Generally speaking, I loathe to follow-up on cases like the death of actor Lee Sun Gyun, if for no other reason than being terrified of contributing to a Werther effect*. However, some information that has emerged afterward seems relevant, and it’s not focused so much on him as it is on the role of the police and media in all this.
*Not that anybody else seems to give a shit about following even the most basic of guidelines.
The most prominent critique of how things unfolded, one that provides a convenient starting point, was released by Dispatch. They essentially connect the dots between police continually leaking details of Lee Sun Gyun’s case to the media, and the media subsequently repeating it to the public with seemingly minimal oversight.
Initial media outlet reports surrounding this case went live on October 19, 2023, only a day after the police had finished writing up a report of the investigation from the inside. On this day, the Gyeonggi Shinmun published an exclusive report with the headline, “Top star ‘L’ internally investigated for illegal drugs.”
Dispatch: Lee Sun Gyun became the sacrificial lamb for both ‘Kim’, who needed to “sell someone out” in order to obtain leniency, and the Incheon police, who needed to “perform” for the higher-ups.
Basically, the police were motivated to put on a show for their superiors and thus were eager to leak the story to the press. In that vein, it was even found that news of Lee Sun Gyun’s death had been posted to online forums before reports were revealed.
Additionally, while the police had their drug bust secured through the others involved in this, what they really seemed to want more than anything was getting the two high-profile celebrities linked to it (Lee Sun Gyun & G-Dragon).
Meanwhile, on November 24 KST, Lee Sun Gyun’s second hair follicle tests returned negative. Netizens heavily rebuked the police for forcing multiple drug tests on both Lee Sun Gyun and G-Dragon without “reliable evidence”. Later that evening, KBS News obtained an exclusive recording of a phone call between Lee Sun Gyun and ‘Kim’, diverting attention from the negative drug test results.
This was another leak by police, and one that was malicious in intent, as it had no relevance to the drug case and was done seemingly only to save face. No need to take my word for it either, as MBC announcer Lee Sun Young spoke out against KBS‘s coverage as well.
Announcer Lee Sun Young criticized, “The conversation in the call with the person identified as the manager of an entertainment establishment should have remained private. While it’s possible to criticize the actions of the deceased, I don’t know what journalistic value there was in that report, except ruining someone’s life.”
She continued, “That report is just a ‘knife’ wielded not just at the late Lee Sun Gyun but it stabbed innocent people, his wife and children. It is a lasting scar that would be difficult to heal in this digital era when everything is preserved on the internet.”
Worth noting that KBS has editorial independence (in theory), but they are owned by the Korean government and their CEO is appointed by the President (more on that relevance later).
Meanwhile, there was also another police leak to seemingly cover up other information from Lee Sun Gyun’s interrogation, but there was another factor in it that bothered me more.
A month later on December 26 KST, JTBC issued the following line in an update to the Lee Sun Gyun case, citing a statement obtained from the police:
“Lee Sun Gyun claimed that he administered a substance by sniffing it with a straw, but he was led to believe that it was sleep medication.”
The information had been passed on to news outlets around the exact time frame that Lee Sun Gyun asked to have a lie detector test, in order to verify the information given by ‘Kim’.
As I mentioned in the article about his passing, this was when Lee Sun Gyun was subjected to a 19-hour police interrogation that police claim was consented to (or it’d be illegal). Regardless, even if he did confess using drugs* during this, the length of the interrogation should immediately make you question anything he said.
*This still wouldn’t be enough to convict him, as they’d have to prove he did so knowingly.
Another point that needs to be made with regards to the drug case is that Lee Sun Gyun paying the blackmail doesn’t confirm the drug use either. Rather, it seemed to revolve around his relationship with the hostess bar manager.
Kim created a plan to deceive Lee Sun-kyun with an acquaintance. She texted Lee Sun-kyun and mentioned Jung Da-eun as the hacker who hacked her phone and threatened to reveal the relationship between her and the actor. Dispatch asked Jung Da-eun about it and discovered that Jung Da-eun was already arrested by the police and his phone was also confiscated by the time Kim made up the threatening story. On September 22nd, Kim successfully deceived Lee Sun-kyun into giving her 300 million won with that story. On October 13th, she threatened him again. This time, she asked for 50 million won.
Kim has six drug convictions and all she could do was try to “make achievements” by revealing some big names, like Lee Sun-kyun and G-Dragon. The police conducted an investigation based on Kim’s statement but they should have verified it first.
Provided that information, it seems likely that he paid to help his mistress and/or conceal his extramarital relationship with her. While that certainly doesn’t make him a great person, and there’s no issue with wanting to hold him accountable for all that, it also means police probably knew the hostess bar manager had credibility problems at that point. At the very least, it means the validity of the claim should’ve been looked into before police blasted the names of Lee Sun Gyun and G-Dragon out to anybody who would listen. Months later, police ended up admitting that the hostess bar manager’s testimony lacked credibility and refused to investigate other celebrities she tried to name instead.
Anyway, Dispatch then conclude things by essentially laying out what my follow-up point on the case was going to be: the willingness to make this into a circus by the police and press conveniently seemed to serve political agendas more than doing anything for the public good.
While ‘Kim’ had searched for ways to “sell someone out”, the Incheon police also had concerns of their own. In order to report proof of “performance” to the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, currently supporting a nationwide campaign known as the “War against Drugs”, the Incheon police were eager to “collude” with the press to divert national attention to a progressing, high profile illegal drug case. Particularly, when Lee Sun Gyun’s drug tests repeatedly returned “negative”, the Incheon police resorted to leaking details about Lee Sun Gyun’s private life to the media in an attempt to “save face”.
‘Dispatch’: “Can the police continue to remain innocent in Lee Sun Gyun’s death?”
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has vowed a crackdown on drugs. This year, the country’s authorities expanded its drug crimes department and the national police chief promised “a total war” on drug crimes.
The desire of the police to make a public show of things, and then the desperation to try and save face when it backfired helps the events make even more sense within that context.
Also, it’s notable that Dispatch puts the blame for this almost entirely on the police leaking information and doesn’t question the media serving as their lapdog while gleefully profiting off this story, which basically is what led the public to vilify him. Of course.
Meanwhile, the police response to Lee Sun Gyun’s death and the backlash has generally been to deny … well, everything.
“The investigation into Lee was conducted following legal procedures based on specific statements and evidence. We carried out the recent questioning to thoroughly investigate Lee’s statement with his lawyer present. We have never asked the actor for public attendance to questioning sessions nor have we leaked information about the investigation,” said Kim Hee-joong, commissioner of the Incheon Metropolitan Police Agency.
I’ve already addressed the legality/morality of the interrogation, but they apparently also expect us to believe the timing of things reaching the press is coincidental, despite this not being common practice.
“It is not common to see the names of those under investigation revealed at such an early stage. When information in an investigation is exposed, the case will inevitably face difficulties getting resolved as the investigation’s strategy will also be exposed,” said a police official with experience in investigating drug abuse cases involving celebrities.
They also expect people to believe that they didn’t want him to face the public, but that’s not what others are saying now.
Ahead of the latest questioning Saturday, Lee had officially requested through his lawyer that his appearance not be open to the press, but police rejected the request, according to police officials and legal sources.
The press affairs guidelines of police prohibit the exposure of individuals under investigation to photographing or filming during both the investigative process and their appearance for questioning. But the rule has often been breached.
During all three rounds of Lee’s police appearances, including the first on Oct. 28, Lee stood on the press photo line, drawing intense media coverage.
It’s hard to understand seeing the whole celebrity aspect of this case as anything but primarily a failure on the part of police and media. Aside from the fact that neither public figure was ever charged, the alleged crimes of the accused and their guilt or innocence isn’t even the main point, it’s the process and motivations that led police and media to where we are now that’s the issue. And it’s perhaps even more worrisome that the government seem to be defending it after that fact, as those hoping that this might at least bring change might not be getting their wish either.