As well known, bullying is a major problem around the world, one with consequences far greater than the bullies can understand. Affecting younger kids and teens alike, the abuse can leave not only physical but also emotional and psychological scars. The terminology and tactics of bullying in South Korea might be a little different from the typical depictions we see in popular high school dramas on TV, but the hurt and the pain are all the same. In the following, we will attempt to explain the situation and understand the culturally specific phenomena related to bullying in South Korea.
The Nature of Bullying in South Korea
South Korean culture lays significant importance on conformity. What is conformity and why does it matter so much in the South Korean classrooms? Conformity is the societal need for everyone to stick to the same patterns and roles: look alike, dress alike, have the same beliefs and follow the same trends. In such society, standing out is dangerous; it’s frowned upon and it attracts the negative type of attention. Accordingly, children in South Korea value belonging and conforming and being one and the same: focusing on academic and athletic success, and shunning out those who are different. This short cultural background is very necessary in the understanding of both the causes and the techniques of bullying in South Korea. It explains why the most severe, and most prevalent, type of bullying in South Korea is social bullying.
Causes of Bullying in South Korea
Bullying in South Korea, be it social or physical, verbal or online, can be attributed to many factors, among which are the following:
- The highly competitive nature of academic life:
Students in South Korea value their success, in academic or athletic arenas. There’s parental pressure to overachieve, to be better, the best. That can create a hostile environment among students, who wouldn’t view their classmates as friends, but as competition.
Natural rejection of anyone who stands out, whether by choice or involuntarily, is due to the dominant culture of conformity we previously discussed. Consequently, children who look different: too short, too tall, too thin, or too fat, are seen as outcasts and treated as such.
- The length of the school day:
Unlike American and most European schools, the South Korean school day can be extremely long, extending from 7 am to 11 pm. That is, children spend up to 16 hours (and sometimes more) at school, which means school practically becomes their main home. It’s where they eat and where they study and where they nap. The long hours can contribute to making the effects of bullying severe, since there’s barely no escape from it.
- Lack of school help and protective policies:
There’s a general lack of procedure taken by the school to ensure the safety of the children. Most teachers don’t know how to deal with the problem, especially in cases of social bullying, where a whole class is involved. According to one survey, 41.8% of the students who sought school helping policies, have found them inefficient, and their situation wasn’t made better.
Social Bullying and the Wangtta
We attempted to explain above how social bullying is the most pronounced type of bullying in South Korean schools, and how that came about. Due to the huge value society reserves to community and conformity, exclusion has come to be the cruelest form of abuse a South Korean child can be subjected to. The phenomenon of Wangtaa (loosely translated into “loser” but can also refer to the whole situation, not just the victim) is a perfect example of using social exclusion to punish or emotionally abuse a student.
Wangtta is where a whole class agrees to completely ignore a single student. Not for one day, not for a couple of weeks, but for the whole year. If you keep in mind the amount of time students regularly spend at school, you’ll realize the severity of the abuse. Having to spend almost your whole day (16 hours or more) with no social interactions whatsoever, for the whole academic year, can be extremely damaging to the psyche of a child who wouldn’t even understand why this is happening to them.
Why does this happen? There’s no satisfactory answer to that. Often the child hasn’t provoked any attention; sometimes they’d be a little different in how they present themselves or how they look, sometimes they are shy or a little too anxious; but other times there’s no apparent reason as to why they are chosen to be the Wangtta.
The bigger issue with such situations is that the whole classroom does not always intend the Wangtta victim harm. It’s started by the bullies who pick on the child or abuse them in different ways. The rest of the students, even if compassionate, are forced to ignore the child not to be Wangtta-ed too. They are afraid to sit next to them, practice with them in class, or include them in any social activity. This can pose a challenge on teachers who try to help. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation causes even the good kids to participate in the bullying, it also prevents them from seeking help or telling a parent or a teacher. And things remain unsolved.
Bullying in South Korea and Suicide
Suicide is the most common cause of death in the age group 15-24 in South Korea. This can partially be attributed to the severity of the issue of bullying in South Korea’s schools. According to 2012 National School Violence Survey conducted on 5540 students by the Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence, 12% have reported being bullied. Of the bullied students, 49.3% (as compared to 33.5 in 2011) have stated that the “emotional pain due to bullying was beyond tolerable.”
In 2011, a South Korean child by the name Seung-min has committed suicide by throwing himself off of his room’s window after consistent incidents of brutal bullying that followed him from school to his own house. In his suicide note, the child describes being “beaten and robbed by boys in his class, burned with lighters and having electrical wire tied around his neck as a leash.” Apparently, the bullies have also followed him home and would beat him and physically bully him while his parents are still outside.
Senug-min’s mother tells also of how another child (a girl) from the same school as her son’s has committed suicide only 5 months before he killed himself. Nothing was done by the school to ensure the tragedy doesn’t reoccur, and so it happened again. The school has since then changed the principal, and the bullies have been prosecuted, but no new policies were put in place, nothing to protect the next victim from the next bully.
The number of students who had reported considering suicide due to school violence has increased from 31.4% in 2011, to 44.7% in 2012. If that says anything, it’s that the emotional toll bullying takes on South Korean students is growing exponentially. According to the South Korean Ministry of Education, verbal abuse came in first place with 35.3%, followed by outcasting with 16.5%. Both types of bullying obviously target causing maximum emotional damage to the bullying victim, which clearly explains the deep psychological wounds school students suffer through due to bullying in South Korea, deep enough to prompt dropping out of school, and, often too, suicide.
The policies implemented by the Korean Ministry of Education don’t seem to help solve the problem or protect the students from its effects. Bullying in South Korea remains an ever-growing nightmare that awaits a radical solution.