by Kim Junghyun
SEOUL, Feb. 17 (Xinhua) -- Images of naked teenagers, covered with flour and eggs and forming what looks like a human pyramid, do not exactly hark back to old memories of commencement ceremonies in South Korea which used to be dominated by tears and goodbyes.
But South Korean teenagers, whom some thought were best known as little study machines, managed this year to replace the old notion of graduation rituals with their grotesque behaviors, which in most cases even cast belated spotlight on the problem of school violence.
HAZING INCIDENTS TAKEN TO EXTREME
Scores of pictures depicting naked teenage girls and boys in the city of Goyang, Gyeonggi province, were recently posted online and quickly circulated the Web.
The pictures showed the teenagers, later confirmed to be all middle school graduates, taking off underwear, bending to cover their private parts, and making a human pyramid -- and high school students, clad in rain coats and wearing masks, seemingly in control of the outlandish situation.
All this came as a huge shock to many South Koreans, for whom a rather familiar scene of throwing flour and eggs at graduating students was already an extreme act, leading them to question why it had to happen.
But as if defying the public concerns, a series of similar hazing incidents followed throughout the country, including a group of half-naked male graduates marching the street in broad daylight in the southern port city of Busan, and female graduates dunked in the sea in torn uniforms in the city of Jeju.
SCHOOL VIOLENCE, OR ANNUAL TRADITION?
What at first glance seemed like childish behaviors gone way overboard has now brought the issue of school violence into sharp focus, after Goyang students involved in the incident told the local police that they were forced to pose naked by high school students who graduated from the same school.
While the public attention has shifted to violence in school, some perpetrators of these incidents are showing no remorse over their behavior as they went through similar events in the past and consider them a rite of passage of their own.
Indeed, perpetrators of another similar incident in Seoul, where scores of teenagers threw ketchup at a female middle school graduate in a torn uniform, reportedly told the local police that the incident was an "annual tradition" of the school.
Police, meanwhile, has been prodded into more action, with the National Police Agency announcing a nationwide patrol from February through early March when graduation and entrance ceremonies usually take place.
Statistics show the number of school violence in South Korean elementary, middle and high schools rose to 8,813 in 2008 from 8, 444 cases a year ago, with physical assaults accounting for 70 percent of all reported cases.
Some experts here diagnosed the problem as an extreme form of collective defiance on the part of the teenagers, who are often forced into rote memorization and steep competition against one another for better grades in one of the most education-obsessed country in the world.
In a monolithic education system where the goal of entering a good college is the first and foremost priority, students are suffocated and are naturally attracted to "sadistic behaviors" as there is no outlet to let out their accumulated stress, they said.
The ideas of encouraging students to be actively involved in more extracurricular activities such as sports clubs, or having a unique way of celebrating graduation like American-style proms, have been floated.
While there are calls among public for stern punishment for the perpetrators, experts caution against prosecuting teenagers and attribute the problem to the malfunctioning education system in the country and traditional graduation ceremonies laden with boring speeches.
President Lee Myung-bak echoed the sentiment Wednesday, calling the problem a "cultural issue" and "a serious illness" the society suffers.
"They say police will handle the incidents, but this is something that students and schools should discuss together, not something to be approached as a (criminal) case," Lee told a meeting he presided over, according to the presidential office.
"We should approach the issue with our culture of education in mind," he added, urging the attendees to make efforts to " normalize" the culture of commencement ceremonies, the presidential office said.