The winter jackets, long popular among grade-school and high-school students, have become the objects of robbery and bullying, authorities say.
In recent months, half a dozen students have committed suicide after being bullied at school, authorities said, leading beleaguered education officials to institute a rash of new security measures, including starting plainclothes-police patrols and prosecuting teenage suspects.
In many cases, the jackets are part of the bully's agenda, officials said.
Victims have been forced to buy used jackets from other students, and jackets have been snatched and stolen. Students caught burglarizing a house outside Seoul told police they were trying to get money to buy North Face jackets, which range in price from $200 to $600.
For the last few years, the padded jackets have grown in popularity among South Korean teenagers, becoming the No. 1 seller in outdoor winter wear. One photo widely circulated among South Korean Web users shows an entire line of students inside a classroom dressed in the same black North Face jacket.
"The North Face jackets are kind of a uniform now," said 16-year-old Lee In-duk. "It became really popular since four, five years ago. In junior high school, I often saw bullies snatching the jackets."
Lee, a high school junior, said he has heard of bullies forcing students to purchase the bullies' used jackets so they could then buy newer and more expensive ones. "It was common for kids to beg their parents, work part-time or save money to buy these jackets," he said.
In Myeongdong, a popular outdoor shopping area and meeting ground for Seoul teens, the jackets have become a sort of unofficial youth uniform.
On a recent weekday after school, four boys window-shopped, with three of them wearing black North Face jackets.
"My parents were overwhelmed when I first brought it up," Bang Min-wook, 14, said about buying the jacket. "But I kept asking, and they finally gave in. Everyone has one, and I had to have it."
His friend did him one better. "Mine was around $400," said 14-year-old Jeon Seo-hyun in a bit of a boast. "Yeah, I know it's quite expensive."
One Korean website popular among youth has included a page that shows the price and desirability of North Face’s latest winter line. Meanwhile, many parents have complained that the fad had crimped household budgets, say South Korean media reports.
"My son asked me to buy him this particular brand," said 41-year-old Jung Mi-ran, a mother of two teenage boys. "I am in the clothing business, and honestly I think it's a bit overpriced. But because my children said all the other students wear it, I had no choice but to buy it for them."
Some South Korean bloggers have made light of the role the jackets have played in bullying incidents.
"The reason why North Face hiking jackets are popular among teenagers is because South Korean education is 'headed to the mountains,'" or going nowhere, sneered one blogger.
North Face jackets aren't the first youth fashion fad. In many countries, basketball sneakers are in high demand.
"A particular brand or object causing power competition among students and creating ranks has always been around," sociologist Um Ki-ho wrote in an essay published in a South Korean daily.
As authorities ponder what steps to take to rein in the rash of bullying, some students say the fad may already be over.
"I see some kids don't even want to wear them any more since they've gotten media coverage," said Lee, the high school junior. "Some of my friends say they are grown out of it."
-- Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: A North Face clothing outlet in Seoul. Credit: Matt Douma / For The Times