School Bullying in South Korea

Sylvia Khor
Oct 11, 2017 · 5 min read
Source: Koreaboo

In light of recent events regarding school bullying in South Korea, this article aims to discuss the consequences of bullying among teenagers in schools, whether such bullying is related to gapjil (갑질) in Korea and what other measures should be taken to help alleviate the issue.


Bullying cases came into light in South Korea after the 2011 case when Kwon Seung-min, 13-year-old middle school student jumped to his death and left a note, describing in detail the series of violence and bullying he was subjected to. This sparked off a series of research regarding school bullying and also other similar bullying cases started surfacing.

Such bullying does not only leave physical scars on the victims, but it causes victims to be psychologically and emotionally hurt, sometimes to the extent of trauma or suicide. Suicide is among the most common cause of deaths among youths in Korea between the age of 15 to 24. The prevalence of social exclusion in Korean students was estimated to be 40%, which is two to four times more than that of other countries.

Source: Chosun

Gapjil (갑질) means bullying the weak in modern times. It is similar to when peasants could not argue with their landlords regarding unfair treatment during the pre-modern Joseon Dynasty. It is simply status-based power abuse, or bullying, with its pretext for abuse being due to a person’s age, employment status, or wealth. Social hierarchy is drawn very clearly in Korea. By observing the use of Korean language, it is clear that respect for elders is a given. For instance, younger girls have to call their seniors, “선배” (sunbae) or “언니” (unnie), and it is frowned upon when they do not do so.

From the prominent cases reported on social media, we can see that the bullies were usually older than the victim and the victim was at the mercy of them. In an interview with a 14-year-old victim, she mentioned that the violent bullying started just because she did not return the clothes that her senior (선배) lent to her and that sparked off intense anger by her senior, resulting in her bringing along her group of classmates to beat up the 14-year-old junior.

Source: Chicago Policy Review

However, it is important to note that not all cases were due to gapjil (갑질) and victims were sometimes the same age as the bullies. In some cases, the bullying happens in the classroom, where the victim is isolated from everyone else. Based on researches, it has been observed that bullying happens due to the intensely competitive culture of Korea. As students are expected to strive hard and be better than others, it causes the environment among students to be hostile and classmates being seen as competitors instead of friends. There is also a dominant culture of conformity present in the society. People who look different or stands out, will be treated as outcasts and rejects.

Effects of bullying on victims

Academic journals have shown statistically that bullying does have direct impacts on a teenager’s academic achievement, however it is limited to during that period of bullying and it does not show any signs of chronic negative effects. Such social exclusion has proved to show negative impacts on a teenager’s self-esteem, it increases their levels of anxiety and makes them more depressed. In some cases, it leads to suicidal thoughts and self-injuring behaviours. A research by Chicago Policy review showed that when 15-year-old teenagers are bullied, it results in a 75% increase in prevalence of feeling sick and 50% increase in incidence of mental health problems. There is no doubt that bullying can cause a series of negative consequences for the victims and can spread through years of their lives. Hence, it is important to overcome and reduce bullying for youths.

What can be done

In today’s day and age, such practices of gapjil is no longer accepted by all as media has caused an increase in the spread of knowledge that shed light into such situations, which caused people to see the wrongs in these practices. By simply increasing monitoring in schools will not be effective in eliminating the issue of bullying. It will take proper legislation that can serve as a warning to show the bullies that their actions will have consequences, in order to discourage the act of bullying. Currently, these school bullies are not convicted of such violent acts under the Korea’s Juvenile Protection Act.

In the case of the 14-year-old youth who was beaten up and left in an alley by her seniors, it is interesting to note that even when the bullies turned themselves at the police station after the matter exploded on social media, the policemen merely turned them away and asked them to go home. This shows the reactions that public officials have towards bullying cases and it also reveals the need for change to be implemented here when it comes to juvenile crimes. Youth violence is taken too lightly and the public has shown through uproars of discontentment that the perpetrators should be convicted and take responsibility of the issue.

Research has shown that system-level messages, like codes of conduct, carried out and enforced in schools can have huge potential in positively impacting and changing school climates to make gapjil less prominent and reduce bullying. It has to be a school-based intervention and teachers play an integral part of this prevention by integrating values through everyday teaching.