Bullying Accusations Snare K-Pop Stars and Athletes in South Korea

An Woo-jin, 23, is one of the top pitchers in South Korea. In 2022, he led the Korea Baseball Organization, the country’s top league, in earned run average and strikeouts. But the KBO didn’t invite him to play in the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament featuring Major League Baseball stars that begins next week.

The KBO has said it excluded Mr An, who has been dogged by anonymous accusations that he assaulted his teammates while in high school, because it considers him a reputational liability. He was not considered last year for an award given to the KBO’s best pitcher because of those accusations.

No charges have ever been filed, and Mr. An has said that news reports about his bullying, for which he apologized at the time, were exaggerated. Yet many South Koreans, including baseball fans, have said they support his exclusion.

Over the last two decades, public accusations of school bullying and violence have played an increasingly prominent role in South Korean culture — Netflix even has a hit show on the subject, “The Glory.” Entertainment agencies vet would-be pop stars for evidence of bullying in their pasts.

Last week, President Yoon Suk Yeol withdrew the appointment of Jung Soon-shin as chief of the National Office of Investigation in response to reports that Mr. Jung’s son had verbally harassed a high school classmate in 2017, and that Mr. Jung had defended him instead of holding him accountable.

Many South Koreans believe that bullies have damaged victims’ lives in an irreversible way, said Jihoon Kim, a criminologist at the University of Alabama who has studied bullying in South Korea. “The idea of ​​damaging the career of a bully is not seen as problematic, as they are seen as deserving it,” he said.

Takedowns of accused bullies remain popular, despite concerns about accountability and credibility, given that in many cases the accusations are anonymous. Critics have also questioned whether the harm done to reputations is disproportionate to the offenses.

A national conversation around school bullying began taking shape in the 1990s, after several teenage targets of such abuse died by suicide. A 2004 law to prevent bullying was widely considered a moment of reckoning, but a severe lack of mental health services for bullies and their victims has persisted, said Jun Sung Hong, a professor of social work at Wayne State University who has written about bullying in south korea.

Penalties for bullying in South Korea tend to be less severe than in the United States. There, school harassment is frequently grounds for suspension or expulsion, while many South Korean schools just impose community service or a restraining order, said Noh Yoon Ho, a lawyer in Seoul who has advised bullying victims.

Still, Ms. Noh said, more victims and bystanders have been reporting school bullying, and the institutional mechanisms for doing so have improved. In a government survey, 91 percent of people who said they experienced bullying last year reported it, compared with 78 percent in 2014.

As people have come forward with old bullying accusations, some have identified public figures, including athletes and entertainers, as perpetrators.

In 2021, two professional volleyball players, the twin sisters Lee Jae-yeong and Lee Da-yeong, then 24 years old, were cut from their Korean clubs after they admitted to having verbally abused their teammates in middle school. That prompted a spate of bullying accusations against other athletes and a plea by then-President Moon Jae-in for the Culture Ministry to “make special efforts to eradicate the problem.”

Last year, Hybe, the agency behind the boy band BTS, kicked out Kim Ga-ram from his nascent girl group Le Sserafim, after anonymous accusers said the singer had verbally abused them. Hybe threatened to sue her accusers for defamation, but later ended Ms. Kim’s contract after a law firm representing one of the accusers threatened to publicly release evidence.

Victims might choose anonymity out of fear that public accusations could prompt retaliation from the former bullies or their allies, Ms. Noh said. But some anonymous accusations circulating in the South Korean news media are less than they seem.

After the comedian Hong Hyun-hee was accused two years ago in an online post of having been a school bully, former classmates of hers denied the accusation, and she filed a defamation lawsuit. Her accuser later withdrew the post and apologized for having a “memory lapse,” Ms. Hong’s agency said.

Other critics say that the takedowns can be too punitive. Case in point: the pitcher, An Woo-jin.

Mr. An’s troubles began in 2017 when a TV network reported that he had assaulted younger players on his high school team.

The police determined that Mr. An, then 17, had hit three younger students in the head with a baseball, a cellphone and a belt buckle, and a fourth student on the shin with a bat, according to police records provided by his lawyer. After the students decided not to file charges, saying that Mr. An’s behavior had not been severe, prosecutors dropped the case.

The allegations against Mr. An, a 6-foot-3 right-hander who throws 99-mile-per-hour fastballs, did not stop him from going professional the same year. The Kiwoom Heroes signed him for 600 million won, or about $470,000. No new accusations of bullying have arisen.

But the claims continue to shadow his career.

In 2017, the Korea Baseball Softball Association, which governs its national teams, barred him from the Olympics and the Asian Games. In January, the Korea Baseball Organization, which selects the team for the World Baseball Classic, said he would not take part in the tournament, which starts Tuesday.

The team was selected with an eye toward “the symbolic meaning, responsibility and price that comes with representing the country,” the organization’s spokesman, Lee Kyong-ho, said in an interview. “Is it right to select players based only on their skills?”

Fueling public anger is a perception that the penalties imposed by Mr. An’s high school—five hours of volunteer work and a written apology—were too light. But Mr. An’s lawyer, Baek Sung-moon, said in an interview that the decision to ban him from international tournaments had apparently been based on an impression that his bullying was harsher than reported.

“He has had a hard time being viewed as some kind of a school bullying demon,” he added.

Mr. An’s defenders include Shin-Soo Choo, an outfielder who played 16 years in the majors and now plays in the KBO He said last month that “South Koreans don’t seem to easily forgive.”

“He repented his mistakes, got punished and was suspended from tournaments,” Mr. Choo told a Korean-language station in Dallas, adding that Mr. An’s talents could make him “the next Chan Ho Park,” an All-Star pitcher who was the first South Korean-born MLB player.

But many critics of Mr. An have taken issue with Mr. Choo’s efforts to stand up for him. Among them is Mr. Park himself, who retired from baseball in 2012.

“An Woo-jin’s exclusion from the WBC national team was a reflection of the times,” he told reporters on a visit to the Heroes’ spring training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“I told him not to be so sad,” he added.

Written by trendingatoz

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