Korea, Thy Name is Hell Joseon

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One of the biggest scandals of 2010 involved Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, whose own daughter was found to have mysteriously qualified for a plum job inside the ministry, presumably with the father’s backing.

This itself would not have been ordinarily such big news in South Korea, but the timing was most unfortunate for the minister-daughter duo: Only two weeks earlier then-president Lee Myung-bak had announced the launch of a campaign to make South Korea a more “Just Society.”

Yu was forced to resign in a bid by the Lee administration to contain the damage from the scandal, but it was already too late. A poll conducted in the aftermath of the scandal showed that more than 70 percent of South Koreans believed their country to be a place without justice.

Perhaps more importantly, the development underscored a certain truth of South Korea: a country where official rhetoric in service of a lofty ideal could scarcely be more distant from a reality controlled by self-serving figures in power.

That episode came to my mind a few days ago as I encountered the news that three out of four attorneys hired at the Board of Audit and Inspection — the government organ responsible for nothing less than monitoring the behavior of public officials — were children of high-ranking officials and lawmakers suspected of being hired not for their abilities but for their family backgrounds.

Five years after Yu’s resignation and the attempt to make South Korea fairer, the life of South Koreans continues to suffer from small injustices that reflect the existence of two realities here: one available only to those from the right backgrounds and another that is experienced by everyone else.

Though an exact number is hard to come by, it seems that more and more South Koreans in their 20s and 30s are calling this gap between the two realities proof of South Korea as “Hell Joseon” — an infernal feudal kingdom stuck in the nineteenth century — and this language is catching on, to much hand-wringing in the domestic media. There is even a website dedicated to exposing South Korea’s ostensibly hellish and backward reality — named Hell Korea — and each morning I find the Hell Joseon Facebook group with more likes than the previous night.

One illustration purporting to show this truth of South Korea as hell has captured the popular imagination, a map titled “Hell Joseon: An Infernal Hellfire Peninsula.”

"Hell Joseon: An Infernal Hellfire Peninsula"
“Hell Joseon: An Infernal Hellfire Peninsula” (Source: @iKaMuSuMe__)

According to this map, being born in South Korea is tantamount to entering hell, where one is immediately enslaved by a highly regulated system that dictates an entire course of life. Onerous education and service in the abusive military are the norm, and the only goal for the young is to become servants of the mighty corporations that rule the realm from its heart.

Politicians turn blind eyes to the plight of the people from the luxury of their throne afar. “Golden Spoons” — euphemism for those born into wealth and power — simply skirt the whole system by drawing on resources provided to them by their families. For commoners, however, failing to enter the corporate world means having to wallow in the Pool of Joblessness, though some take refuge in the Fortress of Bureaucrats by taking the civil servant examination.

Yet the ultimate destiny for the majority is to run one of South Korea’s ubiquitous fried chicken joints — considered the least prestigious and profitable form of business — whether because there is no other job or one has been forcibly retired in the 40s. Then at the end of this long, tortuous journey, one meets death at Tapgol Park, the symbol of elderly poverty in downtown Seoul frequented by crowds of seniors who gather to kill time and eat free lunch dispensed by charity organizations.

The only escape is to become self-employed and eke out a self-sustaining but disreputable bandit-like existence on the margin of society, or wade through the Forest of Emigration and leave South Korea altogether, finding freedom in countries beyond hell.

If we are to go by this depressing assessment of South Korea, what angers the young are obvious: having to sacrifice youth for interminable education, the state and a job one does not believe in; a narrow path to financial security and an even more narrowly defined path to success; growing inequality and hereditary privileges of the haves; lack of social welfare that might cushion the fall to poverty; and elite corruption.

In their response to South Korea’s myriad ills, the Hell Joseon camp share rage with the users on Ilbe, the notorious rightwing online discussion forum known for bashing women, minorities and leftist politics. As do Ilbe users, those who describe South Korea as hell ascribe the country’s problems to some innate character of the South Korean people — described as “slavish” (noye geunseong) or “primitive” (migae) — and take pride in their ability to identify such failings with the detachment of objective outsiders.

But if some Ilbe users are distinguished by a measure of political conviction — however wrongly motivated — that while the country may be heading in a wrong direction, it can be redirected and reformed perhaps, self-described inhabitants of Hell Joseon, on the other hand, find no hope for South Korea; they seek only to abandon and escape the system altogether. For what is hell if not a place that defies reform? Its laws are immutable and suffering is the way of being for all eternity; no one ever dreams of turning hell into heaven.

The Hell Joseon discourse embodies despair and hopelessness of the most extreme variety, the idea that the South Korean state cannot be redeemed through effort. In fact, “effort” — noryeok in Korean — is one of the most hated words in the Hell Joseon lexicon, seen as part of an insidious tactic of the ruling class to trick the population into continuing to believe that work is meaningful, mobility possible, and justice alive.

In some ways young South Koreans are already taking revenge on a society that they believe has failed them and is beyond redemption. The falling rates of birth and marriage; one of the highest percentages of youth between 15 and 29 who eschew education, employment or training in the industrialized world; not to mention the rising suicide rate among teenagers: All this may partly correlate with worsening economic circumstances but nonetheless serves to punish the state by withholding greater productivity and children the officialdom desperately seeks for the goal of maintaining and growing the nation.

Self-destruction is not only a form of escape; it ensures the death of the system one so despises. To the South Korean state demanding life, denizens of Hell Joseon answer: “The best thing for a South Korean is never to be born; the second best is to die as soon as possible.” And in dying or running away to a foreign country, they gleefully watch the nation they leave behind burn and succumb to ruin.

For the young South Koreans who have grown to detest their nation, the Republic of Korea — Daehan Min’guk — already ceased to exist some time ago. They now call this land Daehan Mangguk: the Failed State of Korea.

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.