlfriend, Choi Young Ah, a former weathercaster for Korean TV channels YTN and KBS, who now works as an influencer and owner of an online shopping site, posted online and accused Kim Seon-ho of forcing her to abort their baby in July 2020 with the false promise of marriage and living together. The accusations turned his career and life upside down. He issued a statement on Oct. 20 and said, “I would like to apologize for making a late statement with my fear of watching my own name constantly being mentioned in many articles. Though we were in a relationship with good feelings to each other, I have hurt her with my carelessness and inconsiderate actions. I would like to apologize in person, but I am currently waiting some time to ask forgiveness. I would like to say sorry with this writing,” according to the Korea Herald.
Due to the controversy, he left the reality TV show “2 Days & 1 Night” and was out of the films “Dog Days” and “2 O’clock Date.” Advertisers removed his photos and videos on social media. His former girlfriend posted online on Oct. 20 and wrote, “I am sorry that my writing has caused unintentional damage to many people. There was a time when both he [Kim Seon-ho] and I truly loved each other but I also feel bad to see him collapse in an instant due to some of my extreme posts. I received an apology from him and it seems that there was a misunderstanding between us,” she said.
But the succeeding articles on Korean media highlighting revelations from their friends and acquaintances refuted her allegations, resulting in the Korean public’s opinion swinging in favor of Kim Seon-ho. Companies resumed their ads featuring Kim Seon-ho. He will star in his debut film “Sad Tropics.”
In Google’s Year in Search 2021 in South Korea, Kim Seon-ho placed sixth among the list of the top 10 overall trending searches, which was “based on search terms that had the highest spike this year as compared to the previous year.” Kim Seon-ho was the only person in the top 10.
9. Dramas accused of history distortion. 2021 saw several Korean dramas being accused by the Korean public of distorting the country’s history.
In March, the SBS drama “Joseon Exorcist” was cancelled after just two episodes after it was severely criticized by viewers of distorting Korean history and use of Chinese props. “Joseon Exorcist” was a historical drama set in 15th century Korea under the reign of King Taejong, which premiered on March 22 starring Korean actors Jang Dong-yoon, Park Sung-hoon and Kam Woo-sung about a royal family fighting evil spirits. However, the first episode was criticized for showing King Taejong, played by Kwam Woo-sung, massacring his own people. It also showed Prince Chungnyung, played by Jang Dong-yoon, visiting a tavern and drinking Chinese liquor and eating Chinese food including dumplings, century egg and mooncakes, according to Yonhap News. Rep. Yang Jeong-sook, a member of the National Assembly’s Science, ICT, Broadcasting, and Communications Committee, disclosed on Dec. 26 that data submitted by the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) on complaints against broadcasting stations and programs from Jan. 1, 2021 to Dec. 24 showed that 5,174 complaints were filed against “Joseon Exorcist.” More than 200,000 people also signed a petition to stop the drama from airing. Companies also withdrew their advertisements in the drama.
The same thing is happening to the JTBC-Disney Plus drama “Snowdrop” starring Jung Hae-in and BLACKPINK’s Jisoo, which premiered on Dec. 18. Korean viewers accused “Snowdrop” of distorting Korean history, disparaging pro-democracy movement in the country and beautifying the image of North Korean spies and the former Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP), a government agency which was linked to the torture and killings of activists in the past. As of Dec. 28, a total of 353,862 Koreans have signed a national petition, which was filed on Dec. 19, to stop the drama’s airing. A total of 868 complaints requesting to review “Snowdrop” have been filed with the KCSC to date. Companies have pulled out their sponsorships from the drama and a youth group has filed an injunction with a court to stop the airing of “Snowdrop.” A complaint against the screenwriter and director of the drama was filed, accusing them of violating Korea’s National Security Act. A national petition has been filed to abolish JTBC, which earlied denied the accusations.
10. COVID-19 disrupts the Korean entertainment industry. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has disrupted the Korean entertainment industry as Korean stars and other entertainment people became infected with the virus. This year saw many Korean celebrities testing positive for COVID-19. Among them are BTS’ Suga, RM and Jin, Super Junior’s Siwon, six members of boy band ENHYPEN, members of Treasure, actor Shin Sung-rok, Lovelyz’s Ji Soo, idol Kim Sung-gyu, actor Ji Chang-wook, ATEEZ’s San, boy band BTOB member Lee Min-hyuk, EXO’s Xiumin, members of N.Flying, actor Yoo Teo, star Jin Goo, BLACKPINK’s Lisa, Pentagon’s Kino, member of Verivery and entertainer Yoo Jae-suk.