South Korean actor found dead in latest K-pop tragedy

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean actor Cha In-ha was found dead in his home, police said on Wednesday, the country’s third young celebrity to die over the past two months as concern mounted over the intense social pressures that artists face.

In an unrelated case, K-pop star Kang Daniel’s management agency Konnect Entertainment said the former member of the hit boy band Wanna One was taking a break from his performing schedules due to “depression and panic attacks.”

The agency said the 22-year-old had recently been showing “frequent signs of worsening health and anxiety.”

While South Korea’s pop culture mostly projects a wholesome image on stage and screen, it has been marred by a series of untimely deaths and criminal cases that have revealed a darker side of the industry.

A police official said Cha, 27, was found dead on Tuesday and the cause of death was not immediately known.

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Cha, whose real name is Lee Jae-ho, made his film debut in 2017 and was previously a member of the five-member boy band Surprise U, which released two albums.

The singer-actor had left an Instagram post the day before he was found dead, with a single-line message to his fans: “Everyone be careful not to catch the cold.”

There were no reports to suggest he had been subjected to the kind of personal attacks and cyber bullying that other K-pop artists have received.

His talent agency Fantagio in a statement expressed “the deepest mourning for his passing” and asked the public and the media to refrain from spreading stories about his death.

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Organisers kept a tight grip on Wednesday on artists’ comments and media questions at the Mnet Asian Music Awards in Nagoya, Japan, where K-pop’s biggest names, from global boy band BTS to girls group Twice, performed. Queries about sensitive issues, including K-pop deaths, were off limits.

BTS – which dominated the awards by winning artist, song, album and world icon of the year – did not make itself available to media on the red carpet or at a post-show news briefing.

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Cha’s death comes after popular K-pop singer Koo Hara, 28, was found dead at her home last month. She had been subjected to personal attacks on social media.

In October, another K-pop star, Sulli, a former member of girl group f(x), apparently committed suicide. Sulli, 25, had spoken out against cyber bullying.

The cases have cast a cloud over the K-pop craze, one of South Korea’s most successful soft power exports, and focused attention on personal attacks and cyber bullying of young stars that goes largely unpunished.

Lee Maria, 52, an office worker, said it was heartbreaking to see talented young artists making “tragic choices.”

Kim Dae-han, a Seoul resident who said he was the same age as Cha, said his view of the celebrities had changed: “I think they might be in pain even though their life looks very fancy.”

The industry has also been hit by a series of sex scandals. Last week, two male former K-pop band members were convicted of sexual assaults and sentenced to prison terms.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha; additional reporting by Youngseo Choi and Chris Gallagher; Editing by Jack Kim, Sam Holmes, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Bernadette Baum