December 4th, 2023
The rise of K-pop has been truly meteoric, transcending borders, language and culture. However, as the genre has exploded around the world, the demands of fame, relentless travel and performance schedules and the pursuit of unattainable perfection have taken a toll on many K-pop idols. Unfortunately, some have turned to substances to help them cope with the unforgiving demands, with one substance, Propofol, causing huge alarm within the industry.
But what exactly is propofol? And why has it become the drug of choice for many K-pop idols?
This article will take a close look at Propofol’s rise within the K-pop industry, exploring its causes, consequences and the efforts being made to combat this silent menace.
What is Propofol?
Propofol, scientifically known as 2,6-diisopropylphenol, is a powerful intravenous sedative-hypnotic agent. In medicine, it is a useful surgical aid which is used to induce and maintain general anaesthesia during surgical procedures and medical interventions.
How does Propofol work?
On a biological level, Propofol works by enhancing the activity of a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it dampens the activity of other neurotransmitters, leading to relaxation and sedation. By increasing the inhibitory action of GABA, Propofol triggers a profound and rapid suppression of brain activity which produces the sedative and hypnotic effects. This ultimately induces a state of unconsciousness or deep sedation, depending on the dosage administered.
The medical benefits of Propofol
One of the notable characteristics of Propofol is its rapid onset of action. When administered intravenously, it takes effect almost immediately, making it a preferred choice for anaesthesia induction. However, Propofol’s effects are relatively short-lived. This allows for precise control over a patient’s level of sedation or anaesthesia and permits a smoother emergence from anaesthesia when the drug is no longer administered. Patients often experience less grogginess and nausea upon waking from anaesthesia induced by Propofol compared to some other anaesthetic agents.
The dark side of K-pop success
K-pop idols operate within an environment marked by relentless demands and intense scrutiny. It is a world where the relentless pursuit of perfection isn’t a mere goal—it’s an expectation. K-pop idols are not just singers; they are all-encompassing entertainers. They must excel in singing, dancing and often acting, and this multifaceted talent requires hours upon hours of practice and training. These jam-packed schedules leave little room for personal time or rest as idols are constantly touring, recording, attending promotional events and making appearances on television.
The K-pop industry also places a premium on physical appearance, and idols are expected to conform to specific beauty standards. This pressure can lead to unhealthy dieting and body image issues, all of which can take their toll on mental health.
Given these pressures, it is not surprising that some K-pop idols may seek refuge in substances that temporarily escape stress and scrutiny. A smaller dose of Propofol creates feelings of euphoria and tranquillity, which can help with stress, while a full surgical-level dose induces a deep sleep with no residual “hangover”. This can be very appealing to busy idols whose erratic sleep schedules often result in insomnia.
Korean celebrities and Propofol
Propofol has been a controlled substance in South Korea since 2011, and illegal use is punishable with a hefty fine and potentially even a prison sentence. In fact, South Korea was the first country to classify Propofol as a reaction to use among healthcare workers and to the Propofol-induced death of Michael Jackson in 2010, which shone a light on deaths in Korea. Despite this, there have been many high-profile cases involving K-pop idols using the “milk shot”, as Propofol is called in Korea due to its milky, white appearance:
Brown Eyed Girls’ Member Gain was fined 1,000,000KRW (about £600) in 2021 for illegal Propofol use after a highly publicised case. Initially, Korean media had reported an unnamed singer, but Gain eventually came forward due to pressure. Gain initially came under police scrutiny after the arrest of a cosmetic surgeon who was jailed for 18 months for selling painkillers to patients. It was later confirmed that he had sold around £1,000 worth to Gain between July and August 2019. Gain’s agency explained that her Propofol use was an attempt to self-medicate, but its explanation was notable for describing her as “reckless”:
R&B singer Wheesung received a three-year suspended prison sentence for unlawful Propofol use in 2021. Wheesung admitted to years of Propofol abuse and was found unconscious twice in 2019 and 2020 as a result of abusing another anaesthetic. Wheesung’s sentence was suspended due to his agreeing to attend a 40-hour drug treatment course.
It isn’t just K-pop idols who have found themselves caught up in Propofol use. A number of actors have also been investigated by the police, including the critically-acclaimed actor, Yoo Ah-In. Police first began looking into Yoo in early 2023 as part of an investigation into Seoul doctors suspected of supplying Propofol illegally. In February 2023, a police hair sample taken from Yoo was found to contain Propofol and cannabis, and the following month, he also tested positive for cocaine and ketamine. There was a huge backlash with various companies pulling adverts featuring Yoo and the actor being dropped from a number of films he was due to feature in.
These stories are very illuminative of South Korea’s handling of drug use. Gain was using Propofol to get relief from pain and depression, while Wheesung was originally suspected of using Propofol in 2013, suggesting an almost decade-long addiction. Despite this, punishment rather than compassion is often Korea’s first course of action, as it was in these cases. Likewise, Yoo Ah-In’s Propofol use significantly impacted his career, with major doubts over whether he could recover from the scandal. These kinds of consequences may leave potentially troubled drug users, particularly those in the public eye, fearing incrimination and serious reputational damage, which likely stops many from seeking help.
Propofol side effects and health impacts
As can be seen from Wheesung’s case, Propofol addiction is one serious potential side effect of use. Professor Lee Hyung Mook, a professor of pain medicine and anesthesiology at Seoul’s St. Mary’s Hospital in Seoul, explains a common route to addiction:
Beyond addiction, Propofol misuse imposes severe health risks. It can induce respiratory distress, causing shallow or halted breathing and lead to cardiovascular collapse, risking cardiac arrest. The physical toll is matched by cognitive impairment, hindering clear thinking and decision-making, all of which can put users in risky situations.
Should the rest of the world be worried?
It is important to understand that Korea’s classification of Propofol as a controlled substance resulted from Propofol abuse not seen elsewhere in the world. While this may be reassuring for other countries and suggest that similar legislative measures may not be immediately necessary elsewhere, it serves as a reminder to stay vigilant about changing drug use landscapes globally.
It is also essential to recognise that legal penalties alone rarely solve the issue of drug misuse. South Korea’s experience demonstrates that despite the criminalisation of Propofol, the problem persists even 12 years after the legislation was passed. This highlights the importance of balancing legal consequences with robust rehabilitation and recovery services.
The case of Propofol and K-pop highlights so many topics which are front and centre of the conversations around drug use, criminalisation and treatment. It demonstrates that addiction can affect anyone, regardless of their wealth or success and reveals the role that stress, mental health and the pursuit of relief play in an individual’s path towards substance misuse. Perhaps most importantly, it emphasises the need for comprehensive strategies that encompass awareness, prevention, legal measures and, crucially, robust support for rehab and recovery. Organisations like UKAT provide compassionate support and holistic treatment for those suffering from addiction, and hopefully, South Korea can begin to follow a similar path. Contact us today if you want more information on how UKAT can help you.