South Korea’s Angry Young Men

by

A hundred people gorge on pizza and snacks in the heart of downtown Seoul. Nothing is wrong with that picture, except that they do it next to men and women who are fasting to protest government inaction in the aftermath of the Sewol sinking nearly a half year ago.

South Korea is a deeply divided society, between the right and the left, the rich and the poor, the old and the young. Unity is an illusion and nationalism erupts only when the nation suffers a collective insult. Underneath, factionalism is ripe and allegiances run along the lines of family, education, profession, wealth, birthplace, and ideology. Consensus is rare.

If the Sewol sinking exposed some of those fault lines within South Korean society for the world to see, showing a government pitted against its critics, entrenched business interests against the hapless public, disinterested bureaucrats against a disempowered electorate, a less remarked-on development in politics is the dramatic rise of South Korea’s angry young men.

They have emerged from their usual nesting ground — an infamous website called Ilbe — where, in the comfortably anonymous space of the Internet, they spew invectives against members of society who they feel are infringing on the traditional rights of Korean men: women seeking gender equality, migrant workers and North Korean defectors ‘stealing’ jobs and other opportunities, and people from the southwestern province of Jeolla-do overcoming decades of political and economic marginalization.

The downtown event early September, organized by Ilbe members, illustrated the troubling state of South Korea where certain citizens feel no shame in displaying chauvinism of the ugliest kind in the capital city’s most iconic space. Comments marking this occasion on the Ilbe site were celebratory to the point of self-aggrandizing. To much approval from other site users, one member posted:

“Ilbe’s presence in Gwanghwamun [the downtown plaza] yesterday was but a beginning in sweeping away an old fashion called left-wing and replacing it with a new fashion known as patriotic conservatism. An awkward beginning by a hundred will soon lead to conviction among a thousand, and inevitably touch tens and hundreds of thousands. The streets of Seoul and the Republic of Korea are no longer the playground of lefties.”

Bravado is amusing; the sentiment, not so much. How can gobbling up food in sight of fasting protesters be justified by anyone? Why do some young Korean men — Ilbe, with its entrenched misogyny, is believed to be made up almost entirely of men — locate satisfaction in mocking the bereaved and weak, and vilifying them as lefties, undesirables, enemies?

In trying to understand the psychology of Ilbe’s angry young men, I came across a sensitive analysis by journalist Park Seon-yeong. Titled “When the Weak Detest the Weak”, her essay lamented the situation of South Korea in which everyone is conditioned to see him- or herself as a “have” at all cost, even going to the length of stepping on anyone perceived to have less power just to demonstrate one’s own powerfulness:

“Hell is here right now, where have-nots paste the sign of ‘have’ on their foreheads and prove that they are not have-nots by endlessly seeking out victims, yet being victimized in turn.”

Park uses the words “Gap” and “Eul” to express the have and the have-not, appropriating the South Korean legal expressions found in contracts where the signatory who dictates the terms of the contract is noted as Gap and the one who agrees to those terms, Eul.

In this country we all feel the compulsion to pose as Gap, even when in fact we are Eul. So much energy is invested in looking like Gap that some even go bankrupt just to maintain the appearance of being rich and powerful, splurging on clothes, cars, and meals they cannot afford.

At other times, bankruptcy is not financial but moral.

One of the most visible right-wing organisations in South Korea is the Korea Parent Federation, made up of poor old men who are mobilized to stage pro-government counter-protests against left-leaning factions at political rallies. Victims of a society that has largely forgotten them, they are taking their turn at victimizing others.

Ilbe is another incarnation of the have-nots who pretend to have. Refusing to accept the truth of not being a somebody in a country where being a nobody is a fate worse than death, these young people lash out, unaware of their own moral degeneration into “hungry ghosts” — agwi — to borrow Park’s description: twisted creatures whose hunger is so intense they try to devour anything but can never fill that void inside.

South Korea’s young people are dealing with a miserable reality. They undergo onerous education for a promise that their future will amount to something. But when they graduate, landing a covetable job is fiercely competitive. Costs of living are high, and renting a place of your own, much less homeownership, is near impossible for a single person without the help of well-to-do parents. Everyone says one should get married and have children, but the expense of establishing a family is daunting. Consumption is endlessly encouraged. Debts pile up. There appears to be no hope on the horizon.

Failing or fearing a failure in this system that measures one’s entire worth by achievement and acquisition — a feeling brilliantly described by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in their book The Hidden Injuries of Class — angry young men want vengeance but will not go after the rich and powerful. They do not have the courage. Instead, they are attacking the weakest, the most marginal, the most vulnerable. Women. Dark-skinned foreigners. North Korean defectors. Chinese Koreans. And now Sewol disaster victims and their families.

Ilbe may prove to be the canary in the coal mine that is South Korea. It does not represent a new sentiment but amplifies the worst impulses already in existence. Theoretically this is a free country and people are given to expressing all sorts of opinions online. And abuse perpetrated by the weak against the weaker is not a new phenomenon either, manifesting as extreme bullying in schools, developing into violence in the military and ostracisation at workplaces. Rampant child abuse is also a formidable problem.

While those issues require urgent redress, the brewing anger among the young at marginal communities is particularly disconcerting. That misguided rage is now shaping into organized entities, finding acceptance in political circles, and attracting support from so-called elites. It is beginning to infect the whole of South Korean society and breed new political discourse and even militant activism. Just last month, the Northwest Youth League, a paramilitary group notorious for its massacre of thousands on the island of Jeju between 1947 and 54 under the authoritarian regime of Syngman Rhee, announced its re-launch in front of the Seoul City Hall.

Something similar to the current South Korean situation happened several decades ago in Europe: fascism. And history warns us that South Korea’s angry young men, if left untended, may become a monster no one can fully control, engulfing the nation in a downward spiral of more anger and violence. That prospect truly frightens me.

Cover Image: Lee Hee-hoon

Comments

comments

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.

  • KoreanWonders

    Great read! Really well constructed article.

  • Carl Williams

    I hate the dog eat dog effect but I also understand the feeling they may have. That doesn’t make it right

  • Tuhano

    sheeps with different shepherd

  • Samuel Basson

    I still don’t understand why the government is still so inactive after the Sewol incident… Justice isn’t just condemning those responsible, justice is improving safety standards so something like that doesn’t happen again.

  • D Johnson

    Doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

  • vv1

    what a sucking worst article. hahaha Fucking Communist.

    • Jules Kondo

      Sucking worst article? Hahaha, right back at you little fascist clown.

      영어 똑바로 해 봐라…

  • BillyH

    Solid deconstruction.

    However, while I applaud the intent of the article and the purpose of this site in general, I am curious to see the extent of its effectiveness in terms of enlightening people on fresh perspectives of the Koreas mainly because I don’t think most Koreans are yet capable of viewing themselves beyond a basic and superficial rose-colored lens.

    For all their talk of having “noonchi” and “sen-seu” Koreans demonstrate such a glaring refusal (or is it an inability?) to view themselves under a critical perspective that I could very well foresee your comments sections becoming flooded with the typical hyper-defensive responses or personal attacks should this site find its way into a larger, staunchly pro-Korea audience in the future.

    Keep the articles coming, though. You have a reader in me, for what it’s worth, but I also fear for you guys.

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  • Guest

    It’s a shame for yhese

  • ron

    It’s a shame for these people to do this action in front of those seeking justice for Sewolvictims. Oh korea.

  • soeren

    very insightful and well structured article. i love the “communist” comment below. we have the same in germany, where you just say someone is a “nazi”, then everybody is on your side immediately.

    i recently had hired an intern, who kept talking over coffee or lunches about the “lefties” and how they would conspire with the north. that boy was 23 years old and believed this nonsense. he had studied at king’s college in london, but was unable to review his beliefs. anything that was bad in korea, was because the “lefties” were creating all those problems.

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  • I think this would have been a great article if it could elaborate just a little bit more how ‘Ilbe’ and its users are viewed by general Korean public. The Ilbe users/writers are not exaclty the more progressive, enlightened, and balanced social thinkers.

  • Bolt1955

    Very interesting story and as usual, well and perceptively written. It just goes to show there are rednecks (the American term) in other societies, and perhaps (probably?) every society. I think the analogy to fascism might overstate the threat posed by such a faction. Angry young men may have played an early role in fascism and nazism, but the construction of regimes around those ideologies required a slippery slope lubricated with congenial economic conditions that plainly do not exist in Korea. Better to tolerate and privately monitor hate groups then to repress them through government action. For the most part, it’s just a by product of freedom.

  • shannie4888

    This article really struck something in me. When netizens become enraged by things that Kpop idols do relating to Ilbe, sometimes I think they are overreacting, but maybe I’m the one who isn’t reacting enough. Ilbe is a repulsive group of weak individuals who prey on the vulnerable.

    I hope they are crushed before they gain anymore traction. That fascism analogy left me scared to think what they could grow into.

  • JC

    Koreans are always bullying others whenever they have a chance. This is why mother in laws treat their daughter in laws like slaves. Why bosses treat their employees like crap. Why husbands beat their wife and kids.

    Then the excuse is “We are a Confucian society. Please understand our unique situation”