‘I Wasn’t Going To Put Up With It Anymore’
Why These Foreign Entertainers Left Korea
Actor/Writer Ken Fibbe
Since he arrived in Seoul in 2011, Kentucky-born actor Ken Fibbe had actively pursued his acting career with an E-6-1 visa. Fibbe appeared in many hit series like “Descendants of the Sun” (2016), and also on the music video of K-pop diva, HyunA.
After a few years, however, he left Korea and returned to his home country. He felt like he would never be protected or respected by anyone, even if he rose to the top.
“My ego was inflated when I was in Korea,” Fibbe said. “Let's be honest. Most foreigners in the Korean entertainment industry have no background in acting. If they had it, they would be in Los Angeles, where it is very hard to become an actor. But who does not want to be on TV?”
After making an appearance in several works, Fibbe naturally got to hang out with people of “high social status.”
However, in reality, Fibbe was also underpaid and had to endure tough working conditions just like other foreign entertainers based in Seoul. But what concerned him even more was the frequent exploitation of children and the absence of humanity he witnessed on set.
“Once, I was supposed to dance and get sexual with a 14 year-old Ukrainian girl for a commercial,” Fibbe said. “It was very awkward for me, but to its producers, that was a lot of money ... When an agency casts a foreign kid in Korea, they would just go to Itaewon where the U.S. military base is located, and pass out their business cards to the mothers of the children who look cute.”
But filming a commercial often takes a lengthy period of
time and this makes young kids impatient.
“Once, a three-year-old boy, who was never on set before, had to promote a mosquito repellant with me and other actors,” he said. “He had been up all day. So, at the end of the filming, he did not stop crying, saying he just wanted to go home and sleep. But people on set did not let him go.”
Some people even came close to death due to the lack of proper safety management.
When he was shooting another commercial, two men accidentally got trapped in a car that became filled with carbon monoxide and fell unconscious. Fibbe tried to do CPR and save them, until an official from his agency held him back.
“He said I should not touch them because I was going to get the company in trouble,” Fibbe said. “I couldn't believe this was a real thing. I can't save someone's life because the agent is scared of his client?
In the case of Garrison Michael Farquharson-Keener, a British-American actor/model who has been working in Korea for about seven years, the only thing he could do when he faced absurdity was to accept it.
“There was a lot of things with delayed payments,”
Farquharson-Keener, who was featured in tvN's hit
series, “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” (2022), told The Korea
Times. “The agencies just pay you whenever they want to
and that was the expected norm. You just get used to
According to him, these agents control all the shoots in Korea.
“So you just have to accept the situation even if they are rude or if they abuse the visa system,” he said. “Otherwise, you will not be able to do any jobs and there is really no other way around it. You really cannot do anything because agencies will blacklist you. It is a very common thing, but nobody in Korea regulates them.”
As a result, when a foreign entertainer becomes entangled in a problem or a dispute, one of the few platforms they can turn to is Expat Entertainers Korea (E.E. R.O.K.) ― a closed group dedicated to protecting their rights. Actress Kelly Frances, a Canadian citizen, founded it approximately nine years ago.
“But we have to be careful,” Frances, who currently lives in Denver after forging her career in Korea for more than a decade, said. “Technically, foreigners can get into trouble and lose their visas if they get involved in a political action.”
According to Korean laws, foreign artists and entertainers are prohibited from forming or joining a labor union, as this is deemed a “political activity” that can threaten national security.
“So I got a lot of threats,” Frances revealed. “They say they want me to apologize publicly immediately. One agency sent me threats five to six times, and I consider them an excellent example of a bully. It seems they cannot tolerate that I have a negative opinion of them, because they feel concerned about the influence I might have.”
Elephant in the room
Foreign artists and entertainers in Korea also do not have access to many basic services provided by the Korean Artists Welfare Foundation.
But in the U.S., foreign entertainers are treated in an utterly different manner.
First and foremost, the O1B visa in the U.S. ― the nonimmigrant artist visa that can be compared to Korea's E-6 ― is far more challenging to obtain as people have to prove through documentation that they are professional artists with actual careers.
Foreign entertainers can become members of a labor union, too.
“Even a foreigner can join the unions like Screen Actors Guild ― American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) in the U.S., which can provide incredible protection,” Frances said.
SAG-AFTRA is a labor union representing some 160,000 actors, singers, voice actors and fashion models.
“If I were a member of SAG-AFTRA, I could even insist upon having an intimacy coordinator or a mental health coordinator,” Frances explained.
Farquharson-Keener elaborated on the financial benefit that a SAG-AFTRA member can receive.
“Let's say you go on a movie or a drama shoot,” he said. “If you are part of the union, you will get about $187 for eight hours of work, but if you are not, you will get around $132.”
The labor law applies to everyone as well.
“And in the U.S., I have never been in a situation where I was denied a contract,” Frances said. “But I can barely remember signing a contract in Korea.”
Natalie Fletcher, the owner and the director of the talent agencies, nxt|MODEL and Natalie Lynn Talent, also underscored the significance of clinching a proper contract.
“I do advise everybody to make sure that they do not sign up for an agency that charges them money and that they read those contracts,” she said.
Failing to present a contract is a clear violation of Korean law as well, but numerous foreign artists told The Korea Times that they often had to work without written proof. This illegal practice, indeed, has been the elephant in the room over the past decades in the Korean entertainment industry.
The country also has a law restricting those under the age of 18 from working more than seven hours a day or 40 hours a week, as well as a set of safety rules aimed at protecting workers. But they are not strictly enforced on set, and no government agency exercises sufficient oversight, especially when it comes to foreigners. E-6-1 visa holders often cannot even file a lawsuit, because they would be required to change their visa status if they want to bring their issues before a court.
In contrast, Dave Ratner, the founder and managing partner at Creative Law Network in Denver who specializes in entertainment, says he is not aware of any exceptions to protection for artists and entertainers based on their residency or a legal status in the U.S.
“I think foreigners are valued here,” he added. “As far as we are talking about people in the arts and entertainment space, there is absolutely equal treatment under the law.”
Glimmer of hope
Fibbe believes there has to be a union for foreign entertainers in Korea and more laws in place.
In fact, in September, a new law to protect the rights of artists ― both Koreans and foreigners ― went into effect in Korea, which stipulates that the artists' freedom of expression should be guaranteed and that there should be policies to enhance their labor and welfare conditions.
Park Kyong-ju, a non-standing committee member at Art Council Korea and the founder of the Diverse Artists of Korea Association, sees a glimmer of hope with the new legislation.
“We are quite optimistic that better welfare and more inclusion will follow suit,” she said. “But this might be difficult to achieve unless the artists themselves speak out on the matter.”