Before the Covid pandemic began, I would regularly meet with a group of female Korean journalists in Seoul. During one dinner party the topic shifted to social media, and an attendee asked another, "You are quite a celebrity on Twitter, right?"
"I don't know if I'm a celebrity, but yes, I am quite active on Twitter," the latter said.
"But you aren't doing it in your real name, are you?"
"Of course not," she answered. "Nobody tweets using a real name!"
Maybe not nobody, but it's easy to see that many Korean Twitter users are anonymous. Google "Twitter anonymous" in Korean and you will see multiple blog posts offering detailed instructions on how to create an account anonymously (first set up a Google account without giving any personal details, and then use it to open a Twitter account by opting for Google ID verification).
Such anonymous accounts are called "secondary accounts" or bugyejeong 부계정 in Korean. The Twitter celebrity among us regularly tweeted about feminism—a controversial topic in Korea—and didn't want her identity to be revealed in case she would get trolled or her career would be at risk (yes, being outed as a feminist can have that effect in this country). Her feminist bugyejeong was completely separate from her public persona.
This phenomenon of creating an alter ego—called bukae 부캐 (literally a "secondary character")—is widespread in Korea beyond Twitter, and not all alter egos are secret. TV personalities openly adopt them as a way of expanding their personal brands (think comedian Sasha Cohen Baron a.k.a. Borat and his multiple characters as a similar example in the US). Ordinary people give themselves pseudonyms to pursue interests that have nothing to do with their regular full-time jobs, often on social media.
The Korean media, quick to report on trends, caught up to the fashion for multiple personalities already last year and called it "multi-persona".
"It refers to a contemporary person who has multiple identities, each for a different situation, like changing masks."
If that sounds comical and even surreal, multiple personalities were used indeed as comedic fodder as early as 2004, when comedian Park Seong-ho popularized a child-character named Dajung-i (literally "Multiple"), who transitioned between two personalities—one an angelic boy and another a creepy man with a homicidal urge—in rapid succession for laughs.
It was though A-list comedian Yoo Jae-suk who recently made the idea of multiple personalities mainstream. Yoo, best known for hosting the comedy-variety shows Infinite Challenge and Hanging Out with Yoo on broadcaster MBC, first introduced an alter ego of his own named Yoo-gosta (a riff on former Beatles member Ringo Starr) in late 2019 and went on to assume some dozen more to positive reception.
Along the way he helped other Korean celebrities create new public personas, not least singers Rain and Lee Hyo-ri (renamed Biryong and Linda G respectively), with whom he performed as a unisex K-pop group christened SSAK3 in the summer of 2020.
This might strike one as a prosaic fad, but many Korean commentators have drawn a connection between the frequent portrayal of secondary characters in popular culture and the increasing reality of ordinary Koreans who live unfulfilling lives and work more than one job—some for personal satisfaction but others out of necessity. On Tuesday the British paper Guardian reported on "white-collar workers with two jobs" as a "growing" development in the UK, but in Korea already a half of white-collar workers are said to be working multiple jobs.
Some may ask whether extra jobs constitute extra personalities, but in many of these cases the 'jobs' involve not only work but also interests that demand the individual to become an entirely different person.
A Korean friend quit a demanding PR job in central Seoul several months ago after a year and half of literally working around the clock. I discovered she took up pole-dancing, which is as far removed from her previous employment as it could be. She also draws regularly and works part-time doing consulting gigs to bring in an income. One might call this a burnout, but another could argue she is creating entirely new personas for herself as a way of dealing with the harsh realities of Korea's labor market. She is one person when consulting, but quite another while pole-dancing or drawing. She may be dissociating these different selves as a coping mechanism.
The rise of bukae is also tied to the incredible popularity of social media in Korea. According to a study published this June, 53.6 percent of the global population are social media users, but in Korea that figure jumps to 89.3 percent, earning the country the number-two position in the world (the United Arab Emirates takes the top spot).
And among young Koreans under the age of 40 Instagram is by far the most popular platform, with nearly 12 million users in this demographic alone (in a country of 51 million people).
Most Koreans would associate Instagram with another phenomenon called peulekseu 플렉스—which stands for 'flexing' or showing off. While a large number of Korean users would not go so far as to actually use the hashtag (because that would be crass and defeat the purpose of showing off, which should be done somewhat discretely to be effective), the underlying assumption is that people aren't on social media if they don't want to hint at their fabulous lives, 'real' or carefully constructed.
This is a world in which young Koreans can simply pretend they are not who they really are.
This coming Saturday a new Korean drama titled Shadow Beauty (based on a webtoon of the same name) is being released on streaming platform KakaoTV, about a high school student who is relentlessly bullied by her classmates but has a secret life as an influencer on Instagram. (The production company has cleverly opened an Instagram account for this fictional character, blurring the line between reality and the show.)
After all, what is a real person these days? My Facebook account does not always correspond to my own self (as far as I see it), and how much stock can I put into the social media personas of the people I am 'friends' with and follow on social media? Are these their primary or secondary characters? Is there an essence of their 'real' selves in the drip-drip posts they publish? Or is it pointless to pose such questions since life itself is a kind of performance in itself, and the digital is the new corporeal? Maybe Koreans with their secondary and tertiary characters are simply taking the existential game of roleplaying to the next level, enabled by their high level of digital literacy and fast internet connection.
My Korean journalist/feminist Twitter celebrity friend is living a dual life, but she is deep down a feminist even in her non-digital self. She uses Twitter to voice opinions she cannot in her real name, but it doesn't make those opinions any less real or 'secondary'.
Still, this approach to life has problems. I recently interviewed Sungkyu Lee, a media expert and CEO of Mediasphere (a newsletter platform that now publishes KOREA EXPOSÉ), about the emergence of the so-called "mood economy" in Korea. He told me that "an industry has grown around the idea of helping people deal with stress and insomnia." Citing Ronald Purser, the author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Lee sees the dependence on virtual solutions for unhappiness as a form of "digital anesthesia".
"It's concerning that people suffering from what are essentially structural problems must turn to private methods for solving them." This, in his view, includes the current fashion for multiple personas.
Because, why should people create secondary or tertiary characters if they are satisfied with their primary selves? Who would want to have an extra job or personality if they don't need the money or validation?
Something in Korea's contemporary condition has bred a yearning for a life one cannot live in their primary role. Instead of directly tackling the sources of this discontent—long work hours, inadequate pay and oppressive work environments to mention a few—through activism or politics, people find fulfillment by creating second lives for themselves. That can extend to tweeting anonymously about the causes they care about.
Korea is already moving beyond bukae and enthusing over a new fad in the making, namely that of a metaverse—a kind of parallel universe to come, in which humans assume digital forms (such as avatars) and interact purely in virtual reality without meeting one another 'in person'.
I say a fad because it's hard to predict where the fervor surrounding the metaverse will go, but for all I know this is the future we are heading toward, and Koreans and their multiple personas are only a harbinger of things to come in a wider world.
The Seoul city government for one announced two weeks ago that it's building its own "metaverse platform" by the end of next year so that it can offer a wide range of administrative services virtually, bypassing all the cumbersome human interaction that an ordinary visit to a government office necessitates.
That's a lovely idea, but please excuse me. I must now return to my primary character so I can eat something before going to bed.
Cover: comedian Yoo Jae-suk as Yoo Dragon, one of his many alter egos (source: reddit)