Photos of Elementary-School Girls Smoking Go Viral

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes. Image source: Naver News.

When I see pictures of Korean girls smoking, my heart gets racing.

No, it’s not a fetish of mine, although I’ll admit that some image searches for this post did indeed produce some interesting results. Rather, it’s because ever since I wrote my The Gender Politics of Smoking in South Korea series, best summed up in my Busan Haps article here, I’ve been keeping a sharp eye out for any mention of the increasing female smoking rate in the media. Especially of any news that the government has finally acknowledged the problem, instead of simply ignoring anything that would overshadow its successes with the male smoking rate.

Alas, once I actually translated this March 5 Financial News report, I realized that it has neither, although it does end with getting the news out there that the teenage smoking rate is increasing at least (although it’s actually quite misguided not to break rates down by sex and age). Also, the story only mentions pictures of two girls, but pictures of the above girls with two more companions are also readily available on the internet (in fairness, this may not have been true when the article was written). As most of those pictures are either poorly pixelated or not at all though, making all their identities obvious, I’ve chosen not to post or link to them here.

“담배 피는 ‘요즘 초등생’ 도를 넘었다” / “Even Elementary-School Students Are Smoking These days? That’s Too Much!”

성인 흡연은 매년 줄고 있는 데 비해 청소년 흡연은 매년 증가하는 가운데 한 흡연카페에서 최근 초등학생이 흡연하는 사진이 인터넷에 올려져 충격을 주고 있다. 이 사진을 본 네티즌과 학부모들은 “학생들의 흡연이 도를 넘었다”며 당국에서 나서야 한다고 주장하고 있다.

While the adult smoking rate is decreasing each year, the teenage smoking rate is increasing. And in the midst of this, pictures of elementary school students smoking at a cafe uploaded to the internet have proven shocking. Netizens and parents that have seen these pictures say that “the fact that students are smoking is just too much,” and that the government should do something about it.

5일 유명 포털사이트와 개인 홈페이지, 학부모 등에 따르면 지난달 24일 초등학생으로 보이는 어린이 2명이 인천의 한 흡연카페에서 담배를 피우는 장면이 촬영돼 인터넷을 통해 유포되고 있다.

On the 5th of March, a February 24 picture of what appear to be two elementary school girls smoking at a cafe in Incheon rapidly began spreading on famous portal sites, personal homepages, and among parents.

‘요즘 초등생’이라는 제목으로 유포되고 있는 이 사진은 지난 3일까지 8000여명이 홈페이지 하단의 ‘공감’란에 클릭했지만 그후 이날 오전 현재까지 클릭 수가 2만6000명을 넘어서는 등 문제점을 지적하는 네티즌이 급속히 늘고 있다.

With the title “Elementary School Students These Days”, by the 3rd of March roughly 8000 netizens had seen the picture on the [original?] homepage and clicked on the “I agree/empathize” button, but this had quickly increased to 26,000 by this morning, many of whom were also leaving comment discussing the problems [of students smoking].

(James—I don’t know if this means 26,000 people had visited the one site, or if they’d shared the original post and/or image(s) on their own homepages à la Tumblr)

학부모 오모씨(49)는 “청소년(학생)의 흡연은 어제오늘 문제가 아니지만 초등학생으로 보이는 어린 여학생들이 버젓이 담배를 피우고 있는 모습을 실제 사진을 통해 확인하니 어이가 없다”며 “담배를 구입하는 과정에서 하급생이나 동급생을 괴롭힐 것이고, 이로 인해 상당수 학생이 피해를 보고 있다고 생각하니 답답하기만 하다”고 말했다.

O-mo (49), a parent, said “Teenagers smoking isn’t just suddenly a problem that arose yesterday and today. But still: I was really taken aback by the pictures of elementary school students so brazenly smoking like that”, and that “they probably bully and harass their peers or younger students in other classes to buy the cigarettes for them. I feel frustrated thinking about how those bullied students must be suffering.”

다른 학부모 최모씨(43.여)는 “사진 배경을 보니 집이 아닌 듯하다. 어린 학생들이 담배를 피우고 있으면 가게 주인이 제재해야 하는데 영업을 위해 이를 방관하고 있는 것 같다”며 “철없는 아이들의 일탈을 장사를 위해 방관하는 어른들의 무관심이 더 나쁘다”고 주장했다. 최씨는 “과연 자신의 어린 자녀가 담배를 피우고 있어도 수수방관하겠냐”고 반문했다.

Choi-mo, a mother (43) said “You can see from the background of the picture that it wasn’t taken in someone’s home. It was in a cafe, which meant that the owner, an adult, didn’t stop the students and instead just looked on in order to make money.  That’s much worse than what the students themselves were doing”, and that “would he or she sit by and nothing if it was their own children that were going off the rails like that?”.

이들뿐 아니라 상당수 청소년과 어린이가 흡연카페 등지에서 흡연하고 있으며 편의점 등 앞에서 성인들에게 돈을 구걸(앵벌)하고 남의 주민등록증으로 자동판매기에서 담배를 구입하는 사례도 비일비재하다는 것이다. 또 일부 청소년은 500~1000원의 웃돈을 받고 흡연 학생들에게 담배를 재판매하고 있으며 선배들의 심부름에 담배를 구입하지 못한 후배들은 폭행까지 당하는 것으로 알려졌다.

This is not an isolated case, but a frequent occurrence. Also, teenagers will hang out outside convenience stores begging for money from adults going in or out [James—don’t they also ask adults to buy cigarettes for them?], or using other people’s national ID numbers to buy them from vending machines. Also, it is common for some students to sell cigarettes at a mark-up of 500-1000 won to other students, or for seniors to force juniors to obtain cigarettes for them, physically abusing them if they don’t.

와 관련, 한국금연연구소 관계자는 “흡연은 발암 및 위해 물질이 몸속으로 침투하기 때문에 세포나 유전자에 악영향을 줘 성장기 청소년의 성장.행동발달 장애 등의 원인이 된다”며 “성인 흡연보다 오히려 청소년 흡연을 근절하기 위한 정부의 특별한 노력이 요구된다”고 전했다.

Regarding this, a spokesperson for the Korean Anti-Smoking Laboratory [James—A Daum internet “cafe,” not an official organization] said “Smoking allows carcinogenic substances to invade the body. These have a negative effect on cells and genes, and when this happens during teens’ crucial growing period it can harm their growth and lead to behavioral problems,” and that “it is not adult smoking but teenage smoking that the government needs to take stronger measures to eradicate.”

한편 질병관리본부가 지난해 실시한 ‘청소년 건강행태 온라인 조사’ 결과에 따르면 지난해 청소년 흡연율은 12.1%에 달했다. 다른 기관이 실시한 조사에서는 2008년 기준 청소년 흡연율이 1992년에 비해 3배 이상 늘어난 것으로 조사되는 등 청소년 및 어린이 흡연이 갈수록 늘고 있다.

Last year, the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention conducted an “Teenager Health Situation Online Survey”, which found that 12.1% of teenagers smoked. In 2008, a different organization found that the teenage rate was over 3 times the 1992 rate. As time goes on, the teenage smoking rate just gets higher and higher.

(Reporter: Park In-ok/박인옥)

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

14 thoughts on “Photos of Elementary-School Girls Smoking Go Viral

  1. Hey James, great article.

    Your “interesting links” is a site that’s known for distributing malware and virii. Google has flagged it and it’s probably not a safe site to visit. Just letting you know so that you can consider removing the link.

    It’s not surprising to see elementary school children smoking. It’s been an issue in western schools for a while. I find the trend of rising female smokers quite scary. Walk into any coffee shop and the “smoking section” is usually women. The taboo of women smokers seems to have disappeared in a puff of smoke … literally!


    1. Thanks, and sorry for missing that. Fortunately, Google Chrome seems happy with the new link I’ve replaced it with (I’m a Firefox user myself, although perhaps this is a sign that I need to change over).

      And yeah, I’m not surprised to see elementary school children smoking either – it had to happen sooner or later with the female teen and 20-something rate skyrocketing as it is. Still, honestly I’m surprised to see kids 10 and younger in a coffee shop at all, let alone lighting up, and would wager that 99% of owners would probably quickly kick them out if they did (let alone try to detain them and call their parents). On the other hand, Starbucks is the only coffee shop in Korea I ever go to (others rarely have soy milk available, and I have a milk allergy) so maybe I’m actually just hopelessly naive and out of touch.


      1. The coffee shop where I study at most often these days is unique in that it’s mostly completely housewife free, full of college students and with the smoking room upstairs, out of view of the staff. You can guess what goes on. But the staff are not stupid, and children are not quite as smooth as they think they are, and every single time I’ve seen a group of high school kids nervously enter the smoking room, the staff have been right up the stairs behind them, before they even have a chance to pull their chairs out.

        From the photo of this cafe, however, I would say it is less coffee shop and more cafe, which often means very private booths with curtains, closing you off from the rest of the room. In those places, the staff are usually quite far away at a register up front and wouldn’t necessarily notice who was smoking, unless they were coming around to take an order.


  2. i don’t think it is just korea. it’s a worldwide thing. more females are binge drinking. more females are smoking. next thing would be: more females abusing drugs.

    on the side note, in my uni, it is easier to spot a smoker, male or female, in year 2012 than year 2008!


  3. While the adult smoking rate is increasing each year, the teenage smoking rate is increasing.

    This sentence strikes me as pretty strange, implying a contrast that isn’t there. Doesn’t the use of 비하다 mean that the teenage rate is increasing by more than the adult rate?

    If so, then it’s a typical case of Bad Statistics Reporting from journalists, since it doesn’t generally mean much for an existing low rate to grow faster than an existing high rate. (“School shootings were the fastest growing cause of death for teens from 1998 to 1999!”)

    One middle school girl in the neighborhood smokes and spits, once referred to herself as 공주 , and now my nickname for her is 농부공주. I’ve told some of my (elementary school) kids, don’t be like 농부공주 — don’t smoke. So far so good, heh.


  4. Great article. You know in the States there is a direct correlation between smoking and dieting (at least for girls). Most of my friends in school smoked because it helped curb hunger pangs, and also kept the mouth busy. Do you think this may also be a factor for Korean girls smoking?


  5. “Also, teenagers will hang out outside convenience stores begging for money from adults going in or out”

    I’ve never seen this. In fact the only beggars who’ve ever approached me have been old men at stations.

    Has anyone thought about the correlation between this and the taking away of punishments – and I don’t just mean corporal – at school? Teachers want to pretend it’s not happening because if they did they’d just prove themselves powerless to stop it and lose face. In the west such students would be suspended and. if it kept up, expelled / transferred so that they wouldn’t be around to encourage others to do it.

    My town’s somewhat behind Seoul in the “student rights” department and I’ve never seen an elementary student smoking – and I’m out and about a lot. I’ve also never seen a middle school girl smoking, though I know of a few cases of it happening, and when it happened at my school there was hell to pay.

    As I mentioned the last time this topic came up, it wouldn’t be hard to find out exactly how many kids are smoking from the urine tests conducted in school medicals, but I think the powers that be would rather keep the ugly truth from public view.


  6. This isn’t so surprising…. The stress level or emotional toll of high expectation from education and test scores for them to enter into the better high schools, and then to study for their college entrance exam.

    Esp for girls, they are somewhat neglected — but their parents dont expect them to become doctors or lawyers but they want them to marry well. But they can’t do that if their future ideal spouse doesnt see them in college or in their jobs.


  7. oh~~~the girls smoking in the last photo’s uniforms look just like my old highschool uniforms….Gwangju Art highschool I suppose? haha.


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