K-Pop Star Siwon Choi Opens Up About 'Hate Comments' Online and Overcoming It After Feeling 'Afraid'

The Super Junior member has been a UNICEF ambassador since 2010 and has since contributed to humanitarian children's issues

Siwon Choi
Siwon Choi. Photo: UNICEF Korea (ⓒ UNICEF Korea)

K-Pop star Siwon Choi is opening up about his involvement with UNICEF — and the impact it has left on him since

The Super Junior band member first partnered with UNICEF Korea in 2010, and has since largely contributed to humanitarian children's issues involving childhood development, internet safety, education, bullying, medicine and social policy.

For example, during the pandemic, Choi led online kindness youth conferences where he spoke on panels and worked with children directly to educate them around internet safety. Most recently, the star also donated $100 million to its climate change effort as a part of UNICEF's Life Donation campaign.

In honor of his work with the organization, the star, 35, spoke to PEOPLE about his experiences, lessons, and most cherished memories with UNICEF.

Siwon Choi
Siwon Choi. UNICEF Korea (ⓒ UNICEF Korea)

How did you first become involved with UNICEF? Are there any UNICEF ambassadors you've admired?

There are many UNICEF ambassadors I'd like to learn from and take after, but one whom comes to mind the most would be Audrey Hepburn. Not only was she the best actress of her time, but she impressed us all with her modesty as she put herself down and reached out to places in need of help. After retirement, she devoted herself to helping communities in need in Africa, South America, and Asia. Even during her battle with cancer, she showed such devotion to UNICEF, and it's this beautiful heart she's shown that I believe sets a great example for everyone.

Can you share a few of the most meaningful and life-changing moments you've had during your work and trips with UNICEF?

I once attended a conference in Malaysia in 2018 that focused on cyber bullying. The conference included very sincere stories by speakers, and also a Q&A session. Many of those at the conference assumed that I probably hadn't experienced nor received any malicious comments before. When it was my turn to speak, someone asked me, "As a K-pop artist, you receive so much love and support from fans so I suppose you might not relate to our struggles. What would you do if you received such hateful comments online?"

I was a bit taken aback when I first heard this question, but I calmly shared my response and spoke of the time I received over a thousand hate comments online, and how at the time, I was afraid and scared. However, what I came to realize is that people can talk about me online, but those words have no physical power over me. I told them to not be afraid, and if they're ever exhausted or having a hard time, to let me know because I'll be there.

After the conference, I was on my way to the airport to go to Brunei. I was checking my social accounts, and although I'm not able to instantly check DMs I get from those who I don't follow, there were two messages that caught my attention that day. They were from two different individuals, and they messaged me to share that they had considered making some extreme decisions but gained courage and changed their minds after hearing me speak. Many ambassadors go on field trips to provide help, but I realized that my calling as part of UNICEF could be more for the people online. That was the moment that truly influenced me to use my voice to speak up and protect the young users of the online community that are around the world.

Siwon Choi
Siwon Choi. UNICEF Korea (ⓒ UNICEF Korea)

What have you learned from the kids you've met and spent time with through UNICEF?

The kids I met taught me to be 'thankful' and 'value' the things in our daily lives that we easily disregard and take for granted. These are the two main points I learned from watching children who find such genuine happiness over even the smallest of things.

Many young people struggle with the pressures of being "perfect" on social media. As someone with a huge platform and following, what do you hope young people can take away from social media? Do you have any advice for them on how to stay mentally healthy and avoid the discouragement that can come with social media?

I don't know if I can give the best advice that's needed, but if I were to try, I'd like to start off by saying that social media today is not just a simple platform where users share their daily lives with friends. It's a space where people can virtually share hope, love, and comfort or even courage. Though my answer will never suffice, I would like to add that each individual has his or her own mission, and I hope people will use social media to communicate with others while finding their own calling and mission rather than using it simply as social media.

Siwon Choi
Siwon Choi. UNICEF Korea (ⓒ UNICEF Korea)

You were the only individual selected from Asia to be a part of UNICEF Next Generation's global leadership team. What does it mean to you to be an ambassador for your country on such a global scale and be honored in this way?

There are times where I feel a lot of responsibility, but I am very grateful for the opportunity to relate humbly and sincerely with many young friends closer than before. I hope to always have an open mind as I use my voice to speak up for them.

What do you hope to accomplish through your involvement with UNICEF Next Generation?

One thing I realized during these field trips is that there are still policies that can be improved to better reflect upon the issues and problems of this generation. I cannot specify, but I believe nothing would be more rewarding than being able to deeply commit myself to actively deal with the parts that need improvement, and to propose related policies that'll help our young friends.

To support UNICEF USA visit www.unicefusa.org/helpnow.

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