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South Korea under pressure to crack down on cyberbullying after high-profile deaths

South Korea’s government is under mounting pressure to crack down on cyberbullying after the apparent suicides of an athlete and YouTube influencer who were relentlessly abused online.

Kim In-hyeok, a professional volleyball player, was found dead at his home in Suwon, last week, a day before the death of Cho Jang-mi, a popular live streamer better known as BJ Jammi.

Kim had received a barrage of hateful comments over his appearance and speculation about his sexual identity.

The 27-year-old, who played for Daejeon Samsung Fire Bluefangs, reportedly left a note that contained “pessimistic” reflections on his life, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Cho, a YouTube influencer who also had a huge following on the game-streaming platform Twitch, had been suffering from depression following more than two years of sexually derogatory comments and claims that she hated men, according to a social media post by a member of her family.

Her death triggered calls for strong punishments against fellow YouTubers and commentators who posted rumours and hateful comments directed at Cho, who was 27.

A petition on the website of the presidential Blue House had attracted more than 150,000 signatures by Tuesday.

Although the global reach of South Korean pop culture is often a cause for celebration, at home, the combination of celebrity obsession and high rates of digital connectivity has been blamed for a number of celebrity suicides in recent years.

The suicide in 2019 of the singer and actor Sulli sparked anger over the failure of management agencies to protect their stars from “toxic fandom” and demands for government action against bullying on popular internet portals where users were able to comment anonymously.

Her death prompted web portals Naver and Daum to close comments sections for sports and entertainment stories, but online abuse remains a problem on social media sites such as YouTube and Instagram.

“More people are suffering depression and mental difficulties because of online hate speech. It is a problem that can destroy a person’s life,” Kim Tae-yeon, a lawyer specialising in defamation and cyberbullying cases, told Yonhap.

Cyberbullies who once abused victims on South Korean sites have simply turned to global social media platforms, knowing that they will be harder to identify. As a result, police have struggled to bring prosecutions, despite a rise in the number of reported cases.

“Even if offenders are caught, they usually end up with light penalties such as fines,” Kim said.

Kim In-hyeok had publicly complained about the online abuse he received and addressed speculation about his sexuality and use of cosmetics.

“I have never worn makeup, I don’t like guys, I had a girlfriend and I never appeared on an adult film,” he posted on his Instagram account last August. “People who have no idea who I really am send countless direct messages and post spiteful comments whenever I play a game. It’s really hard to bear all that. Please stop.”

In 2019, Cho was accused of making a gesture in one of her videos that indicated she hated men. Her mother, who monitored online comments directed at her daughter, committed suicide soon after, according to reports.

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