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Singer Seo, actress Lee had little choice but to keep marriage, divorce secret: experts

All Headlines 17:58 April 22, 2011

SEOUL, April 22 (Yonhap) -- With the shockwave from the news of an alimony lawsuit between Seo Tai-ji, an iconic South Korean musician, and Lee Ji-ah, a rising television actress, still reverberating, South Korean pop culture experts said Friday the two may have had little choice but to keep their marriage and subsequent divorce secret.

A vernacular sports daily, Sports Seoul, reported Thursday that Lee, who was born Kim Sang-eun, has filed for 5 billion won (US$4.6 million) for her share of matrimonial properties and for 500 million won in alimony against Seo, whose birth name is Jeong Hyun-cheol.

Just as shocking for the public was the fact that the two had been married at all. Seo, a leading musician for the trio "Seo Tai-ji & Boys" in the 1990s, is largely credited with making hip-hop a relevant genre in Korean pop music, and the group later dabbled in hard rock. But Seo, 39, has been among the most enigmatic celebrities, with hardly anything about his private life beyond his name and age known to the public.

Lee, 33, debuted in a TV commercial in 2004, but she has mostly had supporting roles in TV dramas and her only featured film, a romantic comedy titled "The Relation of Face, Mind and Love," was a box office disaster in 2009.

Keyeast, Lee's agency in Seoul, said Friday the two tied the knot in 1997 in the United States, where Lee had been living and where Seo had traveled to study after his group folded. They'd lived in Georgia and in Arizona, but separated when Seo returned to South Korea to resume his music career in 2000.

The two filed for divorce in 2006 and it was finalized in 2009.

Angry fans of the singer and the actress say the two have deceived the public, but pop culture experts said their privacy should be respected.

They pointed to the general mood of the 1990s, when celebrities would risk losing fans among members of the opposite sex if they'd revealed relationships, whether with other stars or non-entertainers. Experts also said Seo has been such a private person throughout his career, a musician who built a career on an air of mystique.

"Seo Tai-ji is the epitome of mystique and secrecy," said Shim Jae-cheol, professor of media studies at Korea University. "He may have wanted to stay mysterious forever. And in the 1990s, it wasn't considered as fashionable (for celebrities) to openly talk about marriage or relationships as it is today."

Jeong Jae-sik, a pop culture analyst, said Seo had almost been a "cult leader" among his hardcore fans and it was only a logical choice on his part to keep his marriage under the carpet and maintain his aura of secrecy.

"Losing that air of mystery is fatal to being a cult leader, because getting married is something an ordinary person does," Jeong said.

Lee Taek-gwang, an English literature professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul and a pop culture expert, said Seo and Lee simply tried to keep their private life just that -- private.

"We as a society tend to see lives of celebrities as public domain," Lee said. "It's a strange situation where Seo and Lee merely tried to take control of their own lives and are getting criticized for deceiving the people."

Chung Ji-young, a film director who teaches media studies at Korea University, said marriage and divorce should be off-limits for public discussion, even if they involve high-profile figures.

"It's entirely a matter of individual choice whether (Seo and Lee) wanted to talk about their marriage," Chung said. "They must have agreed with each other to keep it a secret and we can't argue about that."

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