July 15, 2022
SEOUL – Last month, a Korean Navy sergeant was lynched by a group of seven fellow servicemen for more than two hours at a unit in Donghae, Gangwon Province. The victim suffered severe ligament tears and bruises all over his body, which required four weeks of medical treatment.
About a month before that, four high school girls in Cheonho-dong, southeastern Seoul were caught by police for assaulting one of their classmates at a construction site.
The two cases may seem unrelated, but have one thing in common; the assailants claim that they were just “celebrating” the victims on their big days.
In the Navy case, the sergeant was to be discharged from the military the next day. The Seoul incident took place on the victim’s birthday.
Hit for joy
Nasty celebrations featuring violence and humiliation are nothing new in South Korea, nor is it unique to the country.
On YouTube, there is an abundance of “saengil-bbang” videos showing Koreans – mostly teenagers — kicking their friends’ butts while wishing them a happy birthday. “Saengil” means birthday in Korean, and the word “bbang” is used as a suffix to indicate violent celebrations.
In the early 2000s, saengil-bbang used to be more violent. They were also more humiliating for the recipients, taking place in public places and — in some extreme cases — featuring nudity.
A 2007 report by public broadcaster KBS offers a glimpse into the practice at that time, with footage and photos. In one clip, a group of people stand in a circle, kicking and stamping on a person at the center. Another shows a girl, tied to a street pole or a tree with duct tape, getting flour dumped on her.
A 2010 article published by local newspaper the JoongAng Ilbo quotes then-President Lee Myung-bak as calling “ugly” graduation after-parties of teenagers a “disease of our society.” The remark came after a series of reports about several teenage boys tearing off each other’s uniforms at graduation ceremonies, as part of “joleop-bbang.” “Joleop” is the Korean word for graduation.
While the birthday and graduation ceremonies were mostly a teenage thing, young male military conscripts had their own culture of “jeonyeok-bbang,” or violent discharge ceremony.
Ham Young-wok, a 30-year-old office worker in Seoul who completed his mandatory military service in 2015, said the practice usually occurred during a farewell party for soldiers who are to be discharged.
“One of my military comrades smashed my face into a cake. They (fellow comrades) stood in a line to kick my butt, one after another. They didn’t hit me too hard because it was just a little prank. I think this customary practice could be dangerous when accompanied by alcohol,” Ham said.
Little is known about when and how such practices started in Korea. But it appears to have been in practice in the 1990s.
Koo Jung-woo, a sociology professor at Keimyung University, noted a culture of violence prevalent in the military may have led soldiers to express their emotions, good or bad, in physical ways.
“Many Korean military units have used corporal punishment, even for small mistakes. Soldiers’ repeated exposure to violence has led to violent ways of communication,” he said.
“Although the military needs a certain level of hierarchy and strict discipline, it doesn’t mean that violence can be overlooked,” the professor added.
Outside the barracks, there is a tendency to view violence as a mere prank, pointed out Kim Sung-chul, a professor in the media department at Korea University.
“There are many TV shows where cast members hit each other to entertain viewers. It is also quite common to see cast members receive penalties like a bucket of water being poured on their heads or a finger flick on their foreheads,” he said.
This kind of media representation could give viewers the wrong idea about violence and its use as a prank.
The professor also noted that violent celebrations could be associated with, or lead to, bullying.