July 11, 2005
Seoul school bully groups spawned crime syndicates
By Jon Herskovitz and Kim Yoo-chul
SEOUL (Reuters) - The old problem of school bullying has
taken a modern twist in South Korea, where gangs use the latest
communications technology and form mini-crime syndicates that
combine gangs from several schools.
With names such as the "Seoul Association," the syndicates,
recently the target of a clampdown, linked bullying gang
members from several schools in the capital Seoul to carry out
extortion, assault, robbery and prostitution.
South Korea's National Police Agency stamped out the
syndicates earlier this year and cut down on bullying with a
forceful nationwide campaign.
But experts on the subject say what happened in South Korea
may represent the future for school bullying in the country and
other parts of the world.
Police identified and disbanded three gang networks. The
Seoul Association was the largest with 307 members from 94
junior and senior high schools while the other two syndicates
were organized among junior and senior high school students
from two affluent areas, also in Seoul.
"If we had let them alone, they would have gone
nationwide," said Lee Kum-hyoung, director of the Women and
Juvenile Affairs division of the National Police Agency, adding
police believed they had stamped out all the syndicates.
Lee said the groups set up their own Internet sites for
organizing events, such as street brawls with other syndicates
to see which group had the better fighters. Members used text
messaging to communicate in class and to members in nearby
In South Korea's Confucian society, the syndicates were
highly ordered based on seniority, and Web sites also listed a
pecking order of gang members based on fighting skill.
This top-down structure mirrors life in South Korea's
pressurized schools, which have a rigid system of discipline
and structured relationships where juniors must obey their
seniors. Seniors can often act with impunity toward juniors,
which helps bullying become a part of school life, experts say.
Add to this the world's most wired country and gangs will
automatically turn to high-tech communications to branch out
and to organize extortion or other rackets that prey on the
weak, experts said.
SELLING DATES, STEALING RADIOS
The groups would put the squeeze on students to raise money
for senior syndicate members so they could go out on expensive
dates. The Seoul Association used its organizational skills to
host seven sexually charged dance shows, where they auctioned
off dating partners.
The groups mostly conducted petty crimes and but some also
engaged in prostitution and rape, members said. They comprised
elite students as well as class bullies, with girls forming a
large part of the syndicates.
A 16-year-old high school student, who asked that she only
be identified as Kim, was a part of the "Songpa Association"
which banded together boys and girls from an affluent area of
"My seniors forced me to steal car stereos from parking
lots in the middle to the night, and to bring girls around for
their birthday parties so they could have fun," Kim said.
"Selling sex to top members was a way other leaders in the
group could keep their control," she said.
In March, police, along with parents, teachers and
prosecutors, launched a huge program to curb school violence
that included setting up 24-hour telephone hotlines, counselors
for victims, special school police and an amnesty period for
gang members who wanted to confess to petty crimes.
"We set up this program to teach the students of the
dangers of these gangs. Our emphasis is on helping the victim,
reforming the assailant, and seeking criminal prosecution for
those few who commit terrible crimes," said the police agency's
Experts are worried the trend could also emerge in other
parts of the world that have high population densities and
tech-savvy students who communicate electronically.
"What is going on now in South Korea could become the model
in other parts of the world," said Shin Young-hee, a criminal
sociologist at Seoul's Hanyang University.
"Access to the Internet and sending SMS text messages by
mobile phones are among the easiest and fastest ways to
organize crime efficiently," she said. So far, other police
forces have not worked with South Korea on this problem.
Although the crime syndicates may have been eradicated,
gangs at individual schools still thrive, police say.
Police studies show if a student joins a gang it is usually
in junior high school. Among the gangs tracked nationwide, 54
percent are for boys and 46 percent for girls, who tend to
borrow the name of a high-end designer brand for the group
"Criminal organizations will gain more power if they are
connected under a big, central command," Shin said. "I think
these junior and senior high school students understood this
concept and used the tools at hand to seize on forming their