Who Is to Blame for Inequality? The Hell Joseon Debate Rumbles On

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Middle-aged KAIST professor Lee Byung-tae found himself at the center of a social media furore of Trumpian proportions earlier last week after wading into the debate that is South Korea’s inter-generational divide.

At 5:26 pm on Jul. 16, just minutes after posting links to articles on South Korea’s consumer price index and GDP per hour worked, Lee continued a prolific Sunday afternoon on social media by posting a missive titled “A heartfelt appeal to the young.”

“Whenever you call this country ‘Hell Joseon,’ whenever you slander it by calling it too unjust to live in, please say it in front of your grandparents and your parents,” he began. “Say these things to the faces of people who, from their elementary school days, went straight out to weed the fields after school under the summer sun, then down to the riverbank in the evening to cut grass to feed the cow and went to gather firewood in the mountains.”

‘Hell Joseon’ is a pejorative term for South Korea, used predominantly by young people to describe a country where their futures are compromised by a gaping income disparity, driven ever wider by the privileged few on the right side of it.

Lee’s tirade against the younger generation continued on similar lines, imploring them to stop whinging about how bad they had it by reminding them of the blood and tears shed by previous generations to lift South Korea out of dire poverty in the space of just a few decades.

You had to hand it to Lee: It was a persuasive piece of writing. Indeed, many people did hand it to him and he had, according to a later post, several thousand new Facebook friends by the end of the week.

The backlash to Lee’s attack came not in the form of a delinquent youngster spraypainting abuse on his car, but from another member of the academic elite. Enter Park Chan-un, a law professor at Hanyang University and a member of the same generation as Lee.

Sure, Park retorted, Lee had a hard childhood, but so did most of his generation. As a result, they had enjoyed ample opportunity and the greatest prosperity of any Korean generation in the last five millennia. Most of this generation had now retired or were about to, and had “more cash than they could spend.” But for the younger generation, “life is completely opaque and depressing. There is no hope in sight.”

Park’s final blow was a singularly Confucian dig at Lee’s paternal credentials, claiming, “Failing to feel the pain of the younger generation despite the good fortune of your own is not a stance for a parent to take. If you don’t have anything good to do for the younger generation, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.”

The professors’ social media battle went viral, spurred on by attention from mainstream media.

Hankyung, a major economic daily, distilled the clash into a debate on the merits and demerits of capitalism and free market competition, while anglophone daily Korea Times called the debate “long overdue” and claimed that it “begs for an inter-generational debate at the national level where the up-and-coming and prevailing generations talk frankly about their problems and expectations in hopes of reaching a grand contract.”

The OECD put South Korea’s May 2017 youth unemployment rate at 11.1%, lower than Canada but higher than the United States.

“I just wrote that post in five minutes,” Lee told Korea Exposé on Jul. 21. “I wasn’t expecting it to go viral. What I wanted to say was that a lot of media articles and books talking about ‘Hell Joseon’ are very selective with their data. Rising inequality is the flip-side of economic growth. And a lot of the competition young people face now is from outside — countries like India and China. So rather than looking for and complaining about domestic enemies, young people should be taking an objective look at the situation and preparing themselves to meet the challenges it brings.”

Lee also expressed misgivings about the regulations proposed by the new government, claiming that they risked stifling creativity; it appears his Facebook remarks should be taken in the context of a neoliberal commentator with a strong belief in the primacy of free markets.

Inequality is a topic that receives growing attention in South Korean society. The debate about Hell Joseon is bound to continue, not just between the young and the old any more, but also between free-market champions like Lee and progressive policymakers and academics like Park.

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Cover image: Korean War Destruction (public domain/flickr) and Photo of Downtown Seoul (Credit: Craig Nagy/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ben Jackson is Korea Exposé's environment editor. He studied languages at undergraduate level and has an MA in Korean Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.