K-pop, with millions of fans worldwide and an active following on social media, is never without controversy — from trivial Twitter fan wars to serious cases of sexual abuse. Now, the latest scandal to cast a shadow on celebrities’ reputations comes not from their life as idols, but from years before the public even knew their names. Since February, online forums have been filled with people coming out with past experiences of school bullying in the hands of current celebrities. Some idols have taken responsibility, while other allegations remain unverified, but the ongoing issue has resonated in a society constantly plugged in to social media.
K-pop stars, like (G)I-dle’s Soojin, MONSTA X’s Kihyun, SEVENTEEN’s Mingyu, and Stray Kids’ Hyunjin, are just some of those who have been accused of bullying by former classmates. Only Hyunjin and Kihyun have officially issued apology statements as of writing, but all four idols have suspended their media activities.
The controversy started with twin volleyball players known as the Lee Sisters. Last month, the celebrity athletes were suspended from the national team after allegations that they had physically and verbally abused their elementary and middle school teammates came to light. Later on, similar cases of bullying by members of the men’s volleyball team were also exposed. These confessions mostly came from Nate Pann, an online forum where users can post anonymously. Soon, there were posts about Korean singers and actors too.
Hyunjin, 20, of the boy band Stray Kids, was accused by an unnamed former schoolmate of being verbally abusive and insulting her parents. She also accused him of sexual harassment in a group chat but did not go into detail. Hyunjin later posted a hand-written apology on Instagram and his agency, JYP Entertainment, announced that he will be taking time to reflect on the situation and will stop all his activities as an idol.
“The agency listened to Hyunjin’s former schoolmates and teachers in person, and Hyunjin has since met the former schoolmate and apologized for his misdeeds face-to-face,” JYP said in a statement. Hyunjin has also been dropped from multiple endorsements.
Actress Park Hye-soo, 26, was also embroiled in a bullying issue last month, in which a former classmate said that the star slapped her face. This led to the postponement of her K-drama Dear. M, which was set to premiere on Feb. 26.
A survey released by South Korea’s Ministry of Education in January found that one out of 100 elementary, middle, and high school students in Korea suffered or witnessed school bullying in the past two semesters. The most common forms of school violence are verbal abuse, outcasting, and cyberbullying.
“Recently, a common form of school violence is ‘quiet bullying’,” Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University told VICE. “This includes withholding information from a person being bullied or hiding their textbooks so they get scolded by teachers.”
“In Korea, spreading rumors, like of a classmate having sex, could be more painful than physical abuse,” Kwak said, adding that the intense bullying has a lot to do with South Korea’s collectivist culture. Rather than one on one bullying, school violence is done by big groups or even a whole class against a few. It’s a relatable situation for many, which is perhaps why the cases involving celebrities struck a chord.
The experience of bullying stays with victims until adulthood. In some cases, the victim’s memories of being bullied in school don’t go away and become even bigger issues.
“If they were once bullied, they might have tried to hide it, but are now forced to look back after reading the testimonies coming out,” Kwak said.
The most serious allegation against a celebrity involves actor Ji Soo, who stars in the Netflix K-drama My First First Love, among other shows. On March 2, an anonymous social media user wrote on Nate Pann that Ji Soo had bullied him while they were both students at a middle school in Seoul from 2006 to 2008. He recalled how the actor forced them to give him their gift vouchers, and shot a BB gun at other students in the backseat of a school bus.
Others claiming to be former schoolmates later commented on the post that they too were bullied by Ji Soo. One claimed that the actor slapped them on the face in the first grade, while another said Ji Soo and his friends threw cherry tomatoes at them in the school cafeteria. There were also more serious allegations involving sexual harassment.
Two days later, Ji Soo admitted to bullying schoolmates but did not address the allegations of sexual harassment. He posted a handwritten apology on Instagram saying: "There is no excuse for past misdeeds.”
“I sincerely apologize to those who suffered because of me. There’s no excuse for what I've done. It was unforgivable. When I started acting, I kept my past hidden,” Ji Soo said. “But, in my heart, I always felt guilty about the dark past.”
The actor’s agency denied the accusations of sexual harassment but announced that Ji Soo will immediately stop all his planned activities. The actor has stepped down from the lead role of the ongoing series River Where The Moon Rises, and will be replaced by a different actor.
Stories of school bullying involving celebrities continue to spread on South Korean social media, with new cases making headlines weekly. But some have also used this tense online environment to spread baseless rumors that could severely impact the careers of young stars. Social media is a huge part of life in South Korea so accusations spread quickly, even without coverage from big media outlets, and before they are verified.
Kim Suk-min from The Blue Tree Foundation warned of the dangers of this online “witch hunt,” which could turn calls for justice into another form of bullying. The non-governmental organization founded in 1995 aims to protect the youth from school violence and cyberbullying.
“Raising their voices through online communities or social media is brave and a way to get support from others, but we should also be cautious of witch hunting that could turn the bullies into victims,” Kim told VICE.
Still, Lee Hang-woo, a sociology professor of Chungbuk University, said that this reckoning could be seen as a sign of South Korea’s maturing democracy.
“In the old days, people who suffered from abuse in school often put up with it, but people today have learned to raise their voices amid growing sensitivity for democracy and human rights,” Lee told VICE. “Now we have the internet. There was no way to publicize the issue of being bullied in the past.”