Busan, South Korea – Pins hidden in her shoes, head forced down a toilet, kicked in the stomach: Korean hairdresser Pyo Ye-rim suffered a litany of abuse from school bullies, but now she’s speaking out.
The 26-year-old is part of a phenomenon sweeping South Korea known as “Hakpok #MeToo”, where people who were bullied publicly name and shame the perpetrators of school violence — “hakpok” in Korean — decades after the alleged crimes.
Made famous globally by Netflix’s gory revenge series “The Glory”, the movement has ensnared everyone from K-pop stars to baseball players, and accusations — often anonymous — can be career-ending, with widespread public sympathy for victims.
As a schoolgirl, Pyo says she suffered alone. Teachers told her “to be friendlier” to her bullies and the abuse went unchecked for years, eventually forcing her to give up her dreams of higher education and quit school for vocational training.
“There was only one thing I wished for. I wished someone could help me,” she told AFP, adding that no one came to her aid and eventually she “escaped and struggled to survive on my own.”
In education-obsessed South Korea, where children can spend up to 16 hours a day studying at schools and in private academies, bullying is widespread, experts say, despite official efforts to stamp it out.
The problem, activists say, is that bullying often goes unpunished in real-time at schools, and the statute of limitations on such crimes makes it hard for victims to bring charges years later.
Pyo said she suffered from years of insomnia and depression as a result of her treatment at school, before deciding to stop hiding and go public with her accusations — resulting in one of her bullies being fired from their job.
But Pyo is lobbying for real legal change, demanding South Korea suspend the statute of limitations affecting school violence and change the defamation law to better protect victims.
– Hakpok #MeToo –
Netflix’s “The Glory” — which follows a woman’s meticulously planned revenge scheme after suffering years of brutal abuse from high school bullies — helped amplify South Korea’s national discussion about bullying.
In an ironic sign of how pervasive the issue is, after the show became a hit, the director Ahn Gil-ho was himself accused of teenage bullying and forced to apologise.
Even South Korea’s presidential office was recently forced to withdraw a top police appointment after it emerged the candidate’s son had bullied classmates, sparking public backlash.
School violence is endemic in South Korean schools, Noh Yoon-ho, a Seoul-based attorney who specialises in bullying cases told AFP, adding it is a “collective trauma” the country needs to process.
“Any South Korean who has gone to school has been a victim or witnessed other students being bullied and not helped — we all have memories of this,” Noh said.
The “Hakpok #MeToo” movement has helped many victims to shed the shame of their experience, and realise they were not bullied “because they were lacking something”, she added.
But the problem is that there is still no system in place at school level where victims can “approach without hesitation for an immediate and adequate response when incidents occur”, Jihoon Kim, a criminology professor who has researched bullying in South Korea, told AFP.
– Punish the bullies? –
Pyo and other victims say South Korea should remove the statute of limitations on school violence so bullies can be held accountable even decades later.
But there are huge practical issues with legally punishing adults for crimes committed as a juvenile, Noh said, which could give people lasting criminal records for teenage misdeeds.
Pyo is also calling for an overhaul of South Korea’s criminal defamation laws, which currently allow bullies to sue their accusers for damages and win — even if their victims are telling the truth.
Most accusations are anonymous but have resulted in bullies being fired or, in the case of one of South Korea’s most successful baseball players, excluded from the national team.
Despite widespread public support for victims, some have questioned the fairness of such punishments.
It would be far better to work with schools — where such crimes have typically been ignored — to ensure that bullying is addressed as it happens, experts say.
Unless this is done, the public naming and shaming will continue.
“It’s gotten this bad because no victims have done it before now,” said Pyo, adding that unless the defamation law changes, bullies can still threaten victims with lawsuits.
“This is why no one is able to talk,” except anonymously, she said. “If this law disappears, countless victims will start speaking out.”