Today’s Korea may appear glossy and fun at first glance. It appears to be a culture on the rise. Korean companies like Samsung and Hyundai are flagship brands that are known everywhere. Unfortunately, it seems like the country’s success isn’t reaching everyone equally. Many in their 20s and 30s are calling this image a sham and are using the term “Hell Joseon,” roughly translated as “Hell Korea.” Here’s why.
A broad gap separates the advantaged from everyone else
According to many, there’s a sharp divide between those who have advantages and those who don’t. They contend that those who are born to the right parents can obtain the best of everything — the most sought-after education and jobs that lead to an enviable lifestyle. But what about everyone else? They’re said to feel relegated to whatever they can find. That often means a markedly lower level of employment with long workdays, limited pay, and no benefits. As a result, a 2015 poll indicated that 62.7 percent of Koreans regarded their country as hell and a full 56 percent were willing to give up their nationality.
What does Korean inequality look like?
As interviewed by the Washington Post, a television writer named Hwang Min Jo is an example of this trend. She works from Monday through Thursday, eating, working, showering and sleeping at her office. Pay comes irregularly and she has no contract. When she’s not working she lives at home with her parents. Many other jobs are similar. Even sought after jobs can feature days that span more than ten hours at a stretch. Employers are clear that an employee’s work comes first, their family second. That may mean that a worker’s time with their parents, spouse, children, and other loved ones is severely limited.
Giving Korean inequality a name
Korea’s young people are speaking out with the catchphrase “Hell Joseon.” The term refers to a 500-year long Confucian dynasty that held power in Korea. Named Joseon, a prominent feature of the dynasty was its strictly imposed feudal system that determined which members of society had access to advantages — and which did not. Young Koreans appear to believe that these same values are currently influencing how the country runs.
Hell Joseon explodes on social media
As more citizens look for outlets where they can vent their frustrations, the term has caught fire on social media. A Facebook group includes more than 5,000 members and a website, plainly called “Hell Korea,” features multiple photos that illustrate how bad residents are finding Korean conditions. There are also online forums and even a bestselling novel on the topic. Social media outlets do more than act as a place to complain. Sometimes, particularly on online forums, participants talk about solutions for anyone who feels trapped and wants to try to change their situation. Solutions include joining the U.S. Military to gain citizenship or learning a trade that is in demand in any country that a resident wants to move to.
Inequality and Korean mental health
In addition to causing mounting frustrations and the potential for young people to leave their country, Korean inequality is affecting residents’ mental health. In OECD data collected in 2015, Koreans were listed as having experienced the highest rates of suicide (at 33.5 incidences per 100,000 people). The Korean Center For Disease Control also identified that 13 percent of its population suffers from depression.
Can Hell Josean bring change?
Is there a possibility of turning things around? It is hard to know. While those in a country like the United States may have hope through the cultural aspects of things like the “American Dream,” Koreans don’t have similar resources. Their society has traditionally been very regimented. This fact makes it all the more remarkable that young people are speaking out and putting a term to their experience. If Hell Joseon continues its momentum and more people talk about it, perhaps Koreans will find the relief they seek.