The Debate | Opinion

South Korea: Cyberbullying Amid Coronavirus

Some online trolls seem determined to infuse Korean politics and COVID-19 with racial tensions.

By Justin Fendos for
South Korea: Cyberbullying Amid Coronavirus
Credit: Pixabay

In February, a friend of mine, who is a Korean vlogger, conveyed a story about cyberbullying. I must confess, at the time, it was not a topic I was intending to write about. The COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea was still not under control; I was focusing my attention elsewhere. Little did I know that my March article on COVID-19 would immediately precipitate my own cyberbullying experiences, allowing me to observe, firsthand, the xenophobic intensity of these attacks.

First, some context on how cyberbullying has evolved in South Korea. Since the turn of the century, South Korea has consistently been one of the most connected countries in the world, with over 96 percent of the population having daily access to the internet. Online gaming is incredibly popular, having grown immensely over the last decade to become an industry worth over $12 billion per year.

Koreans have a voracious appetite for online video content. Last year, adults spent an average of 23 hours per month on YouTube, making it the single most viewed content type in South Korea. With a wide range of streaming companies like Afreeca and Twitch competing for a limited space, South Korea has one of most diverse and vibrant arrays of video content in the world. They even invented the mukbang.

One of the earliest internationally publicized cases of cyberbullying in South Korea involved a foreigner, German fashion journalist Vera Hohleiter. In addition to having been a guest on the popular Korean TV show “Chatting With Beauties,” Hohleiter published a book entitled Sleepless in Seoul, describing the experiences of a foreign woman hopelessly in love with a Korean man.

In her book, Hohleiter made the unfortunate choice of saying kimchi smells bad and that the short skirts worn by many Korean women looked uncomfortable. Infuriated Koreans soon assailed her blog with insults, labeling her a variety of obscenities including “racist” and “Nazi” while demanding her immediate departure.

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A large part of this backlash, according to Hohleiter, was due to a single Korean student in Germany who mistranslated a portion of her book, making it sound like she was saying South Korea was “the evil of all evils.” Hohleiter later published a Korean version of the book to try to clear away misconceptions.

The recent spate of K-pop suicides linked to cyberbullying brought even greater global exposure to the problem. The recent deaths of Goo Hara and Sulli, in particular, have refocused attention on malicious online content, even motivating the drafting of a bill last October known as the “Sulli Act,” which would allow the identification and prosecution of perpetrators of hateful online content. As far as I am aware, the bill has not yet been put to a vote.

The need to address cyberbullying has been discussed in South Korea for some years now. A particularly vulnerable demographic are minors, who sometimes spend so much time on social media that they need to undergo addiction treatment. High activity online puts minors at greater risk to either suffer bullying or witness attacks on others. As described by Dr. Seung-ha Lee and colleagues, frequent observations of cyberbullying can have an unfortunate normalizing effect, making children believe such behavior is normal.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Ministry of Education, 10.8 percent of students in primary and secondary school reported experiencing cyberbullying. For minors, suicides have been an all-too-common outcome. In one 2018 case, a high school student committed suicide after receiving incessant threats of bodily harm from her peers. In another 2018 case, a middle schooler committed suicide after repeated verbal abuse and sexual harassment. After her death, her sister claimed the victim had been raped by two classmates, who then spread word about the incident online, precipitating lewd messages from other students and strangers, asking for sex.

In recent years, cyberbullying has taken what can only be described as an unfortunate racist turn. Anti-Chinese sentiments, in particular, have been on the rise. Many factors have contributed to this darkening of opinion, most notably the 2017 dispute over THAAD deployment and public disturbances by Chinese tourists visiting South Korea. Both have done much to cloud the initial air of cooperation and common culture shared between the two countries in the early 2010s.

Even for higher education, traditionally a haven for multicultural interactions, perceptions of Chinese international students have taken a dramatic turn. Research conducted in 2012 by Jae-Eun Jon, for example, showed Chinese students, at the time, were among the most likely to be welcomed by domestic peers because they were viewed as being less foreign. More recent work, however, shows these opinions have now changed, with domestic students now viewing Chinese more negatively than other groups, like those from Europe or South America.

Against this backdrop of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment, the coronavirus pandemic appears to have added fuel to the fire. Enter my vlogging friend, whom I will call “Hanna.” In February, Hanna commented during a live stream that she thought the Moon administration was doing a good job in containing the outbreak. She also described how her mother, a senior and supporter of President Moon Jae-in, was often ostracized by peers for her political beliefs. Most of Hanna’s subscribers either expressed sympathy or neutrality through the chat, with the latter reaction being most common.

Things on Hanna’s channel proceeded normally for a few more days until, one evening, a subscriber asked her to repeat her thoughts about Moon and the outbreak. In retrospect, Hanna says she now feels this was a question used to “fish out” her opinions. She replied much like she had the night before, advocating her support for Moon and mentioning her mother. This time, however, the reaction was very different.

For the next 10 minutes, four subscribers started a conversation among themselves, saying things like, “Well, it’s not surprising her mom is treated like that, she is a communist.” Other comments included, “you are just a Chinese mouthpiece,” and “the only good Chinese is a dead Chinese.” One commenter then posted a link to a picture of Hanna and her ex-boyfriend, who happened to be a Chinese national. Hanna was shocked by this blatant intrusion into her past. She tried, at first, to diplomatically disengage the conversation but the chat quickly devolved into a series of sexually- and racially-charged comments, prompting Hanna to ban the offenders.

It goes without saying the experience was traumatic. The next day, Hanna’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were inundated with messages and comments again accusing her of being a Chinese sympathizer and communist. Even her mother’s account received messages accusing Hanna of being a Chinese prostitute.

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When Hanna conveyed this story to me, I was struck by how coordinated the attacks were, occurring over a very short period but through multiple accounts. The four people she banned had all subscribed to her channel very recently, within the span of a few days. The attacks on her Facebook and Instagram also occurred over the course of a few hours, suggesting a single person or small group was coordinating them.

Little did I know I would soon suffer a very similar set of attacks a mere week later.

The very night my March article in The Diplomat went live, I experienced a series of xenophobic attacks across the internet. Having spent some time analyzing the sequence of events, things appear to have proceeded in this manner: 1) a legitimate Korean news organization posted a translation of my article; 2) a rapid series of over 40 negative comments followed, most with politically-charged language; 3) two new versions of the article were published on other news sites; 4) more negative comments followed; 5) a blog post was created accusing me of being Chinese (I am American, by the way, with mixed Korean and European ancestry); 6) this post began to be integrated into many of the negative comments; 7) messages and posts started to be directed toward my Facebook account; 8) more blog posts appeared claiming my Chinese heritage; 9) some blog posts appeared attacking my sister and father; and, finally, 10) some rudimentary hacking attempts were made against two websites I own.

As was the case for Hanna, most of the negative comments and messages I received contained highly xenophobic language, accusing me, among other things, of being a communist, Moon sympathizer, and prostitute for the Chinese government. It is also noteworthy that these attacks literally occurred while I was sleeping, again suggestive of some coordination over a short period. Luckily, many of the comments on moderated websites were quickly removed, although, sadly, the original blog post accusing me of being Chinese still exists. In fact, this post appears so prominently in Naver’s search engine now that even my producer at Arirang TV was fooled.

So, what did I do in my article to earn such great attention? The first thing I did was praise the Moon administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The second was mention the fact that some seniors we were working with here in Busan were sometimes quoting things said by politicians of the opposition United Freedom Party, citing “Moon’s incompetence” as a reason to resist the need to undergo COVID-19 testing and quarantine. These two things were apparently enough for someone or some group to decide I should be systematically targeted.

I can say with great pride that the negative attention has been far outweighed by the positive. Many Korean radio and television networks have invited me to comment on current affairs while medical and science professionals in the United States, France, and Italy have been reaching out, asking questions about South Korea’s COVID-19 standard operating procedure (SOP). I have, in fact, spent much of the last two weeks translating and explaining portions of SOP documents.

Domestically, many Koreans have also reached out, communicating their appreciation for helping to explain the good work their country is doing. Among the positive messages were contacts from six people who noticed the attacks against me and revealed having experienced similar indecencies after posting or streaming their own opinions of support for the Moon administration. It was striking to observe the consistency in this underlying political theme.

In closing, I want to reiterate that cyberbullying is not a uniquely Korean problem. Nor is xenophobia. As a nation, South Korea has, in recent years, become very transparent, democratic, and tolerant. The ability of Koreans to unite in halting their first major coronavirus outbreak speaks volumes about their conscientiousness and willingness to help others. This, I feel, is the true identity of the Korean people, something not reflected in the disgusting attacks I have described.

Having said this, I can only conclude, based on what I have observed, that there is some minority determined to infuse politics and COVID-19 with racial tensions. Perhaps the upcoming elections are connected somehow; I cannot say with certainty. What is certain, however, is that most Koreans still naively assume cyberbullying is someone else’s problem. I will admit, to my shame, that I held this assumption too, until it finally happened to me.

Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea. He conducts research on a wide range of topics including East Asian culture, education, and maritime trade