What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
Allegations of school bullying (hakgyo pongnyeok, or hakpok for short) by sports stars has become a major issue in Korea in recent months. One of the interesting aspects about the claims is that they focus on incidents that occurred many years ago, back when the now popular and famous sports stars were still in high, middle, or even elementary school.
It all began with the news that a female volleyball player had been rushed to hospital on February 7, 2021. There was a lot of speculation online regarding the identity of the player in question, and soon it was revealed to be Lee Da-young, the younger of the twin volleyball players who play for the Incheon Heungguk Life Insurance Pink Spiders. Previously considered to be the best setter on the South Korean women’s national under-18 volleyball team and having been the second overall draft pick (after her older sister Lee Jae-young), Lee has a huge fandom, and the news of her hospitalization quickly led to suspicions of a possible suicide attempt due to a series of Instagram posts claiming that she had been bullied by another member of her team. Yet things turned around the next day, when a middle-school teammate of Lee’s appeared in the Volleyball Gallery of the internet forum known as DC Inside accusing Lee of having in fact been a bully herself. Many commenters immediately attacked the person who posted the message, saying that she was making everything up. Then a similar post appeared on a more popular internet forum called Nate Pann, in which several victims (including the one who’d posted the original message on DC Inside the day before) described the kind of bullying to which they had been subjected, not only by Lee Da-young but also by her twin Lee Jae-young during their middle school years.
To this, the Lee twins each posted a hand-written apology letter on their social media accounts on February 10, admitting to bullying their teammates in middle school.
Having now recognized the seriousness of the events of the past, I have written this message by hand.
If the victims allow it, I will personally visit them and apologize. With a deep sense of guilt about the trauma that the victims have had to live with until now, I will practice self-discipline and reflect on my actions.
— Lee Da-young, volleyball player, February 10, 2021.
In addition, their team, the Pink Spiders, issued an apology letter on February 10, but it was met with more criticism as the team didn’t take any disciplinary action against the twins.
And the fact that the twins only apologized after they had received abuse enraged the public. Moreover, some felt that posting apology letters on social media instead of contacting the victims directly was a show and not a real apology. Eventually, a petition to Cheong Wa Dae appeared, calling for the players to be permanently removed from the national team. Possibly due to such outcry, the team eventually placed both players in “indefinite suspension”, and the Korea Volleyball Association announced that the twin sisters had been dropped from the national team ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
The Pink Spiders issued a second apology on February 15:
On February 10, our team’s players Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young admitted that they had bullied other students on their middle school volleyball team and apologized. The victims showed courage to reveal the harm that had been done to them. We completely understand and sympathize with the victims for the scars and pain they have suffered.
[We] are sorry for disappointing all volleyball lovers over this incident, and we strongly feel responsible.
— Incheon Heungguk Life Insurance Pink Spiders, February 15, 2021.
Then other claims and allegations followed in Korean volleyball. This time, it was the turn of the male volleyball players. On February 13, a victim of star players Song Myung-geun and Sim Kyoung Sub came forward, claiming that he had been physically abused by the two players in middle school and high school. He wrote that Song’s abuse had resulted in a testicular rupture, which roused fury from the public.
Both Song and Sim admitted to their bullying and issued an apology the next day, similar to that of the twin sisters. However, the apology from their team, Ansan OK Financial Group Okman, was considered by many to be secondary victimization:
[Volleyball] player Song Myung-geun had an inappropriate clash with the victim while attending Songlim High School, and we have confirmed that he apologized and provided support for the surgery and treatment at the time. … [Volleyball] player Sim Kyoung Sub also admitted to physically and verbally abusing the victim while attending Songlim Middle School and apologized for this.
Both players inflicted indelible pain on the victim as a child, without recognizing the seriousness of the violence. We would like to once again offer an apology to the victim.
— Ansan OK Financial Group Okman, February 13, 2021.
The players were in middle school and high school at the time, so they were old enough to know better, but the team’s official apology simply treated the abuse as an “inappropriate clash” and mistakes made in childhood. In addition, both players expressed a wish to drop out of the rest of the season, and some have criticized the team for allowing the perpetrators to determine the terms of their own disciplinary measures.
The allegations of school bullying then spread to other sports. One victim came forward with allegations against baseball players Kim Dae Hyun and Lee Young Ha on February 21, 2021. Unlike other victims, who posted their claims anonymously, Kim and Lee’s victim revealed his name. In the March 15 episode of PD Notebook, MBC’s investigative journalism series, the victim, named Jo Chang-mo, explained the abuse that had been inflicted on him by the two players in high school:
[They] hit people with bats. This is the biggest problem in baseball. It’s a tool made to hit balls. But they use it to beat you like a dog. After telling us all to get into [the downward dog position with our heads on the ground], they told other kids to get up. When I tried to get up, they stepped on my head, telling me to stay down. … The two of them told me to put my hand on a portable bug zapper [even though I was a pitcher, and my hands were very important].
— Jo Chang-mo, former high school teammate of Kim Dae Hyun and Lee Young Ha,
PD Notebook Episode No. 1280 (3:57), March 16, 2021.
There were many more accounts of the physical and verbal abuse he endured, corroborated by his former teammates. On the show, Jo’s father became emotional as he expressed his regret that he had not pursued an investigation into the school bullying at the time because Kim’s parents had asked for mercy, due to their son being a “promising player”.
Unlike the volleyball players, both baseball players denied the allegations, although PD Notebook also interviewed witnesses. Lee Young Ha’s agents at A-Spec Co. released an official statement on March 18, 2021:
In high school, Lee Young Ha said some harsh words to younger players as a senior student and as the head of the pitchers, and he also assembled the players and punished them as a group. … However, we would like to make it crystal clear that the claims that he specifically singled out individuals on whom to inflict violence, as reported by a TV show, are completely false. We would like to ask that assertions based on unilateral assumptions not be covered by the media.
— A-Spec Co., Lee Young Ha’s management agency, March 18, 2021.
Allegations of school bullying also surfaced in football on February 24. Ki Sung-yeung, former captain of the South Korean national football team and former Celtic and Newcastle star footballer, was named as the alleged perpetrator along with another person who was now a university professor. This was particularly scandalous, as the alleged abuse had occurred in elementary school when Ki was a sixth grader, and was sexual in nature.
Ki immediately released a statement denying the allegations through his agency and also held a press conference on February 27, where he said:
So… for the past few days, it’s not that I was angry as such, but it drove me crazy, because it’s just so absurd. If there really was something, why would I be here doing this interview? … The situation is very messy because of me, and I am sorry about that to my fans and my colleagues and my team FC Seoul. But it happened to me, and I would like to say once again that I will respond to this very strongly…
— Ki Sung-yeung, FC Seoul footballer, February 27, 2021.
The controversy regarding the allegations against Ki is ongoing, but his lawyer recently released a statement along with voice recordings of conversations with the alleged victims, which seem to prove that the allegations are false. Ki has also expressed that he will be filing lawsuits against the alleged victims.
On March 14, former basketball star and current TV personality Hyun Joo-yup was also accused of bullying younger teammates in high school. However, his former team members have expressed doubts and voiced their support for Hyun, who has filed a libel suit against the alleged victim. We may eventually find out the truth through the legal system.
Similar to when the #MeToo movement began, people started to ask why the victims were only now telling their stories, years after the incidents had occurred. According to Shin Jun-ha, the Secretary General of the School Violence Victims Family Association, some victims continue to live in fear even in adulthood, finding it difficult to walk down narrow alleys (reminiscent of ones where they were bullied).
In addition, the National Human Rights Commission’s 2019 survey of 60,000 student sports players in elementary, middle, and high schools in Korea revealed that over 20% of students were bullied or abused, but of them only about 5% reported the incidents. (This was a much smaller number than the 81.8% of bullying victims in the general student population who reported incidents.) The main reason was fear of retribution.
This series of events plaguing the Korean sports community reminds me of the old saying, “You reap what you sow.” Perhaps this will be the spark that is needed for the sports community to reorganize the current system, in which abuse by star players and coaches is implicitly allowed and covered up for the sake of the team’s success. Hopefully it’ll also teach our young people to be more responsible for their actions.