Suicide is the most common cause of death among South Korean students between the ages of 15 and 24. In a country in which academic success is the norm, students grow up under an immense amount of pressure. They spend the greater part of their days at traditional school or Hagwons, schools specialising in preparing students for exams in a short space of time, rather than at home. In such a competitive culture, those who stand out as being too short, too tall, too thin or too fat are singled out by the mass at a crucial phase in development when the ability to empathise is not yet fully ingrained. The result is a nation dedicated to conformity, and the shunning of those who aren’t perceived as meeting the societal standard.
In one frequently observed phenomenon, known as ‘wangtta’ (왕따), a whole class will ostracise and ignore a single student. This is usually started by a smaller group of bullies by whom the rest of the class is forced to participate, in order to avoid being the next wangtta victim. The affected student will spend their days sitting, studying and eating alone, effectively frozen out by their whole peer group.
Understandably, this cruelty can deeply wound and damage students’ mental and emotional health. In 2012, the Foundation for Preventing Youth Violence conducted a school violence survey on 5540 students and found that 49.3% of the bullied students stated that the emotional pain due to bullying was beyond tolerable. Despite this alarming statistic, and the fact that there have been a large number of teen suicides directly linked to bullying, so far neither parents, school administrators nor politicians can seem to achieve a solution that minimises the bullying, so tragically the number of victimised students just keeps on growing.