A Deeper Dive Into K-pop: The Problems of Minors Debuting

The debuting of younger teenagers is becoming normalized in the K-pop industry, but let’s uncover what this really means.


theMEGASTUDY, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Here, all of the members of NewJeans pose for a group photograph. From Left to Right are Minji, Haerin, Hanni, Danielle, and Hyein.

Brilliant light flashes on you. Cameras follow and catch every single one of your movements and facial expressions. Zoom in. Zoom out. The screen projects your face for everyone as they call out your name. All you hear is cheering, yelling, and clapping as you dance and sing the night away. The whole world seems to be under your control. This is the life of a successful Korean popular music idol. Have you ever dreamed about becoming one?

What is K-pop?

Korean popular music, or K-pop, is a genre that originated in South Korea with a combination of other styles of music from around the world: pop, jazz, hip hop, and more. “Korean idol culture” started in the 1990s and refers to the gradual increase in the number of individuals who have the passion to train and debut as members of a group or solo. Being a K-pop idol is a dream career for so many, but the chances of debuting are low. 

The youth and energy expressed by these idols drew many new fans and followers. Their upbeat melodies, lively choreographies, intricate music videos, eye-catching performers, and targeted marketing all added to their growing popularity, not only in Korea, but worldwide. 

Influence of K-pop

It was the famous “Gangnam Style” or “horse dance” by rapper Psy that introduced Korean pop culture to the West and began the slower process of bringing K-pop into the American mainstream. Korean entertainment industries took advantage of this craze, using it to monetize Korean pop culture in the international market. This resulted in increased debuts of groups and soloists. With the help of social media platforms, K-pop became more prominent to the world, and began to headline sold out world tours.

In South Korea, the influence of K-pop can be seen everywhere, especially in the younger generation. They know the lyrics and choreography to popular songs by heart. And many want to take this further and pursue a career as a K-pop star. The “big four” entertainment agencies SM, HYBE, YG, and JYP are selecting trainees at younger ages and from all over the world to increase popularity and profits. Even underaged teenagers are being debuted in South Korea, becoming part of a marketing technique and trend. Debuting young means that they will remain in the industry for a longer time, possibly turning from an idol group to singers, actors, soloists, and more. Companies want to make the most out of every idol, so starting young maximizes profits. As they age, companies start searching for young trainees again due to the belief that everyone loves watching young, energetic, and innocent individuals perform.


Since their debut in August 2022, the K-pop girl group, NewJeans, has risen to international fame. Their songs and dances have gone viral on social media, spurring deeper interests into individual members. Their group is branded to display a youthful and fresh image. The members include Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin, and Hyein. Every energetic member has their specialties, attracting fans from different countries, genders, and ages. To get a taste of their popularity, their album “OMG,” consisting of songs “OMG” and “Ditto” together, stayed on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart for 10 weeks. This record is impressive for foreign artists, especially a new group, because they needed to sell and obtain millions of thousands of streams. They became the first 4th generation kpop group to accomplish this achievement.

Their success brought more attention to one recurring problem in the K-pop industry: age. The youngest member, Hyein, was born on April 21, 2008, and is now only 14 years old. The oldest member, Minji, born on May 7, 2004, is now only 18 years old, keeping in mind that in Korea, legal adulthood starts at 19 years old. It is a fascinating, yet scary fact that high school students are releasing their songs, acquiring millions of likes around the world, performing on stages, and making millions of dollars.

Minors Debuting

Though it is alarming to see a 14-year-old on stage performing and becoming the brand ambassador of the famous luxury brand, Louis Vuitton, this is nothing new. Ever since the first generation of K-pop idols and groups, members were already debuting at such young ages, but this happened far less often. One of the few instances is solo singer BoA, who made her debut in August 2000, when she was only 13 years old.

Now, the industry is in its fourth generation, this has become a trend – idols at the age of 14 and 15 debut very frequently. The debut of Wonyoung caused a big stir. She was only 13 years old when she competed in the survival show “Produce 48” for a spot in the girl group IZ*ONE. Survival shows are competitions where a pool of trainees demonstrate their skills, going through various rounds of elimination to secure a spot in the final debuting group. Wonyoung went through those stages and debuted at the age of 14. IZ*ONE later disbanded as Wonyoung joined the girl group, IVE, where she met Leeso, the vocalist of the group, who was only 14 years old.

However, there are many controversies around becoming a public figure at such a young age. Even senior and more experienced K-pop idols commented on debuting minors. HyunA, who debuted at the age of 15 and reached her 16th year working in the K-pop industry this year, raised concerns about the well-being of NewJeans and gave them advice on how to care for themselves. Jaemin, from NCT Dream, debuted when he was 15 years old too and had to drop out of his first year of middle school to pursue this path of becoming an idol. 

Debuting as minors have left out many necessary life experiences for these young idols. Angela Jiang ’24, a K-pop dancer and the president of the Bronx Science Lunar Production Club, agrees. “I think the minimum age should be 20 because the trainees can get a taste of college experience and real education before deciding that debuting is what they want for the rest of their lives,” Jiang said. 

Being a Trainee

Under the bright and admirable packaging of K-pop idols, it is not as easy to become top idols as we see on social media or as described in the beginning. Trainees sign restrictive contracts with their company or management agencies, usually at the young age of 12 or 13. These agencies control their singing and dancing lessons, living places, love lives, diets, and essentially all aspects of their life. 

Trainees are controlled and worked as robots to meet the expectations of the companies. Many trainees could not handle this process and developed mental health issues, under pressure of complying to strict beauty standards. Many are advised to undergo plastic surgery and to take lessons. Under most contracts, the debuted members also have to pay back the money the agencies spent during their trainee years, causing them to not earn any profits until the debt is paid. This means that the idols do not get any share of their profits until years later. In 2022, Yeojin, a member of the 12- member girls group Loona, revealed to her fans on the app, FAB, that she has not earned any profits since their debut in 2016. However, if the trainee does not debut, the training fee is waived — but years of playful youth are lost.

The training process is extensive and harsh, where idols improve dance, facial-management, vocals, instruments, language, and more, in an enclosed environment. The process usually lasts around 2-4 years. This intensifies the age crisis. Idols are starting their careers at younger ages than their already early debuts. In the end, top entertainment companies train a certain number of trainees but only debut around 10% of the trainees.

Gaining Fame

Many trainees hold dreams of becoming famous idols like Blackpink or BTS, and there is a benefit of becoming star idols earlier in their career. According to Jiang, “I think the benefit is that they get to start earning money at a young age and possibly achieve financial independence very early on in life. Their fame will follow throughout their life, therefore, if they don’t mess up their reputation, they’re set for life.” Fame can benefit, but can also hurt.

According to Psychology professor Lim Myung Ho from Dankook University, trainees “may also be greatly affected by hate comments, then become unable to cope and spiral into self-destructive behavior, which we’ve seen many celebrities do.”  Minors are still developing their identities and morals, and learning that there are large groups of people who dislike them enough to publicly express their dislike, is very hard to cope with. And the opposite is true as well. If trainees gain lots of positive reinforcement, it may warp their sense of self and cause them to become more susceptible to any amount of dislike. They are at a fragile and developing age and should not be facing these attacks and pressures. 

However, companies continue to disregard the harm of premature debuts because of monetary incentives. Instead they should prioritize the mental health, privacy, and safety of minors. K-pop idols should not be debuting at a young age. And even when little change can be done to prevent this, they still should not be treated as money-making tools made to be used by companies.

According to Angela Jiang ’24, a K-pop dancer and the president of the Bronx Science Lunar Production Club, “I think the benefit is that they get to start earning money at a young age and possibly achieve financial independence very early on in life. Their fame will follow throughout their life, therefore, if they don’t mess up their reputation, they’re set for life.”