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With artists leaving at their peak of fame, is SM worthy of the BIG 3 title?

Behind the success of SM – one of the largest companies in the Korean entertainment industry – are many controversial contract terminations.

As one of the leading companies in the Korean entertainment industry, SM Entertainment has always been the dream of those who aspire to be a celebrity.  Trainees trained by SM are considered to be at a higher level than other trainees.  The artists who debuted in SM are always called “golden spoon kids”.

However, is SM the “dream place” as people think?  Is it really that great when there are a series of artists who, after a long time of hard practice, were fortunate to debut and are almost taking their first steps on the path of peach blossom, suddenly chose to leave because of the same reason: being overly taken advantage by the management company.  Behind the aura of a big company, does SM still have the inevitable dark sides of the entertainment world?

1. Hangeng (Super Junior)

In 2005, Hangeng was first known to the public as a member of the top Kpop group – Super Junior.  He can be considered as one of the first non-Korean stars to debut in Korea.

In December 2009, Super Junior achieved great success with Sorry Sorry. Thought this would be a great opportunity for the group in general and the members in particular to rise to fame, but in 2009 – after the group’s third album promotion – Hangeng shocked fans and Super Junior members when he unexpectedly filed a lawsuit against SM and decided to leave.

Hangeng debuted as a member of Super Junior in 2005
Hangeng debuted as a member of Super Junior in 2005
Hangeng caused a shock when he suddenly filed a lawsuit against SM and decided to leave the group at a time when Super Junior was gradually gaining fame thanks to Sorry Sorry.
Hangeng caused a shock when he suddenly filed a lawsuit against SM and decided to leave the group at a time when Super Junior was gradually gaining fame thanks to Sorry Sorry.

Hangeng provided real evidence as to why he abruptly left the group at the time. According to his lawyer, the contract between SM and this male singer is unfair because Hangeng‘s profit share is much lower. The contract also includes a clause that requires him to be bound to the company for up to 13 years, which is completely unreasonable.

The company also often forced him to do things outside the contract and if he did not comply, he would be fired.  Hangeng‘s lawyer added that because of overwork, Hangeng at that time had gastritis and kidney disease.

The main reason why Hangeng left the group was because of the injustices that SM gave him
The main reason why Hangeng left the group was because of the injustices that SM gave him

In addition, during that time, due to visa restrictions and related issues, Hangeng was also able to perform all the shows in Korea.  He also many times had to wear a mask and sing and dance as the “background” for other members.

To the information given by the lawyer at the time of filing the lawsuit, despite being extremely disappointed, fans still supported Hangeng‘s decision to leave.  By September 2011, he had reached an agreement to terminate his contract with SM Entertainment, but in fact he had left the group and returned to China a long time before that.

In September 2011, Hangeng reached an agreement to terminate his contract with SM Entertainment
In September 2011, Hangeng reached an agreement to terminate his contract with SM Entertainment

Hangeng‘s most recent appearance was in early 2021 on a Chinese TV show.  After a long time, Hangeng had the most honest sharing about his time as a Kpop idol under SM.

According to Hangeng, he gave up his idol career because of the difficulty coming from the company’s tight control.  Former Super Junior member said: “I used to be a handsome, good dancer and had a lot of fans. But that’s in the past. The company controlled everything about me, how I looked or what I represented. I couldn’t do what I wanted.  Idols are asked to put the company and the group above themselves.”

Hangeng's first sharing about being an SM artist
Hangeng’s first sharing about being an SM artist 
He gave up his career as a K-pop idol because of the company's tight control
He gave up his career as a K-pop idol because of the company’s tight control

The decision to leave when he felt that he had not been given enough opportunities to show his talent was not difficult to explain.  And no matter what, now Hangeng is living a comfortable life in his hometown with his own career after the “war” with SM Entertainment.

2. JYJ (DBSK)

In 2009, three members of DBSK, Jaejoong, Junsu and Yoochun (now known as the group JYJ), caused a stir in public opinion after they filed a lawsuit against their management company SM Entertainment.

At that time, DBSK was one of the biggest names in the Kpop music industry. The five idols nicknamed “Gods of The East” were at the peak of their fame and had a huge fan base. The three members’ decision to leave the group at that time was considered a huge shock for their fans.

DBSK was a top group in the Kpop music industry at that time
DBSK was a top group in the Kpop music industry at that time
DBSK’s Jaejoong, Junsu and Yoochun (currently JYJ) caused a stir when they filed a lawsuit against SM
DBSK’s Jaejoong, Junsu and Yoochun (currently JYJ) caused a stir when they filed a lawsuit against SM 

The reason given by the trio was that they had suffered an unfair slave contract with the company. The contract with a term of 13 years was too long. At the same time, the members also thought that the division of profits between them and the company and many other unfair and oppressive terms was unreasonable.

The reason given by the trio was that they had suffered an unfair slave contract with the company.
The reason given by the trio was that they had suffered an unfair slave contract with the company. 
JYJ eventually created their own group
JYJ eventually created their own group

The lawsuit ended with Jaejoong, Junsu and Yoochun leaving the company, forming the group JYJ and signing with C-Jes Entertainment.

3. Kris, Luhan, Tao (EXO)

EXO is one of the groups with the most controversial cases of members leaving in KPOP. In 2013, EXO began to gain certain achievements and secured a place on the Kpop map with the hit “Growl.” While they were on the way to success and preparing for the first solo concert in the group’s career, an incident that shocked the whole fandom happened: a member decided to leave the group.

EXO with the most controversial cases of leaving members in Kpop
EXO with the most controversial cases of leaving members in Kpop

In 2014, Kris and Luhan both sued SM Entertainment, accusing the company of mistreating them and considering them both as “machines” rather than people. Kris filed a lawsuit against SM Entertainment with the desire to terminate his contract and accused SM of disregarding his health, unfair profit sharing, and human rights violations. It is reported that the lawyer defending Kris is also the person who represented Hangeng before.

5 months later on October 10, 2014, Luhan sued SM for the purpose of voiding his contract and bringing up health problems, accusing the company of discriminating against him compared to the Korean members.  

Kris and Luhan both accused the company of treating them badly and seeing them both as "machines" rather than people
Kris and Luhan both accused the company of treating them badly and seeing them both as “machines” rather than people

The legal dispute between SM and Luhan and Kris has finally ended after a long period of litigation. As the result of the lawsuit, SM won for the most parts. Kris and Luhan‘s contracts will still be valid until the end of 2022, which means that both will still have to share their profits with the company even though they are no longer promoting as SM artists.  .

The lawsuit ends with the beneficial party belonging to SM
The lawsuit ends with the beneficial party belonging to SM

Not stopping there, in 2015, EXO continued to face a challenge when Tao was the third member to file a lawsuit. Like the previous two fellow members, Tao cited his lack of freedom and unfair contract terms.

On April 22, 2015, Tao‘s father posted a letter on social media expressing his concern for his son and talking about Tao‘s decision to withdraw from the group. The letter specifically talks about how Tao was injured but did not receive proper treatment. In 2016, SM won the lawsuit against Tao as the former member did not pay the company after he left.

In 2015, EXO once again faced a challenge when Tao was the 3rd member to file a lawsuit against SM
In 2015, EXO once again faced a challenge when Tao was the 3rd member to file a lawsuit against SM
EXO has had three foreign members leave the group continuously during the time the group was at its rise
EXO has had three foreign members leave the group continuously during the time the group was at its rise

It can be seen that the common point that the Chinese members including Kris, Luhan and Tao gave is that they received a lower income than their Korean colleagues. In addition, Chinese members were also treated poorly and had fewer opportunities for promotion.

Kris, Luhan and Tao are actively promoting in their home country

 Conclusion 

The common point of all three cases of idols leaving their groups is that the groups are all in the heyday of their careers. Despite being in such a position, the artists at that time chose to leave, which raised a big question for the management of SM Entertainment.

The dark behind-the-scenes behind the spotlight are always something we can’t understand.  Although SM is always the one who has the advantage after lawsuits by proving that their contract is not a “slave” contract as many people think, the speculations of the unfair contracts are still there. Right now, what fans want most from SM is more reasonable treatment for their artists to prove that it is worthy of the Big3 title.

SM needs to take care of their artists to be worthy of the Big3 title
SM needs to take care of their artists to be worthy of the Big3 title
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