Beware Freshmen: Your classmates are not who you think they are!

“Hello. I am Lee, and I am a Freshman this year.”

Introductory messages fill the Kakaotalk chatroom which had just been made to welcome incoming freshmen enrolled in Seoul National University’s Political Science and International Relations program.

A 18-year old freshman surnamed Lee scrolls through the public Kakaotalk profiles of his new classmates. Abound with excitement, he is truly thrilled to meet each and every one of them. The fact that they have gone through identical admissions processes creates a sense of mutual connection, even though he has never met any of them in real life.

But that excitement soon gives way to angst when he finds out that something is not quite right.

Lee cautiously counts the number of participants in the group chat.

SNU admits 74 new Poli-Sci undergraduate students annually, according to the department’s website. On top of that, it recruits one or two international students outside of its annual quota. The department has assigned two sophomores to help the new recruits feel welcome, and to guide them through their first few days at school.

Simple math tells Lee that there should be approximately 78 people in the group. That is why he is shocked to find that the chatroom is infested with almost 90 participants, all claiming to be his classmate. Lee cannot help but wonder, who are these people?

Tracing covert identities: from communism to dictatorship

To uncover their identities, one must, oddly enough, first understand the complex history of South Korea’s communism, Red Scare, and democracy in the context of one unique word. Frakti.

Frakti is a loanword originating from Russian that has truly left its mark in Korean history. The original Russian word—pronounced frakitya—refers to factions or groups. However, the word’s definition has changed over time in Korea, evolving to include new definitions. The National Institute of Korean Language currently defines frakti as “someone who enters an organization or field with a hidden identity to achieve a special goal.”

The word first appeared in South Korean media following the “National Assembly Frakti Intrusion” which occurred in the scorching summer of 1949.

The story begins when National Assembly Rep. Kim Yak-su from the then-ruling Democratic National Party was arrested on the charges of treason, along with three other congressmen. The prosecution accused Kim of meeting with North Korean spies and conspiring against the government. Kim and his colleagues were named “Frakti from the Worker’s Party of South Korea.”

Back then, the original Russian definition of “faction” was being used, branding Kim and his colleagues as a faction of the WPSK that secretly infiltrated the Democratic National Party to further North Korea’s agendas.

Kim, now labeled a spy, was sentenced to three years in prison, but escaped a year later when the Korean War broke out.

However, this definition for frakti, referring to a communist spy, was short-lived. The term was given a completely new meaning following the tumultuous war.

The war had greatly reshaped Korea’s political sphere, ushering in an age of dictators who consolidated power through anti-communist rhetoric. Frakti, a word of Soviet origin, was no longer used by a government reluctant to use words from the communist Soviet Union. Rather, the term was adopted and used by South Korea’s anti-dictatorship, pro-democracy activists.

South Korea’s longing for democratization was kindled in 1960, spearheaded by small and localized protests, often organized by university students.

Dictators throughout Korea’s modern history, ranging from South Korea’s first president Rhee Syng-man to strongman Chun Doo-hwan, all hoped to control and subdue the students.

The Korea Central Intelligence Agency started recruiting conservative and power-hungry students to infiltrate the Student Body to obtain information on upcoming protests, and to ultimately tear them up from the inside by pitting students against each other.

As student protests became more widespread in the late 1980s, the demand for such spies steadily increased, and the government hired recent graduates, felons, and the homeless to perform these tasks. Later, they even went as far as torturing captured pro-democracy activists and forcing them back to school on covert spy missions.

When the existence of such government-sent spies became known, students called the spies frakti, and efforts to weed them out caused rampage throughout the student community. People who were revealed as, or accused of, being a frakti were often beaten up by their peers, with some even meeting their death in the process.

Government-appointed fraktis existed well into the 1990s, although Korea achieved democracy in the late 1900s, ousting Chun in 1987.

The latest controversy surrounding frakti came about in 2008, when large masses gathered in a candlelight vigil to protest the Lee Myung-bak administration’s decision to lower import standards on US beef. South Korea had stopped importing US beef in 2003, following the discovery of a Mad Cow Disease strain in US beef products. However, the Roh Moo-hyun administration had signed in 2007 to resume beef imports as part of an inclusive Free Trade Agreement.

During the 2008 protests, photos were leaked which hinted that the police were covertly planting people among the protestors to turn the vigil violent. A violent protest meant that the police could be more forceful and aggressive in its approach to disperse the crowd.

‘Just a small joke we play’

So how does this little history lesson tie in with incoming freshman Lee’s puzzling experience?

Well, that is because the ten-or-so people in Lee’s Kakaotalk chatroom, posing as his classmates, are in fact the notorious frakti.

But rest assured; they are neither communist sympathizers colluding with the North, nor government-planted spies monitoring Lee’s every move. That would be more problematic.

Just like any other word, the definition of frakti has since evolved. Today, frakti refers to college sophomores who pose as freshmen to play “a prank” on the incoming class. They usually keep their role until late February, revealing their identities only when the semester starts.

These pranksters, also sometimes called X-men, declare themselves as being harmless, sitting in the back rows of freshmen orientations, learning the inside dynamics of the incoming class, so that the upperclassmen can “better assist their foray into university classrooms.”

By facilitating conversations in rather awkward settings, where everyone meets each other for the first time, fraktis bridge freshmen together, and help them get a boost in their sweet campus lives. Or so they say.

And after the grand reveal, the flustered freshmen fall to a giggle, and the former fraktis and freshmen stay best friends, happily ever after. The end.

Roses and daffodils, flowery euphemisms, so sweetly oozing and sticking to the tongue.

But is that really the case? Are they really as harmless as they seem?

A graduating student, who wished to remain anonymous, told The SNU Quill that she thought fraktis were anachronisms, and that they did more harm than good.

“I still remember the betrayal I felt when I learned my closest classmate was in fact my seonbae,” the student bitterly recalled. Seonbae is the Korean word referring to someone who has seniority at a school setting or workplace.

“Most of my classmates felt the same, and there was widespread distrust after the first frakti was caught. That is why we decided to abolish the tradition in our department,” she added.

The feelings of betrayal were most prominent among the people who experienced being on the receiving end of the frakti joke. However, some participants said they thought the tradition was necessary, even beyond just having fun.

A sophomore student who acted as a frakti this year said that the frakti tradition helps the upperclassmen get to know the incoming class better. “It helps us get to know the students more personally,” the sophomore said. “It helps us reach beyond the barrier that exists between seonbae and hoobae.” Hoobae refers to people who lack seniority.

“It is also ultimately helpful to the incoming class because the seonbae are able to understand their worries better, and help them adapt to the new school better,” he added.

He also argued that because the fraktis lead most of the conversations in the chatroom, the fraktis allow incoming strangers to get closer to each other in a shorter amount of time.

“Plus, it’s just a small joke we play.”

However, there are constant reports on social media of harm being done because of this “joke.”

Nightmarish stories in which a freshman suffered repercussions after bad mouthing a sophomore to a frakti can easily be found online.

Some student advocacy groups said that this was a type of gapjil—arrogance and authoritarianism showcased by people who are in positions of power—based on the informational divide. They argue that some seonbae sacrifice the freshmen’s dignity just to have fun.

To prevent such mishaps, the Students and Minorities Human Rights Council at SNU published a guideline on how these frakti jokes should be played without hurting the younger students.

The guideline begins by calling out the joke as being inherently “deceptive,” and “an assertion of power by the seonbae.”

It then recommends measures to ensure that the frakti joke is played safely. It reminds its readers that the inherent purpose of frakti should be to facilitate the freshmen’s assimilation.

It condemns fraktis who only talk amongst themselves, or start becoming close with just one or two freshmen, excluding others. It also says that fraktis should not host or attend unofficial after parties, and work to protect the rights of his or her hoobae. Fraktis should adhere to creating an inclusive environment, and other upperclassmen should refrain from asking the fraktis’ opinions on certain freshmen.

The fraktis should set an example and show the underclassmen that they do not have to do anything they do not want to.

It also asserts that the fraktis should continue its efforts to stay close-friends with the freshmen after his or her grand reveal.

Meanwhile, some people on campus have been calling for stricter measures to be put in place, citing the decision of Korea University’s Department of Media and Communication to abolish the tradition altogether by revising the department’s student bylaws.

The fine line between ‘tradition’ and ‘bullying’

The frakti prank is quite frequently depicted in South Korea’s popular culture. Streaming service provider Seezn recently released a comedy drama titled “New Recruit,” which details events that happen during the main character’s compulsory military service.

In the first episode, the squad leader plays a frakti-like prank on the protagonist who is fresh out of boot camp. Squad leader Corporal Choi Il-gu pretends to be a private, just like main character Park Min-seok. Cpl Choi leads on Priv Park to badmouth Private First Class Kim Sang-hoon, who is of lower rank than Cpl Choi, but of higher rank than Priv Park.

Priv Park is in tears as Cpl Choi reveals his identity, and PVC Kim laughs away at the joke.

However, once Cpl Choi learns that Priv Park is none other than the son of the current Division Commander, who is a one-star general, Choi rushes to tell Park that the joke he and Kim had made was nothing but a mere “tradition.”

“You know! It’s just a tradition on our base!” Choi rants, justifying his action.

So many practices survive well past their time under the name tradition. But what exactly are traditions, and should they continue to exist just because they always have?

Various versions of a saying that answers this question have been diffused across military bases in Korea, as the Republic of Korea Army contemplates ways to eradicate accounts of bullying among soldiers.

One version of the saying goes, “it is a tradition if everyone agrees with the practice, but it is bullying if even just one person fails to agree.”

These wise words whispered by an anonymous guru asserts that there is a slim, but concrete line between tradition and bullying; and that line is denoted by the existence of a victim.

The notion that Park should accept Choi’s frakti joke just because it is a tradition leads us down a slippery slope. Honor killing, female geneital mutilation, and child marriages were traditions practiced in different civilizations across the globe for various religious, political and social reasons. Of course the stakes are different, but must we accept these practices too?

A harmful tradition is nothing more than a case of ongoing bullying.

The practice of frakti on campus definitely has its upsides. Frakti jokes can break the ice, and can act as crutches for the freshmen as they make new friends and get accustomed to their campus lives.

But it is about time we wondered, do the good outweigh the bad? Must we continue this tradition even if people feel betrayed or mocked? Does everyone truly agree to the practice?

Some food for thought.