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South Korea is reckoning with the death of beloved 'Parasite' actor Lee Sun-kyun


Before 2019, most Americans had never heard of Lee Sun-kyun. He was already a beloved movie and TV star in South Korea, but his turn as the clueless head of the wealthy Park family in the movie "Parasite," the first foreign film to ever win a best picture Oscar, also brought him international fame, and that level of fame came with intense scrutiny and pressure in his native South Korea. A recent scandal involving alleged drug use and blackmail may have proven to be too much for the actor. He was discovered in his car late last month, dead from an apparent suicide. Could his death force South Koreans to rethink the expectations for the stars they love? And we should warn you, this conversation will include more mentions of self-harm. We're joined now by syndicated columnist Jae-Ha Kim. Welcome to the program.

JAE-HA KIM: Thank you for having me again, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Before we get into the scandal, who would be, like, a fair comparison in Hollywood? Was he, like, a Keanu Reeves, a Denzel Washington? Like, how big a star was he?

KIM: He was a huge star. Although he's done action movies and action series, he's a thinking man's actor. So I'm thinking of somebody like Denzel, who can do both. If you went to Korea and were talking about, like, well-respected actors, his name would definitely have come up. He was a treasure.

RASCOE: You know, I mean, stars everywhere have to maintain a certain kind of image. And certainly, they can get caught up in - you know, get bad press if they make a misstep. But, like, can you give us a sense of how much extra pressure there is to maintain a certain image in South Korea? Do you feel like it's different?

KIM: In South Korea, especially with celebrities, they expect more in terms of presenting a wholesome image. That's why they don't talk often about girlfriends or boyfriends. Although drinking is allowed, if you have a DUI, that's going to be a huge issue to your career. It could be a career-ender. Scandals, like, even from your school days, like, middle school or high school, where you were a school bully - that's going to come back to bite you.

RASCOE: Oh. And so can you tell us briefly about the scandal that preceded Lee's suicide?

KIM: Yes. And these are all alleged because he was tested for marijuana and drugs, and he tested negative each time that the police tested him. But there was a bar hostess at a high-end club in Seoul, and she had basically accused this actor of taking marijuana and ketamine.

So after this came out, somehow this information came out then that, oh, he may or may not have been having an affair with this bar hostess because audio of them was leaked out to the press. It's like they were punishing him for perhaps having had an affair which there's no proof of, and that's not a crime.

But it's almost like the media and the police were trying to pin something on him because they couldn't get the drug charges to stick, so they wanted to get him for something else. So the last time that the police interrogated him, it was for 19 hours, and it ended on Christmas Eve.

RASCOE: And so what has been the response in South Korea since Lee's death?

KIM: The general public is, like, heartbroken over this, and they want changes to be made. They brought him in for three interrogations. I mean, it's really ridiculous. And this is a man who leaves behind a wife and two young children. The boys are 12 and 14, and they had to, you know, attend their father's funeral. You know, for them, this is never going to go away. It lives on forever in the internet.

RASCOE: I understand that Lee left a letter that was, I guess, given to the police, and it was leaked somehow.

KIM: It was released. I don't know if - whether it was authentic or not, but it basically said a few things like - he was apologizing to his family and to his colleagues and his management company. And supposedly, he wrote in there that this was the only end that he could think of, that it was the only option for him.

RASCOE: And has there been talk about what changes could be made, whether it's on a personal level or a society level, to address this pressure?

KIM: In the U.S., going to therapy - it's, like, how many people do we know who go to therapy, and it's no big deal? But in South Korea, it's not really encouraged. Koreans are being more open about it, but it's still not something that Koreans or even Asian Americans are big on addressing. It's almost, like, seen as a sign of weakness. And I'm not just talking about, you know, what's going on in Korea. I'm talking about how, you know, my family and my friends' families were raised in the U.S. You know, it's a sign of weakness. You have to be strong.

RASCOE: That's columnist Jae-ha Kim. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KIM: Thank you so much, Ayesha, and thank you for addressing this very important issue.


RASCOE: And for anyone experiencing thoughts of self-harm, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number is 988.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.