When I briefly taught at Underwood International College, an undergraduate division of Yonsei University, one student came to me to say he felt "discriminated against by students on the main campus."
"They think we got in without merit because we don't go through the same admission process. They say we aren't qualified to call ourselves Yonsei students."
Offering an all-English curriculum, Underwood is open to both foreign and Korean students, with Maddox Jolie-Pitt (son of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) being its most famous attendee. Some argue it's easier to win admission there than for the university's standard, Korean-taught track, but graduates of both receive Yonsei diplomas. Certain Korean Yonsei students outside Underwood seem to believe this is unfair.
If this sounds petty, similar minute distinctions are regularly drawn in local discourse over who is qualified, who is freeloading, and who is entitled to privilege and success in contemporary South Korea.
It's all part of a conversation going back more than a decade about fairness, or rather its absence. Back in 2010 then-president Lee Myung-bak, a conservative, called creating a "just society" his goal (it's ironic because he's now sitting in prison for corruption). Moon Jae-in, whose term ends in May, proclaimed in his inauguration speech five years ago, "Under my administration, opportunities will be equal, process will be fair, and the result will be just."
But for all that concern with fairness, a large segment of the population clearly don't feel South Korea lives up to the ideal.
Conservative media outlet Dailian commissioned a poll one year ago showing that 49 percent of respondents thought that the way things are done in the country became unfairer under Moon. If that might reflect a rightwing bias, a different survey published by the left-leaning Kyunghyang Shinmun in late 2020 drew a similarly pessimistic picture, with 59 percent saying South Korean society was unfair, although only 29 percent believed it became more so after Moon had taken power in 2017.
The perception of unfairness doesn't have to do just with Moon's presidency; when asked by the state broadcaster KBS before the presidential election on Mar. 9, some 41 percent said they didn't believe Korea would become more just or fairer over the next five years under a new president, as opposed to 24.5 percent who thought it would.
And yet in response to the question on what they wanted the incoming president to address in his inauguration speech, the largest share—23 percent—answered they wanted to hear about fairness (gongjeong 공정) and what he intends to do for it.
Such yearning for fairness, but such disillusionment about its chances. What exactly is this fairness on so many people's minds?
Illuminating was the first big challenge for the Moon administration, back in 2017. It's a famous story: he visited the Incheon International Airport and announced an "era of no irregular workers in the public sector", followed by news that all airport employees would be offered regular contracts.
The ensuing outcry was deafening. The airport, managed by a state-owned firm, is an attractive employer because of job security and high salaries for regular employees who pass a rigorous hiring process, and many young jobseekers, it appeared, didn't want the good jobs to be going to 'unqualified' people.
The decision in 2020 by the airport to directly hire 1,900 security agents, already on short-term contracts, led to a petition signed by more than 200,000 people opposing the move.
"This is not equality; this is reverse discrimination and even greater unhappiness for young people," wrote its author.
Fear was that if regular contracts were given to others, there would be fewer left for new applicants like themselves (that wasn't the case, according to the government, but the explanation made no difference).
The furor revealed two starkly different understandings of fairness. Moon thought it fair to help those trapped in subpar employment—it was his campaign pledge to eliminate short-term work contracts at state-owned companies—but jobseekers boasting high levels of education and training disagreed: they thought it unfair for him to help others at the airport bypass the established path to regular employment—one that normally entails diplomas, test scores and nerve-wrecking interviews.
This opinion—that fairness means upholding the principle of meritocracy no matter what, and compassion is just "pandering to emotions" (gamseong pari 감성팔이)—is at the root of many other recent debates.
At venues expressing anti-refugee sentiment, like back in 2018 against Yemeni arrivals, asylum seekers have been described as outsiders not deserving of the nation's generosity. "Korean citizens come first" is a common slogan. Helping foreigners, regardless of how few or desperate, amounts to special, and therefore unfair, support in that view.
The growing anti-feminist tendencies feed on a similar logic: men's rights activists routinely argue that women expect more than what they are entitled to and are therefore unfair. Special hatred in masculinist circles is reserved for young stay-at-home wives who don't earn salaries and depend on husbands' income (that women perform a significant portion of household work goes overlooked).
In the extreme language of the internet such women are called "mommy parasites" (mamchung 맘충) or "pongpong ladies" (pongpongnyeo 퐁퐁녀); and described as undeserving of spouses' financial support.
While not always explicitly identified, certain others also get stamped with the scarlet letter of the undeserving. The daily newspaper Hankook Ilbo noted last summer: "The self-pity and lament of the young generation over the collapse of class mobility is leading to antagonism toward minority outsiders, such as ethnic Koreans from China and refugees."
It asked how "distant" South Koreans of different generations feel from various minority groups, and the result was striking: those in twenties and thirties were more uncomfortable with refugees, ethnic Koreans from China, migrant workers and North Korean defectors than those in fifties and sixties said they were.
But why do the young attack minorities and not the elite or larger social structure that no longer offers class mobility? According to the most recent global survey of millennials and Generation Z by the accounting firm Deloitte, some three-quarters of young South Koreans indeed recognized that wealth in their country is unequally distributed. The main reason, cited by nearly half, was "favorable laws, regulations and policies for corporations and the rich". In short, many saw that the system is rigged.
In spite of it, not to mention the so-called candlelight protests of 2016 and 2017 that expressed tidal waves of rage at corruption within the government and many big family-controlled firms (a.k.a. chaebol 재벌), talks about reforming the system no longer dominate. The rise and fall of South Korean influencer Song Ji-ah in January was proof of how children of 'gold spoon'—the privileged class of the rich—win unreserved adoration from young followers despite showing off wealth they never seemed to have worked for (until they are unmasked as faking it, that is).
Instead, the biggest grievances today are over how other ordinary members of society could be eating into what remains of a small slice of the pie—that short-term workers receive regular contracts, underperforming students might get to go to the same university as better performing ones, or that women 'unfairly' demand equality.
The hostility goes up a notch or ten when the perceived competition is working-class foreigners.
A recently published Korean book The Radical Twenties (급진의 20대) calls this phenomenon "K-populism":
"This hatred and rage of the young people over unfairness and hypocrisy of the older generation today is in fact expressed as lashing out by the first generation in modern Korean history to be poorer than their parents."
It's an emotion that the campaign of the new president-elect Yoon Suk-yeoul skillfully exploited. He pledged to "solve the problem of foreigners taking advantage of the public health insurance" all of a sudden, and promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which men's activists despise.
Yoon's tactic hasn't been so much about inflaming xenophobia or anti-feminism for its own sake but satisfying the current rhetoric, which presupposes that fairness is being undermined by those who are demanding too much at the expense of those who are entitled to thrive.
Unclear is whether so strict a distinction can be drawn between the shamelessly selfish and the righteous.
A questionnaire by the Korea Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission in late 2020 pointed to an interesting fact: 54 percent of respondents said South Korean society was unfair, more or less in keeping with other studies; but when asked if they themselves were fair people, some 47 percent said they were, and nearly 44 percent said they were average.
In other words, most didn't really think that they were part of what's causing the unfairness crisis. It's others who are to blame.