South Koreans battle anger, frustration as ‘Soon Sil Syndrome’ spreads

Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade march during a protest against South Korean President Park Geun Hye in Seoul on Nov 30, 2016.
Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade march during a protest against South Korean President Park Geun Hye in Seoul on Nov 30, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Housewife Shin Yang Joo, 52, finds herself unable to stay calm when she watches TV news these days. 

She is often compelled to turn to her computer to leave comments, sometimes in colourful language, on the Internet about the current political situation in South Korea. 

“It is almost like a knee-jerk reaction for me to express anger when I watch the news these days,” Madam Shin said. 

Six weeks into a corruption scandal engulfing President Park Geun Hye, many South Koreans like Madam Shin complain of heightened stress and pent-up anger.

The initial collective shock over the scandal involving Ms Park and her confidante Choi Soon Sil has morphed into feelings of anger, frustration and hopelessness, a condition some have satirically labelled "Soon Sil Syndrome". 

Last week, a man was arrested for setting fire to the birthplace of Ms Park’s father Park Chung Hee, who ruled the country in the 1970s. 

Lawmakers still loyal to the disgraced president are bombarded with angry phone calls and text messages. Protesters, frustrated over what they see as the slow progress of investigation into Ms Choi and the scandal, have also thrown dog excrement and even driven an excavator into the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office building in Seoul.

Experts say the scandal brought back memories of Ms Park’s poor handling of the Sewol ferry sinking – in which 304 mostly schoolchildren died – and seems to have tipped the people’s tolerance beyond breaking point.

“Citizens’ emotional stress has been accumulating since the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014. Now, the scandal involving President Park and Choi brought people’s level of frustration and shock to a peak,” said professor of psychology Ko Jae Hong from Kyungnam University. 

The ongoing scandal seems to have a more personal impact on the people, pundits say. 

Mr Kim Dae Hyun, a 28-year-old who participated in the latest massive anti-Park protest on Saturday, speaks of a shattered faith in justice. 
“Growing up, I was constantly told and encouraged by adults to study and work hard that I would succeed if I tried hard enough. But I found the reality was completely different,” he said. 

Former lawmaker Rhyu Si Min said South Koreans may have felt personally “insulted” by what Park and Choi did to the country.

“Watching the scandal unfold, the public might have felt not just anger, but a very strong sense of insult,” Rhyu said on a TV programme.  

Revelations so far suggest the president has relied on Choi, the daughter of a late cult leader, in both public and private life, letting her friend decide almost everything for her, including what to wear, say to the Cabinet and the public and whom to choose for key government posts. 

Choi’s daughter is also found to have been illegally admitted to a prestigious university, and it seems like she was given special treatment wherever she went and in whatever she did. 

Professor Ha Ji Hyun of Konkuk University warns that citizens’ feelings of anger and dissatisfaction must be addressed in some way, or it could increase public disorder.

Ever since the scandal broke out in late October, South Koreans have been staging massive rallies every Saturday to demand Park’s immediate resignation. The most recent, held Saturday, drew a record 1.7 million in Seoul and 2.32 million across the country. 

Despite the overwhelming display of public anger, President Park has refused to step down and the prospects for the opposition-led motion to impeach her remain unclear. 

“'No matter how hard I try, nothing has been changed. I do not know how to deal with the situation.' This is what most Koreans feel right now, while they continue to see those who are directly involved in the incident claim their innocence and say the situation is unfair,” Ha said. 

One way to cure the people’s stress and frustration is to punish the offenders.

“While neither of the president’s apologies, the prosecutors’ investigation nor the National Assembly’s reactions to the incident were able to calm traumatised citizens, a speedy process of bringing offenders to justice may be the only way to bring the stress level of citizens down,” said sociologist Chung Min Soo.

“For those angry citizens, coming together at candlelight vigils to beat the blues and express their emotions in the festive mood, as shown in recent rallies, can be a good way to survive this mind-boggling time.” 

For those with a more serious case of Soon Sil Syndrome, the experts’ advice is to turn off the TV for now. 

“Or set a certain amount of time to watch news. Negative news can impact viewer’s mental health,” Ha said.