The outcry began in February, when Twins were former teammates Volleyball stars Jae-yeong Lee and Da-yeong Lee accused the players of abusing them during elementary and middle school.
The 25-year-olds are two of South Korea’s most famous athletes. They helped the women’s national team qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and they play for one of the oldest volleyball teams in the country, the Heungkuk Life Pink Spiders. However, in a post on a popular online forum, the former teammates said the twins routinely hit them in the head, berated them, and stole their money – and at some point threatened them with a knife.
“After all these years we are still living with trauma because it did something to us. On the other hand, they come out on several TV shows and laugh happily. … We ask for a sincere apology from you, ”the post reads.
The former teammates made their allegations anonymously. NBC News tried to contact them through the online forum but received no response.
The Lee sisters were quick to express remorse. “I apologize for leaving permanent damage and terrifying memories for the victims during what was supposed to be full of happy memories,” Jae-yeong Lee said in a statement.
Da-yeong Lee also issued a statement saying, “If the victims allow, I will visit them directly and apologize.”
Even so, the fallout was quick. The Heungkuk Life Pink Spiders have suspended the twins indefinitely, and the Korea Volleyball Association said they would not participate in the Tokyo Games.
The sisters did not respond to a request for comment.
The allegations have also found resonance outside of the sports world. South Korea has been rocked in recent years by high-profile student deaths after severe bullying by schoolmates. Suicide was the leading cause of youth death in the country for eight consecutive years, according to a government report. Bullying and violence at school are considered to be one of the main reasons for the high suicide rate.
In the past few weeks, more and more people have made allegations of abuse by other celebrities.
Kim Ji Soo, an actor known by his stage name Ji Soo who stars in the popular television drama “River Where the Moon Rises,” was recently removed from the series after several people accused him of bullying. The series has already aired on television, but the show’s production company said it would re-shoot its scenes with a new actor.
“I sincerely apologize to those who have suffered because of me. There is no need to apologize for the wrongdoings I have committed in the past, ”Ji Soo said in a statement.
Jo Jung-sil, president of the Family Association of Victims of School Violence in Seoul, said Korean society has so far been largely unsympathetic to victims of school bullying.
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“A lot of people said that school bullying was just an immature argument between teenagers,” she said. “Some would even blame the victims, saying that it is their problem that they cannot fit into.”
Two decades ago, her daughter was beaten by a dozen schoolmates and spent five days in a coma. However, when Jo tried to hold the students accountable, the wider community viewed her as a troublemaker and her family was forced to move to another area.
However, last year the Ministry of Education promised to strengthen psychological counseling services and provide legal and medical expenses to victims of school violence and their families.
In light of the recent controversy, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism also vowed to work together to end violence among athletes.
“Student athletes who bully can no longer become successful athletes,” they said in a joint statement.
The Korean volleyball association, which oversees the country’s professional volleyball league, also said student athletes involved in bullying are at risk of being expelled from the league.
Han You-kyung, director of the Institute for School Violence Prevention at Ewha Womans University, said helping victims of bullying is vital given the permanent harm it can cause.
“Previous studies have shown that the experience of being bullied negatively affects not just the individual during puberty but the rest of their life,” Han said.
Jo said South Korea’s current reckoning was “inevitable,” and the string of bullying victims who finally break their silence shows that attitudes in society are gradually changing.
“This movement will definitely be an opportunity to remind everyone in our society – especially young students – that bullying could always have an impact decades after it happened,” Jo said. “The fact that it happens to celebrities and sports stars, who are often the most adored by young students, makes it all the more effective.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, write HOME at 741741, or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.