America usually gets all the press and the bad reputation for her violent citizenry, but South Korea is the East Asian spot where you can see a lot more action.
Though I now live in Korea, I was born and raised in America, a place widely proclaimed and often imagined as home to the world’s most violent citizenry. For those who have never been, thoughts of the U.S. often conjure images of people walking the streets, armed with semi-automatic weapons, poppin’ caps into old ladies out walking their poodles.
And yet, having grown up in The States nearly all my life (even in seedy neighborhoods such as San Francisco’s Tenderloin and the Mission District) I can’t recall seeing more than ten fist fights on the street, nor was I ever confronted with a gun –and I can be pretty obnoxious.
Sure, there are exceptions, pockets of violence in the inner city and within certain economic classes and age groups, but overall they are just that, exceptions. And when people speak of gun deaths in America, they neglect to point out that over 50% of those numbers are people killing themselves, not killing others.
In short, growing up in the U.S. I rarely witnessed much in the way of public violence on display.
And then I moved to Korea. This is where the action is.
Fighting on the street in South Korea is the norm. I honestly can’t count the number of fisticuffs, shoving matches or downright brawls I have seen in my eight years on the peninsula. And the participants I’ve watched going at it widely vary; all ages, and genders, men beating their women as others stroll by, and even a woman with a newborn baby on her back fighting off two drunken women with her shoe.
And this doesn’t even count all the fights I hear outside my window (in the highly affluent Haeundae district) in the wee hours of the morning that are so common I no longer look outside to see what is happening anymore.
You can chalk this all up to alcohol, which I will get to later, but to what do we attribute the increasing violence in the schools?
The Kids are Not Alright
While the test-result oriented Korean schools are heralded the world over, Korea’s education system is riddled with violence where both teachers and students lord power over the kids. It seems that every few weeks the Korean (and now worldwide) media run stories on South Korean kids bullying each other or teachers abusing the kids –at times to the point of suicide.
Thankfully, the national government is stepping in where school administrators often turn the other way and is now jailing these little bully thugs and firing abusive teachers.
The school administration turning the other way is evident in this video where the vice principle actually questions why a teacher who brutally beat an elementary student should even be punished at all. (Be warned, the subject matter is graphic)
And then there are student traditions, such as seen here in an after graduation ceremony where older students use their Confucian code-endowed power to abuse younger students and actually film themselves smiling for the camera before posting it on the internet.
This is the exception, not the rule, but there is no question that bullying is a huge problem in South Korean schools.
Earlier this month, the bully culture went way too far when Nine teenagers were detained on suspicion of beating a teenage girl to death and then burying her body in a park in Goyang, South Korea.
NINE! How do you get that many people together and not one of them thinks to say, “Hey, wait a minute, beating this girl to death might not be such a good idea.” And some of them involved were girls themselves.
According to Yonhap, the nine suspects, which included six high school students, beat the 18-year-old girl with blunt weapons in an apartment in Goyang on April 5 for supposedly badmouthing them to others and refusing to do as she was told –which Korea’s strict Confucian code demands.
One of the youths involved, a 17-year-old, told police with little remorse after his arrest this week:
We were going to punish (the victim) for speaking ill of us and not listening to our words.
After bearing witness to Korea’s fighting culture for several years, this news comes as little surprise. I am sure these kids see all the fighting on the streets that I see and they certainly get a lot of it in the classroom, not only from bullies but from teachers who often take corporal punishment way to far.
Children see violence not only on the streets and in the school, they see it on TV at the highest levels of government. (Even in a debate on free lunches for those very same students watching the boob tube.)
There’s no getting around it: Children see, children do.
The Soju Problem
As for the fighting that takes place on the streets, it is generally due to heavy alcohol consumption and often brushed aside and excused as part of the nightlife culture. But is that really a legitimate excuse anymore when heavy alcohol consumption is so proudly ingrained in the culture?
How many if not all visitors to Korea have been asked by a Korean host, “Do you love Soju?” In the fifteen countries I have traveled to or lived in I have rarely if ever had a local ask if I love the traditional alcohol, except in Korea.
Getting drunk on Soju (and the drink itself) is almost sacred. Try saying you don’t like Soju sometime and see the look of extreme disappointment that washes across the face of your host. (So, you tell me you don’t like California wines? OK, fine.)
In most countries getting drunk and stupid is a rite of passage for youth. In South Korea it is simply a right that spans a person’s life. And the fighting that comes with it is treated casually by law enforcement with a general code of appeasement by the officers called to the scene. Try that behavior in America and you are quickly in bracelets, kissing the pavement.
Whether drunk or not, while you’ve got a much greater chance of being shot and killed in America and her gun culture, the chance of witnessing an ass-kicking in Korea is off the charts, as seen in this stat table from the Korean National Police Agency.
Assault crimes in Korea occur about 275,000 times per year. In comparison, Americans beat the crap out of each other around 850,000 times a year, but with six times the population. This amounts to, roughly, half the amount of assaults per capita when compared with Korea.
Thankfully, overall, assault crimes are decreasing. And while school violence is trending upward, it is at least getting more and more attention in the media and will hopefully begin to decline as officials move to address the problem.
Don’t Worry Weary Travelers
For those who have never been to Korea, don’t let this discourage you from going. Assault crimes in Korea are overwhelmingly Koreans pummeling each other, so foreigners can feel perfectly safe walking the streets. An expat’s biggest worry on the streets of a South Korean city is the noxious smell of Soju coming from a drunk asking “where are you from?” with a big, welcoming smile.
I plan to stay in Korea several more years, teaching, publishing and studying. I consider it my home. Yet, during my time I will attentively observe how this quickly emerging global power deals with its violence problem on the streets and in the schools. Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt and adjust. I look forward to seeing how Korean society, of which I consider myself a part, manages to do so.