Bullying in South Korea

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While Korea is still a relatively safe place to live, with generally lower crime rates than in the West (the US at least and less petty crime than Europe), it does not seem to be short on social problems. There are a few that keep cropping up; sex crimes, suicides, and people simply flipping out and attacking people on the street. Mental health in Korea seems to be at an all-time low and their suicide rate is the highest in the world.

Last Summer, there were a speight of crazed knife attacks around Seoul. One occurred on a subway where eight people were injured, there was also an attempted rape and stabbing in the city of Suwon (not far from Seoul) and another concerned an attack by a man who was bullied at a credit rating company and decided to vent his anger at the people he saw as responsible. In a fit of rage he presumably did not have much control over what he was doing when he stabbed two other completely innocent passers-by after stabbing two of his former co-workers in the face and neck.

I do not pretend to know the reason for what appears to be the proliferation of sex crimes that have made the news recently in Korea (I have heard only rumours that the judicial system may not be tough enough on sex criminals), but the suicides and crazy acts of violence could in fact be linked.

In a story, which was brought to my attention via facebook, a CNN article brought attention on the alarming suicide rates of students in Korea. The article blamed school bullies for much of the problem and highlighted the plight of a 13 year-old student who jumped from his apartment building. Another interesting and sad student suicide news article can be seen here about a student who left a text message for her tormentors after she had gone.

So just what is going on? Is there a culture of bullying in South Korea, both in the workplace and in schools? Well, it does appear to be so, but rather strangely I think that this is more prevalent in the workplace in than it is in the schools.

In the CNN article a statement was made by a clinical psychologist as to the reasons behind bullying in schools, he said:

“At school, students don’t see their peers as friends but as competition and believe they need to beat them to get ahead.” Joo Mi Bae

While there is some truth to this statement with regard to the competition element in Korean schools, I believe this gives a misleading picture to the Western reader of what life is like in a typical Korean school and undervalues the great friendships that are made there. It is certainly not what I see in my school where great friendships are made.

What I see on a day-to-day basis is great camaraderie and companionship between students, perhaps far greater than you would see in a Western school and many of these relationships can last a lifetime. In high school, especially, this is because they spend so long in school together, often in the same class for as much as 14 hours in the day and sometimes sleeping in dormitories together. This reveals the obsession with education in the country as a whole and the problem is that this is exactly the same reason that bullying becomes more of a dangerous issue.

If you have a problem with a few students who tease or bully you, imagine spending 14 hours a day with them every day and rarely changing classes. Between lessons and at break times – at least in the schools I know of – the students are also never supervised by teachers, leaving plenty of opportunities for bullies. Throw into the mix tiredness and boredom from too much study and there is a recipe for disaster. Transport this same system into Western schools and the same problem of student bullying and suicides could arise. The high achievement of South Koreans in schools could be coming at too high a price.

In the workplace, much like in schools, the high suicide rate in Korea could be attributed to simple overwork. Too many hours of stressful work can end up making people question the true meaning of life and can lead to the conclusion that it is not worth living. But there is more to it than that, working relationships in Korea can pile even more stress on already burnt-out individuals. Bullying could be a cancer across a range of professions in Korea, especially in the highly competitive business world but also in regular everyday jobs.

I have seen the results of this shabby treatment at work first-hand through my wife, who was a nurse in Korea. She warned me that she might come home crying on occasion because of the culture of older established nurses being cruel to younger less experienced ones, and indeed this happened on more than one occasion (my wife is also not one to give up tears easily).

There are three main reasons that bullying in the workplace occurs in South Korea:

1. Respect Culture – the showing of respect to those older than you is a common cultural practice in this part of the world, but what many who have not visited this area do not realize is that ‘older’ can mean one year older, or even 3 months more experienced in the job. With this ‘elder’ status some people use this to push the younger ones around, treating them poorly whilst still demanding respect off them. If the younger person complains, they are rarely listened to and are merely told to put up with it as they are younger after all. Even if there is not direct bullying, the elders still hold sway and reign supreme on regular office dinners and parties where they demand that their juniors go where they want them to, decide how long for, and simultaneously making them drink themselves into an early grave in the process.

2. A Test of Dedication – in Korea dedication to one’s job is vitally important. Employers want employees to show this to them, encouraging them to work longer hours without pay and to test their spirit with unreasonable demands and sometimes various forms of mental abuse, which can even get physical on rare occasions. This appears to be the whole purpose around making the young nurses cry; to see whether they will be strong and come to work the next day and to see if they care enough to cry in the first place. Much like the military push their trainees to breaking point to weed out the weak, the Korean workplace takes the same strategy.

3. Jealousy – a really petty form of jealousy exists in this part of the world and I assume it has to do with the high value of status in society. Work colleagues can be shunned and alienated for a variety of reasons, especially if they happen to be younger (going back to point one). These reasons can include whether they are married or not, how much they have travelled, the wealth of their family, and even how physically attractive they are or how handsome or pretty their spouse is. All are fit subjects for jealousy and reasons for bullying.

Going back to my wife, when she started work she was quickly ridiculed when any conversation got around to travelling, because she had travelled all over Europe and many other countries at a young age. They would even tease her, saying that her pictures were fraudulent and she was lying about it all. Their jealously was almost laughably obvious, but it can be difficult to be amused when all of your work colleagues are ganging up on you.

With what appears to be more than just a coincidence in Korea’s high rate of suicides and the culture of bullying, perhaps it is time the government in Korea looked at some policy changes to curb the situation. There might not be anything they can do about the culture in this regard, but stronger contracts for employees at work and a less stringent education policy could bring about improvements in the nations happiness without making them less competitive on the world scene.

Big business and power hungry governments look like they are having the same effects on the common man’s liberties and happiness all over the world. Korean people are showing the strains of living in the dictatorship of the working world and their culture could be making their circumstances even worse. It might just be that capitalism and the core values of Far Eastern culture make for particularly uncomfortable bedfellows for the ordinary man on the street in Korea.

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I am an Englishman currently living in South Korea with my wife, who is Korean. We live in a small city in the far south of the country, away from the major more westernized hubs of Seoul and Busan. My situation has given me a unique insight into the culture of South Korea and I am interested in writing about my experiences. The cultural differences between the Far East and the West run so deep and it is fascinating to be caught up in the middle of it all.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Of the "social problems…. that keep cropping up; sex crimes, suicides, and people simply flipping out and attacking people on the street" bullying is the most easily fixable. Step one: acknowledge the problem. Finally Korea seems to be at this first step. I applaud PGH for making bullying and domestic violence one of her four points in her first month of office.

    The other social problems listed are much more difficult to recognize before and as they happen. Strangers on a subway do not know that one among them is going to flip out. We don't easily identify the sexual predator in our midst. Even if we wanted to stop the perpatrators, we don't know who they are until their seemingly ransom acts. We know bullies because bullying is a repeated process. Bullying does not occur once between strangers on the subway; bullying is in our workplaces and classrooms. The bullies aren't those in charge, the teachers and bosses; they're the classmates and coworkers. The problem is not so much the classmate and coworker as the teacher and boss who put up with them. Hole the classmate and coworker responsible by holding those who have the real power responsible.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with holding the boss or the teacher responsible. To be able to do this requires a cultural change, however, because those being bullied either just accept it as a part of the culture of work or school life, or if they don't accept it, they have no one fighting for their rights that are interested in holding the correct people responsible.

      My wife told her parents of being bullied by nurses in her hospital, their reply was simply to tell her that this is what younger people in the workplace have to put up with and just be quiet and put up with it. This is telling of the attitude in Korea about bullying at work by superiors or more experienced work mates. I hope Park Geun Hye can do something to turn this around, but I am pessimistic I'm afraid, as I think many laws are not enforced in Korea where the interests of higher status individuals and long held traditions are involved.

      What needs to be acknowledged by all is that having a higher status or age does not give you the right to control people or subject them to mental or physical abuse. While this is a problem everywhere in people with positions of power, I think respect culture inflames the situation and causes some people to feel an entitlement to treat those of lower status at work badly. Strong employment law that is consistent and enforced would really help, let's hope this starts to happen in the near future.

  2. I believe that the high sexual crime rate here in Korea is also related to or even partially caused by the the Korean culture. In the Korean culture young people are always controlled by older people. This starts from the Koreans are born, by parents and elder siblings. It continues by teachers and coaches in the young years and by the employers and older colleagues when grown up.
    Sexual crimes are often "Power" related. As the Koreans always seems to be controlled / dominated trough all phases of their life I find it possible that sexual predators in Korea is a product of the bullying culture.
    By controlling the victim, the predator will "finally" feel in power.

  3. Thank you for this article. I certainly can relate. What’s more is that I’m working at an NGO that “fights for” the human rights of foreign workers in Korea. But bullying in the workplace is so obvious, it’s too embarrassing to even work there. Too much of hypocrisy.

  4. I too, am married to a Korean wife, and we both run a small cram school. In my own experience, in the six years that I’ve lived in South Korea, I have been hazed in a pretty big way at least twice in the workplace (and probably more if I included some of the places where the bullying wasn’t quite as straightforward), so I really applaud this piece of writing, and the author, of course. I think that all of the above are excellent points when considering what might really be behind the bullying CULTure (or the cult of bullying, if you prefer) in Korea. And of course, rape is almost always a crime of violence and a need to exert power over a victim, and sexuality usually has very little to do with it. I would like to add one consideration, however, and that is Korea’s long history of indigenous slavery. I’m from the United States myself, so I know quite well how slavery can affect a society, even generations and generations after the fact. Though of course, early colonial American slavery was imported into North and South America via Europe and Africa (and Native Americans also participated in the practice). Either way, from what I’ve read on the subject, at various points in their history, up to 2/3 of the population of Korea (sometimes more or less) was owned by their fellow Koreans, who simply had the power to do so. Thus, I submit that the master/slave hierarchical dichotomy may have quite a lot to do with the bullying culture that still seems to permeate almost every aspect of Korean society. Lastly, I’ve also lived and worked in China and Taiwan, for collectively six years, and though there are a great many similarities between the two cultures, I seldom saw the kind of violent bullying among young children that I have witnessed firsthand here in Korea. I’ve seen kids tussle in Taiwan, for example, but in Korea, I’ve seen them draw blood.

  5. I came across your article while searching for information about school bullying in South Korea. Now from your writing it finally came to light why it’s very popular in S. Korean entertainment industry to depict this part of the culture. I became interested in knowing why the topic is so prevalent in K drama and sometimes Kpop. I always wondered if what k drama describes was exaggerating or not. If it’s not exaggerating, then why is it such a popular theme in many plots? Also why do many scrip writers like to describe antagonists as snobbish, rich, powerful, and in many cases highly educated people? Now I understand why dramas involving this kind of cultural phenomenon are so popular in S. Korea. That’s because people living in that society may feel that they can relate to the story line. There’s a K drama called “Misaeng” which earned a lot of kudos and praises both from viewers and critics. I actually thought that drama was pretty boring because the story line was focused on daily petty office life. It’s got very high viewership in S. Korea. Now, I know why. Thank you for the article.

  6. i’m pretty late for typing this comment, but as a south korean, i’m agreeing with you strongly. based on my experience, in korean school, usually half-bloods(those whose one of the parents is korean while another parent has a foreign nationality) because they look ‘different’, and koreans those who’d stayed overseas for a long time, they’d gotten bullied easily, just because they can’t speak flunt korean.

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