The outcry began in February when former teammates of twin volleyball stars Jae-yeong Lee and Da-yeong Lee accused the players of subjecting them to abuse throughout 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 country’s oldest volleyball teams, the Heungkuk Life Pink Spiders. In a post on a popular online forum, however, the former teammates said the twins had routinely punched them in the head, verbally abused them and took money from them — and at one point had threatened them with a knife.
“We still live with trauma after all these years because of what they have done to us. On the other hand, they come out on multiple TV shows, laughing happily. ... We demand a sincere apology from them,” the post read.
The former teammates made their allegations anonymously. NBC News attempted to contact them through the online forum but did not receive a response.
The Lee sisters were quick to express remorse. “I apologize for leaving lasting damages and giving terrible memories to the victims during the time which should have only been 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 directly visit them and apologize.”
Still, the fallout has been swift. The Heungkuk Life Pink Spiders 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 struck a chord beyond the sports world. South Korea has been rocked in recent years by high-profile deaths of students following severe bullying by schoolmates. Suicide has been the No. 1 cause of death among adolescents in the country for eight consecutive years, according to a government report last year. Bullying and violence in school are understood to be one of the biggest reasons for the high suicide rate.
Over the past few weeks, more people have come forward with allegations of abuse by other celebrities.
Kim Ji Soo, an actor who goes by his stage name Ji Soo and stars in the popular television drama “River Where the Moon Rises,” was recently dropped from the show after multiple people accused him of bullying. The series has already started airing on television, but the show’s production company said it will reshoot his scenes with a new actor.
“I sincerely apologize to those who have suffered because of me. There is no room for excuse for the misdeeds I have done in the past,” Ji Soo said in a statement.
Jo Jung-sil the president of the School Violence Victims’ Family Association in Seoul, said Korean society has largely been unsympathetic toward victims of school bullying until now.
“A lot of the people used to say bullying matters in school were merely immature scuffles between teenagers,” she said. “Some would even blame the victims, saying that it is their problem that they cannot fit in.”
Two decades ago, her daughter was beaten by a dozen schoolmates and spent five days in a coma. Yet, when Jo attempted to hold the students accountable, the wider community viewed her as a troublemaker, and her family was forced to move to another area.
Last year, however, the Ministry of Education promised to strengthen psychological counseling services and assist victims of school violence and their families with legal fees and medical expenses.
In light of the recent controversy, the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism also vowed to work together to end violence among student athletes.
“Student athletes who bully will no longer be able to become successful athletes,” they said in a joint statement.
The Korean Volleyball Federation, which oversees the country’s professional volleyball league, also said student athletes involved in bullying risk being expelled from the league.
Han You-kyung, director of the Institute of School Violence Prevention at the Ewha Womans University, said offering support to victims of bullying is critical, given the long-lasting damage it can cause.
“It has been proven through previous studies that experience of being bullied not only negatively impacts the individual during adolescence, but throughout the rest of his or her life,” Han said.
Jo said South Korea’s current reckoning was “bound to happen,” and that the string of bullying victims finally breaking their silence shows that societal attitudes are gradually shifting.
“This movement will definitely be an opportunity to remind everyone in our society — especially young students — that there could always be repercussions for bullying, even decades after the incident,” Jo said. “The fact that it is happening to celebrities and sports stars who are often most idolized by young students makes it that much more effective.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.