South Korea’s Angry Young Men

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

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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.