Does research reflect global middle class angst, a uniquely Korean malaise – or mere talk?
From afar, South Koreans might appear to be blessed among East Asians.
Citizens of a prosperous democracy that has birthed a hero-to-zero national success story, world-beating corporate brands, a futuristic infrastructure and the glitzy K-pop universe that is beloved across the region, they boast enviable looks, lifestyles and quality of life.
Up close, things look different. According to a recent survey of 5,000 persons, 75% of 19-34 year old natives of the world’s 11th richest nation want out.
The shock finding, reported in the popular Hankyoreh newspaper on December 29, was revealed at Korea Women’s Development Institute’s 119th Gender Equality Policy Forum, in a presentation titled “Diagnosis of Gender Conflicts from a Youth Standpoint and Suggested Policy Responses for an Inclusive State: A Gender Analysis of Fairness Perceptions.”
The survey found that 79.1% of young women and 72.1% of young men want to leave Korea, that 83.1% of young women and 78.4% of young men consider Korea “hell” and that 29.8% of young women and 34.1% of young men consider themselves “losers.”
Beyond gender differences, the survey suggests massive popular dissatisfaction with local life.
But does it demand that Seoul’s elite sit down and seriously ponder the Korean Dream? Or does it merely reflect superficial talk among youth who live decent lives and have no real intention of leaving?
A catchphrase has become current among young Koreans in recent years to describe their country: “Hell Joseon” – “Joseon” being the name of a long-dead Korean kingdom. That phrase is being superseded by a new term, “Tal-Jo” – a pormanteau comprising “leave” and “Joseon,” which, vernacularly, might be best be translated as “Escape Hell.”
“As a joke, we call Korea ‘Hell Joseon,’ but there is another term called ‘Tal-Jo’ which we use a lot more than ‘Hell Joseon’ nowadays,” Park Ji-na, a 20-something Seoul undergraduate, told Asia Times. “Me and my friends just use this in conversation as joke, but if I had a good opportunity to go abroad and work, I would.”
Some say it is far from unique to Korea. “I think there is a middle class crisis in all wealthy countries,” Pae Hee-kyung, who runs an educational institute near Seoul, told Asia Times.
Across the developed, post-industrial world, middle classes are under perceived siege from falling living standards, evaporating opportunities and rising wealth inequality. These trends have arisen against the backdrop of a globalizing world that distributes capital and jobs away from customary centers of investment, manufacturing and related prosperities.
Some pundits posit that these issues explain Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US and the protests of young Hong Kongers.
Are South Koreans different?
For Korea, the transition from poverty to prosperity and the rise of the bourgeoisie has been shockingly fast: The country morphed from little-known agricultural backwater to global industrial powerhouse in just three decades. While Koreans from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s could anticipate decent jobs and rising standards of living as growth rates surged, this is no longer the case.
“Here, if you look at your father’s generation, they had less in material terms but they had hopes that, every year, they would be paid more, that they could buy an apartment, and that the price would go up and they would feel a sense of achievement and wealth,” Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, told Asia Times.
That is no longer the case for two reasons.
Firstly, the South Korean economy has matured and growth has slowed from the high double digits to the low single digits. Secondly, the national growth locomotives – family-run conglomerates, such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG – have gone global and off-shored. With South Korea’s population now at a national high of 51 million persons, there are insufficient full-time, white-collar positions to absorb a highly educated populace.
Yet Korea’s unemployment statistics are hardly calamitous. According to World Bank data, between 1995 and 2017, unemployment only rose above 4% for three years – 1999, 2000 and 2001 ( in the wake of the Asia financial crisis). It stood at over 4% for the first eight months of 2019, but fell to 3.6% in November, according to data provider CEIC. The youth unemployment rate in South Korea averaged 7.19% from 1982 until 2019, according to Statistics Korea, but despite hitting a high of 11.7% in April this year, had dropped to 7.1% in October.
A related issue is property. Koreans have traditionally not invested in securities or financial products, preferring to sink their savings into homes – a trend exacerbated by the low-interest-rate era. The result: soaring house prices. Combine this with half the national population – some 24 million persons – living in and around the Seoul metropolitan area, and it is easy to understand why young Koreans think they will never be able to afford a home.
And there is one area where young Koreans sense a distinctly local injustice. In this neo-Confucian, fast-growth economy, education provides the key to success. The college entrance system, despite methodological criticisms, was widely assessed as being fair. Now, questions hang over that.
In recent years, the children of two prominent figures – Choi Soon-sil, the confidante of jailed ex-President Park Geun-hye, and Cho Kuk, a short-lived justice minister under the current Moon Jae-in administration – have been revealed to have enjoyed privileged access to top colleges. The cases have emerged from both sides of the political spectrum, suggesting a broad culture of elite entitlement.
Many feel a resultant bitterness.
Such privileged people “have a lot of money and are using that money to go to universities and their lives are very ensured,” said Park. “But however hard we work, we don’t even know if we will be able to buy a house – I don’t know how we can live in the future!”
Real concern or youth talk?
Clearly, the study’s findings reflect the talk of youth. How should they be analyzed?
According to the World Bank’s GINI co-efficient data, South Korea is a reasonable 31.6, compared with Japan at 32.1, the UK at 33.2 and the US at 41.5 – the higher the number, the graver the inequality – but author Tudor believes that Korea’s fast-track development trajectory has engendered acute sensitivities.
“I don’t think Korea is particularly unequal – it is quite middle class compared to other wealthy countries – but if you go back one or two generations, things were very equal: everyone had nothing.” he said. “When everyone has nothing you don’t feel poor, but now, even if you have quite a decent standard of living, you look at others around and you may feel, ‘Oh my god!’”
Pae, the educator, opines that the current young are not as badly served by their systems as they believe.
“In the Korean education system, there are lots of chances for scholarships; Korean higher education is a lot cheaper than abroad; and there are plenty of chances of working holidays – so there are lots of opportunities,” she said. “But millennials want to get out of this cycle.”
Another issue is a very notable national tendency to raise emotive voices.
“Since I have been living in Korea, people complain all the time,” said Tudor. “The president is terrible – whoever he or she is – and the economy is terrible or on the brink of a crisis – however good it may be.”
Even Park, the student, admits that she and her friends are not actually planning moves.
“I and my friends talk about leaving Korea, but in order for us to get jobs abroad we should at least have a doctor’s degree, or have certain qualifications like nurse or UX designer,” she said. “Me and my friends, who study liberal arts or business, though we say ‘Tal Jo’ – we can’t.”