stan culture

HYBE’s Next Big K-Pop Group Debuted With Drama

Kim Garam. Photo: Lee Young-ho/Sipa USA/Alamy Stock Photo

On April 5, Source Music and HYBE unveiled the second member of their brand-new girl group, Le Sserafim: 16-year-old Kim Garam. By May 20, the labels had announced that Garam would go on an indefinite hiatus due to bullying allegations that had metastasized on Korean internet forums and K-pop Twitter. Over the course of six weeks, Garam’s new life as an idol — with intense schedules, image management, and fierce cyber adoration — would go up in smoke. After eight weeks of performing as a five-piece, the labels announced on July 20 that Garam would have her contract terminated and Le Sserafim would continue with just members Sakura, Chaewon, Yunjin, Kazuha, and Eunchae. How did we get here?

Who is Le Sserafim anyway?

The six-member girl group is the product of a collaboration between Source Music and HYBE — the conglomerate that owns Source Music as well as other subsidiary labels like Big Hit Music and Pledis Entertainment. HYBE saw Le Sserafim as a means to fill a girl group–shaped hole in its roster — which includes BTS, Seventeen, and Tomorrow x Together. Even before joining Le Sserafim, the group’s members were pretty accomplished — one member is a ballerina while another is a classically trained opera singer — so the group was set to make waves on the competitive K-pop scene. “They are taking a daring stance and saying right from the outset that they will stand at the very top,” wrote Source Music. “The group’s name, LE SSERAFIM, is an anagram of the words ‘I’M FEARLESS’ … It is like an incantation to guarantee their success on the merit of their unbreakable poise and strength.” But that poise was challenged just hours after Garam was introduced to the public.

When did the allegations first come to light?

I’m not sure which came first — the allegations of bullying or of drawings of dicks — but I can say that the claims surfaced less than a day after Kim Garam arrived on the scene. Her announcement was revealed in a splashy YouTube video that shares an aesthetic with vague minimalist ads from fashion houses. Apart from Garam’s 2005 birth year, K-pop fans didn’t know much about her at this point beyond the introduction video that proved she was an adept model. Hours after Garam’s reveal as the second member of the sextet, Korean internet forums and Twitter accounts began buzzing with drama about the idol’s middle-school past. One post, shared on the Korean forum The Qoo, purports to show Garam posing with friends in front of a chalkboard covered in drawings of nude figures, ejaculating penises, and a cartoon image of someone being penetrated. While the drawings aren’t Rodin, “SEX” written in all caps at the top of the chalkboard shows the theme of their sketches.

Pannchoa, a website that translates comments from Korean netizens into English, wrote a blog post that translated the comments from that original Qoo post. “She hasn’t debuted yet and we’re close to debut, I think it’s better if they just remove her from the group,” one commenter wrote. Another noted anecdotal evidence that some are calling Garam the “Korean CardiB.” and believed that debuting Le Sserafim under these circumstances hurt the other members. Others attacked Garam’s personality: “Being shameless enough to draw this with chalk over school chalk board is just showing her personality is trash.” Some commenters were more forgiving, finding the situation funny. The original forum on The Qoo has been viewed more than 160,000 times and includes almost 1,300 comments.

So in addition to these horny cartoons, there were bullying allegations?

Various anecdotes, which more or less amounted to hearsay from classmates, set the internet aflame. “She was popular in middle school for being a same-grade school violence assailant,” someone alleged in text messages translated by Pannchoa. (According to the blog, these screenshots were originally posted on a since-deleted Qoo forum but have been widely shared across Korean sites, Twitter, and Facebook.) These same texts accuse Garam of bullying those younger than her through Facebook messages if they didn’t greet her, smoking and drinking, and extorting students. Other blogs, including KBIZoom, similarly translated the screenshots. In one tweet, a user claimed that Garam’s bullying led to the convening of a committee on school violence. Many of these posts claimed that Garam was a famous iljin, which can be loosely translated as “school bully,” and that one of her alleged victims collapsed after hearing that Garam was going to join a girl group.

Source Music and HYBE denied all the allegations and claimed that Garam was a victim of both cyberbullying and school bullying herself. “Contrary to the claims, it was confirmed through a third-party statement that Kim Garam was a victim of school bullying, including malicious rumors and cyberbullying, when she was in middle school,” Source Music wrote in a statement translated by Soompi. “Source Music has taken legal action against the spread of unilateral and distorted allegations and false information related to this case. Therefore, we sincerely ask you to refrain from speculative reporting based on suspicions that are currently being maliciously raised online. Furthermore, the allegations that have been raised contain defamation of character against someone who is still a minor before her debut as a celebrity, and we would like to clearly state that we will take legal action without any settlement or leniency.” (Vulture has reached out to Source Music for comment and will update this piece if and when the company responds.)

After the statement was released on April 5, the internet more or less moved on — with some Twitter users asking people to give Garam the benefit of the doubt. Others weren’t necessarily concerned with the bullying allegations, but they didn’t want their faves in the group (former Iz*One members and beloved idols Chaewon and Sakura) to be slandered.

You’re telling me that Source Music and HYBE debuted the group despite Garam’s online controversies?

After the release of the group’s first EP, Fearless, Le Sserafim immediately enjoyed success both at home and abroad. Both the album and its eponymous lead single appeared on the Korean Gaon, Billboard 200, Billboard Global 200, and Billboard Japan charts. As is standard in K-pop, the group performed their singles (“Fearless” and “Blue Flame”) on a variety of Korean music shows, gave interviews, and had a debut showcase. “It’s difficult to say anything about this at the moment,” Garam told reporters when questioned about the allegations at the group’s first press conference. “I will work hard as a member of Le Sserafim.” The group’s leader, Kim Chaewon, added, “I think the company will have an opportunity to talk about this in more detail later.”

Wait, did the saga take a dark turn?

Le Sserafim’s honeymoon was cut short on May 15 when an anonymous source leaked school records that detail Garam’s alleged bullying. The documents were leaked on the Korean forum Pann and appear to be a notification form by the Hakpok Committee on school bullying, as translated by the blog Daily Naver. A comment upvoted more than 300 times says, “If Kim Garam fans deny this too then.. wow. I’d be curious what type of evidence would be necessary for them to admit ㅋㅋ. Whether she bullied or not, this has reached a point where HYBE needs to open their mouths now. They thought things would die down quietly but that isn’t possible anymore.” That same day, an allegedly authenticated version of the same document came to light in another viral Pann post. Viewed more than 500,000 times, the post reveals the full results of Garam’s bullying investigation in 2018. Garam’s alleged offenses include obscenity and bullying of multiple victims. The document notes that the perpetrators completed four special education courses and psychotherapy. Garam reportedly received a degree-five punishment for her involvement.

Have any victims stepped forward?

A statement released by the law firm Daeryun, which represents a girl named Yoo Eunseo, asserts that the leaked documents are consistent with those submitted by the firm’s client: “The victim (going by the name Yoo Eunseo) was a victim of school violence from Kim Garam and her friends from late April to early May of 2018. She transferred to a new school 1 to 2 weeks after the incidents because she was unable to withstand the continuous group violence.” According to the statement, the girl was distraught after HYBE unveiled Garam’s involvement in the group. Worse, online trolls guessed that she had been behind the first round of bullying claims and began to harass her on social media. The harassment caused her to suffer panic attacks, the statement maintains:

Yoo Eunseo was receiving messages on social media saying she is maliciously slandering Kim Garam or that she is an orc who was just jealous of pretty girls. More comments like, ‘She redid everything on her face, but she’s still ugly,’ ‘She’s slandering because she’s jealous,’ were also received. What was worse, some messages and posts even shared photos of Yoo Eunseo, blurring her out and threatening her with messages like, ‘Thanks for taking care of the blur. If you stalk LE SSERAFIM, you should get your grave ready.’

(Vulture reached out to Daeryun for comment and will update this piece if and when the firm responds.)

Following HYBE’s first response to the allegations in April, Daeryun had sent HYBE details about the abuse committed by Garam, the results of the inquiry into her bullying, and a letter asking HYBE to apologize for its false statement. According to Daeryun, Yoo Eunseo had attempted suicide as a result of the barrage of attacks. It was her parents who asked Daeryun to share the statement to clear their daughter’s name and force the label’s hand.

What did Garam’s label do in response to the victim’s statement?

After these explosive revelations, Source Music and HYBE issued a statement that accused Daeryun of compiling a one-sided argument that makes Garam look bad. Even though the statement doesn’t directly address Garam’s bullying past, it does deny rumors that lit up the internet — including allegations of smoking and drinking, being forced to transfer schools, and using vulgar language.

Source Music and HYBE announced Garam’s indefinite hiatus on May 20. Although Garam wasn’t officially booted from Le Sserafim, Source Music and HYBE decided to place the controversial star on indefinite hiatus. After canceling appearances on May 20, Le Sserafim continued performing as a five-member group.

Is Garam still in Le Sserafim?

On May 24, outlets reported that an “industry representative” had said Source Music and HYBE were in negotiations with Yoo Eunseo in an effort to bring Garam back into the fold. Meanwhile, Korean forums continue to post allegations while Twitter users oscillate between various levels of praise and calls for Garam’s removal.

After nearly two months of silence on the issue, Source Music and HYBE formally announced the termination of Garam’s contract on July 20. “Our company has decided to terminate the exclusive contract with Kim Garam. We extend our sincerest apologies to our fans and to those who have shown love and support to the group,” the statement reads. “Le Sserafim will continue their activities as a five-member group, and we will spare no effort to support the group.”

Did Garam ever speak out?

On August 10, Garam appeared to make her first public comments regarding the bullying allegations. In a statement posted on an Instagram account claiming to be a friend of hers, the ousted singer denied the allegations of bullying, violence, smoking and drinking, and transferring schools. “First, I want to say I am sorry. This is very late, but I didn’t have the chance to speak my position,” she apparently wrote. “Because I put much effort to achieve my dream, it is true that I was afraid that the dream that I ran toward would break to pieces because of my past actions. However, I was more afraid of the criticisms that increased as the days passed.”

Garam also provided context to the leaked Autonomous Committee for Countermeasures Against School Violence documents, saying that she was actually protecting a friend from Yoo Eunseo after Yoo “uploaded photos of my friend wearing only underwear and talking behind her back.” The Instagram account also uploaded additional documents, which appear to back up Garam’s claim that she cursed and threatened Yoo in response to the uploaded photos, both in front of an elementary school and over social media. “I will try to work hard to become a better person,” the statement read.

HYBE immediately responded to the statement made on Instagram. “As we have terminated the exclusive contract with Kim Garam, we have nothing to say because additional comments are not appropriate,” the label told Korea’s X Sports News, in an indication that Garam will not be returning to Le Sserafim anytime soon.

This post has been updated.

HYBE’s Next Big K-Pop Group Debuted With Drama