Plots involving school violence are no strangers to K-dramas. From Solomon’s Perjury (2016) to A Beautiful World (2019), we have often related to and sympathized with characters fighting against school violence. This time, however, reel life has merged with real in disturbing ways.
Nate Pann, a South Korean online platform that allows netizens to make anonymous posts, is currently filled with anonymous accounts of school violence involving celebrities as the perpetrators. While some have denied claims, others have been taken off shows and their activities suspended, rattling the K-drama industry as a whole.
It all began in February, when two of South Korea’s best-known female athletes—twin sisters Lee Jae-yeong and Lee Da-yeong of the national women’s volleyball team—were accused of bullying in an anonymous internet post. It led to the sisters issuing apologies and being dropped from the national team and clubs, with similar scandals erupting on the men’s side as well. The series of exposes in the sports industry soon spread to K-pop, with idols Soo-jin of (G)-IDLE, Kihyun of Monsta X, Hyunjin of Stray Kids, and Mingyu of Seventeen being accused of school bullying. It was inevitable that the K-drama industry would also be swept up in the storm.
Since then, several well-known actors have come under fire for being school bullies. Jo Byung-gyu, who played a victim of bullying in his recent drama The Uncanny Counter (2020-2021), was accused of being a bully himself by two people he went to high school with. The actor has categorically denied the allegations, but the damage is done—his appearance on the KBS variety show Come Back Home has been put on hold indefinitely. Actress Park Hye-soo of Hello, My Twenties! (2016) faced similar accusations by a former classmate, leading her drama Dear M. opposite NCT 127’s Jae-hyun, which was due to premiere on February 26, to be postponed indefinitely.
The most serious set of allegations, however, were leveled against Ji Soo, the leading star of the ongoing historical drama River Where The Moon Rises. The young actor was accused of gross sexual misconduct and extreme physical violence by his former schoolmates. He has since issued a public apology for bullying, but the sexual harassment allegations remain unaddressed. He has also been replaced in the drama by Na In-woo, and is preparing to enlist in the military this year. Idol-turned-actress Naeun of APRIL, who was set to appear on SBS’s Taxi Driver in April, was also replaced in the drama by Pyo Ye-jin.
A survey by South Korea’s Ministry of Education reveals a sharp rise in school bullying cases. Punishment in these cases rarely matches the intensity of the crimes. The prevalence of bullying arcs in K-dramas that focus on school life—like School 2017 (2017), Sassy Go Go (2015), Angry Mom (2015)—also show that these recent revelations are not isolated incidents, and point towards bigger social and structural issues that demand immediate attention. Experts believe that the extreme meritocracy and rigid social hierarchies prevalent in South Korean culture, coupled with the intense pressures of their education system as depicted in shows like SKY Castle (2018-2019) and normalization of physical violence in schools, contribute to a longstanding issue.
Before the internet, victims had no way of expressing their pain without revealing their identities and becoming vulnerable to attacks. This explains why the recent surge in anonymous confessions is resonating with many. A neglected issue coming under intense scrutiny is a good thing, but there is also danger lurking. As entertainment companies rush to do damage control by halting drama productions and replacing actors, these largely anonymous, unverified accusations can also turn into witch-hunts and destroy careers.