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The influence of Iljin at Korean schools

Posted February. 13, 2012 09:24,   


Members of "Iljin," or Korean school gangs having strong pride in their membership, insist that their name means “first class” rather than “first-class faction.” The former means “I am truly No. 1.” Students who consider themselves leaders in sports, dance, singing and appearance at school comprise Iljin. They often include students who display good academic performance and class presidents. Once they take control over all other students at school with their physical power, they start to recruit students with good grades. This way, they seek to elevate the stature of their faction and defend themselves from teachers. One Iljin member at a middle school in Seoul said, “If exemplary students are included in Iljin, teachers don`t interfere with us, and since their mothers have a big say at school, they help protect us when problems occur.” These exemplary students gain a sense of excellence that “I`m good at both playing and study” and free themselves from worry over school bullying.

Iljin members caught by teachers for wrongdoings ask teachers not to inform their parents. An Iljin member in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province, who was arrested said, “It`s okay for me to go to a youth detention center, but I worry if it`s made public among people around me.” Though they ruthlessly disregard their classmates’ sense of self-respect, they take disgrace very seriously. They remain Iljin members due to self-conceit though sometimes they feel sorry for students they beat, with one saying, “I don`t want to live a pitiful life.” Im Yeong-shik, an adolescence science professor at ChungAng University in Seoul, said, “Teenagers become sensitive to what others say of them and especially want to look great to their friends.” At school, where rank is valued, the basis for the existence of Iljin members is their desire to verify their influence through physical strength if they cannot do so through academic performance.

To most students who cannot make their presence felt at school through academic performance, Iljin members instill fear and admiration. The North Face jacket brand that costs 600,000 won (530 U.S. dollars) a piece is often worn by Iljin members and has become a wannabe item for students in this context. Just like grownups want to be successful in society, children at school want to be pompous and brag about themselves. Standing under Iljin are Ijin (second-class faction) and Samjin (third-class faction). When an Iljin member moves to another school and is put in a youth detention center, an Ijin and Samjin member fills the vacancy just like a baseball player in the minors who wants to join the majors. Iljin survives even though its members change. For this reason, ordinary students put themselves at great risk if they inform their school of damage they suffer.

Police have started a crackdown on Iljin, pledging to control school violence. Iljin may disappear over the short term, but students’ desire to become a “first-class faction” will likely remain strong. As long as competition between classmates remains intense, students will seek recognition for their presence. This could be an opportunity for members of Ijin and Samjin, who have waited for vacancies in Iljin to rise and advance.

National Desk Reporter Shin Gwang-yeong (neo@donga.com)