What A-List Actress's Woes Say About Korean Family

What A-List Actress's Woes Say About Korean Family

The ideal of unlimited sacrifice for family was once the norm in South Korea. Signs of change are afoot.

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

A woman is said to have borrowed 85 million won (69,000 USD) from an acquaintance. To receive the money, she used her daughter's bank account, which she had opened when the daughter was still underage.

This wasn't the first time. The mother took out several loans before in the daughter's name and never paid them back. The daughter, now in her twenties and working, used to cover for her, but not any more. She says that from now on she will leave her mother to deal with the problem alone.

This is the story of actress Han So-hee, who became a household name two years ago after appearing in the Korean drama The World of the Married (부부의 세계), based on the BBC production Doctor Foster. Her mother's most recent failure to repay a loan prompted the creditor to file a criminal complaint, not just against Han's mother but Han as well based on her name on the account to which the money was transferred.

Scenes featuring Han So-hee in the JTBC drama The World of the Married

Through her management agency, Han said on Mar. 7, "A mother and daughter cannot break the bond created by heaven"; but while she is "sorry to those who suffered despite her intentions, she will respond with strength so that such a situation doesn't repeat itself." It means she will not pay off the creditor just to make the case go away. She hopes that her mother will stop taking advantage of her and and cheating people.

In a society that long labored under the expectation that a family bond must be preserved at all cost and members should do everything to rescue one another, Han is making a point: blood is thick, but not thick enough to compensate for all faults. And she is winning plaudits for it.

Han is only the latest South Korean celebrity to court gossip because of family, or family's handling of money, to be precise. Since late 2018 myriad Korean actors and singers have come under fire for allegedly turning a blind eye on family—especially parents—borrowing money without repaying it, in a phenomenon dubbed bittu 빚투 (debt, too).

It's a pun on the well-known MeToo movement, with victims saying that they, too, wait for money they lent to be paid back. And they often put pressure by publicly shaming the debtors' famous sons and daughters.

Its best-known case focused on rapper Microdot, a.k.a. Shin Jae-ho, and his brother Jae-min, also a musician. Their professional activities in South Korea (the duo grew up in New Zealand) had the unintended effect of putting the spotlight on their parents, who ran a farm in the Korean countryside in the 1990s. They had borrowed money from neighbors and family before fleeing to New Zealand in 1998; the amount reportedly reached around two million US dollars.

The Shin family saga stoked widespread outrage (the scale of fraud was seen to be extraordinary, involving some dozen victims; and Microdot initially threatened a defamation suit against those raising the accusation). But many other stories since then have revealed that often celebrities themselves are also victims: parents don't repay money they owe, creditors air grievances in the media, and children—not infrequently estranged from the parents—get dragged into the mess and feel they have no choice but to settle the dispute amicably in order to protect their reputations and careers.

(Actress Cho Yeo-jeong from the Oscar-winning 2019 film Parasite had to apologize in 2018 for her debt-ridden father that she hadn't seen since her parents' divorce; he reportedly borrowed some quarter-million dollars 16 years ago from a friend and disappeared.)

The revelation about the criminal complaint against Han surfaced early this month after a YouTuber dug up the details, but the whole story has its beginning in 2020 when a separate accusation against her mother was leveled by a disgruntled creditor on a popular discussion forum, Nate Pann.

On that post, since deleted (but available as a screen-capture), the anonymous accuser wrote, "I want to let everyone know that the mother of an actor whose star is rising after The World of the Married is a swindler." The author claimed that Han's mother owed money since 2016, and was "angry and distressed every time I see that celebrity on TV. She is so successful now, so all I can think about is why she isn't helping me get my money back."

The post went viral, prompting Han to respond in a now-deleted post on her blog.

"My parents divorced when I was around five, and my grandmother raised me."

"I didn't communicate regularly with my mother, so I only learned of her debt after I turned twenty. She is the daughter of my grandmother who raised me, and I am still her child, so I was repaying the loans to the best of my abilities before my debut [as an actress]."

But she regretted having done so when she was "young and immature" because that "mistake led to more victims"—meaning her mother continued the scam even after that.

Han has often alluded to her grandmother, calling her "my everything" on social media, and even after being linked to her mother's financial woes for the second time, some leapt to defend Han by saying "her grandmother is her real mother" and therefore she doesn't owe her mother a favor. Han has been "showered in encouragement" by Netizens, said one outlet, "for her family history".

Han once posted on Instagram that her grandmother was "my everything"

That sad family history has protected her, but even while publicly distancing herself from the controversy, Han doesn't come out and renounce her problematic parent; she emphasizes that the family bond (or "bond created by heaven"—cheollyun 천륜—as she calls it using a very old term) to her mother still stands.

It's a sign that she can stop supporting a difficult parent, but the notion of family as one is still hard to disregard, given that children have long been told to be dutiful toward parents, no matter how many shortcomings elders have.

In the early years of his marriage, my father was routinely dispatching money to his parents in the countryside; my grandfather was borrowing money or guaranteeing other people's loans to his own detriment, and it fell on my father—the eldest son and the only child with a steady income at that time—to cough up the dough as needed. Such examples abound in many South Korean families.

Children't aren't legally responsible to step in when parents mismanage finance, but social opprobrium in the case of refusal can take a toll, more so if a person lives their life in the public eye.

"If parents cause a major financial problem, for example by having their debt being exposed publicly, the damage to the celebrity in question is severe," opined the magazine Weekly Donga in a 2020 article when Han's troubles first became known.

Still, the situation shows signs of changing. The top comment on that Weekly Donga piece went, "Not all family are family. Sometimes family are worse than strangers." And the very way family is understood in South Korea isn't remaining constant, either.

"Conflicts within families are leading to their breakdown," warned a study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs already back in 2015, citing lack of communication between generations and what it called "expanding individualism".

And of course, the share of single-member households is ever-growing in recent years, now at 40 percent of society. Some 77 percent of respondents in one survey last year said they were happy that the Covid pandemic gave them an excuse to avoid seeing family on major holidays.

Against this backdrop, Han So-hee's response to the news of her mother's continuing troublemaking appeals to emerging common sense: when relationships, even in family, prove to be a source of consternation and no benefit, one has the right to keep them at bay.

Cover: actress Han So-hee in the 2020 drama The World of the Married

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