The Glory, a popular K-drama about a woman who seeks revenge on the classmates who severely bullied her as a teen, returns to Netflix today with its final eight episodes. In the series—which remained on the streamer’s Global Top Ten list for five weeks after dropping its first batch of episodes in December—Song Hye-kyo plays Moon Dong-eun, who has devoted her entire adult life to crafting a meticulous plan to take down her former abusers. The Glory chiefly follows Dong-eun’s enactment of that plan, 20 years after the abuse. It is the latest in a long line of Korean dramas that use school bullying as a plot point, and its narrative impetus comes from real-life incidents of school violence in Korea.
If you’re a frequent watcher of Korean dramas or reader of webtoons, then you’ve almost certainly seen a storyline about school bullying before. The zombie virus that takes over Hyosan High in All of Us Are Dead, Netflix’s 11th most-streamed TV series of all time, is created in a father’s attempt to protect his son from school bullies. In last year’s school drama Weak Hero Class 1, the action begins when protagonist Yeon Shi-eun (Park Ji-hoon), a quiet model student, violently strikes back against his bully. Another 2022 drama, The King of Pigs, follows two survivors of childhood bullying—one who grows up to become a serial killer, and the other who becomes a police detective.
Kim Eun-sook—who has penned some of hallyu’s most popular dramas, including Goblin, Descendants of the Sun, and Mr. Sunshine—was inspired to write The Glory when her teen daughter asked her a jarring question: “Mom, would you be more heartbroken if I beat someone nearly to death or if I got beat nearly to death by someone else?” With The Glory, Kim set out to answer that question. Part 1 begins the story, chronicling Dong-eun’s psychological and physical torment in gruesome detail. In Part 2, we will finally learn if Dong-eun gets the justice society so frustratingly refuses to provide.
The real-life issues behind the narrative device
Graphyoda/NetflixJung Ji-so as a teenaged Moon Dong-eun
In creating The Glory, Kim researched the systemic school violence that has impacted Korean society for decades. Bullying is a widespread problem in Korea, where suicide has been the number one cause of death for young people since 2007. In the past few decades, it has also become a much-discussed one, as the government works to combat the problem. In 2004, Korea passed a law called The Special Act on School Violence Prevention, following the deaths of several teenagers by suicide after they were bullied. The legislation led to the formation of school committees to monitor bullying, but according to this recent Korea Times article, bullying is still a major problem.
In The Glory, fictional character Dong-eun is severely bullied by a group of classmates. They sear her skin with a hair-curling iron, scratch her with pins, and beat and kick her. Many of these disturbing details are based on a real-life incident that occurred in 2006, at a girls’ school in Cheongju, Korea. In that case, three ninth-grade girls bullied their classmate for a period of 20 days, including burning her skin with a curling wand. The abuse resulted in a six-week hospitalization for injuries, among them a protruded tailbone.
Of course, that is just the physical toll. The targets of bullies also suffer psychological trauma that can follow them into adulthood. Though The Glory uses Dong-eun’s burn scars as a visual representation of the abuse she has survived, the series is much more interested in exploring how being bullied as a teen—and the absolute failure of the adults in her life to protect her—have shaped her mental health and life choices. In Episode 6 of the series, the usually stoic Dong-eun has a panic attack on the floor of a mechanic shop. It is triggered by the sound of meat being cooked on a grill, which brings back memories of her abuse.
Bullying is repeated, harmful behavior characterized by a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim. In K-dramas, this power balance is usually depicted as occurring along lines of social class. Research suggests bullying occurs across and within all socioeconomic groups, though victims are slightly more likely to come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. There is a more conclusive link between bullying and a country’s wealth inequality. In 2014, The Conversation did an investigation into the connections between social class and bullying, finding that bullying is more common in hierarchical social structures where more financial or social inequality is present. As they put it, “The more unequal a social setting, the more likely it is that using any means of getting ahead is endorsed.”
In Korea, wealth inequality is only slightly better than conditions in the U.S., which is to say relatively high and growing. While school violence storylines are usually confined to a single town or institution, they act as narrative microcosms for larger social inequalities that teens and adults alike can relate to—both in Korea and in the U.S. In The Glory, protagonist Moon Dong-eun is poor, with parents who are not able to take care of her. Her chief abuser, Park Yeon-jin, comes from a wealthy family. When Dong-eun reports Yeon-jin’s physical abuse, first to her teacher and then to the police, they not only ignore her, but punish her for accusing someone from a wealthy family. In a particularly disturbing scene, Dong-eun’s homeroom teacher hits her repeatedly in the middle of the staff lounge for reporting the bullying.
Responses to bullying, on and off the screen
Graphyoda/NetflixSong Hye-kyo as Moon Dong-eun
In the case of the real-life “hair curler bullying” incident, one of the bullies faced some consequences for her actions. According to the Korea Herald, she was arrested, and the school and teachers faced “administrative measures.” And, on a broader societal level, it is becoming increasingly common for Korean celebrities to face real consequences in their career when faced with allegations of past bullying. In 2021, professional volleyball players Lee Jae-yeong and Lee Da-yeong (both 24 at the time) were removed from their Korean clubs after they admitted to verbally abusing teammates in middle school. Last year, K-pop company HYBE dropped 16-year-old Kim Ga-ram from girl group Le Sserafim after allegations surfaced that the singer had verbally abused classmates.
In writing The Glory, Kim said she found an answer to the question her daughter asked, though it’s not a pretty one. “If my daughter is beaten to death, there might be a solution and that solution would be pulling all the perpetrators to hell because I have the money to do so,” said Kim, during a press conference for Part 2. “So my conclusion was that it would be better for me if you’re beaten.” In The Glory, however, the protagonist has neither the money nor the social standing to gain access to protection or justice. Dong-eun must seek her own justice years later, as corrupt societal institutions are unwilling to hold her rich, remorseless bullies accountable in any way.
“In The Glory, this can’t happen to Dong-eun, right?” said Kim. “And I think most of the victims can’t solve the problem like this because they don’t have wealthy parents. They don’t live in an environment like [the one] where my daughter is raised. So I wanted to cheer for them because reality is harsh. And I hope Dong-eun’s vengeance is successful. So that’s how I tried to lead my storyline towards. And [as for] how it ends, you should watch it yourselves.”
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.