Insights into South Korea

South Korea's young lament inequality in their society

The articles and photos here are the work of students from Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information who visited South Korea for Going Overseas For Advanced Reporting, a journalism programme organised by the school.

Park Ah Hyun, 15, a middle-school student. PHOTO: ANG HWEE MIN
Mr Fernando Lee, 33, a university officer. PHOTO: ANG HWEE MIN

Many young South Koreans claim to live in hell.

"Hell Joseon" is a term used to criticise the socio-economic state of the country. A reference to the Joseon dynasty from the 1300s to 1800s, it draws parallels between today's problems and those of the Confucian feudal system where social hierarchy determined quality of life.

A 2016 report by the International Monetary Fund states that income inequality in Korea is the worst in the Asia-Pacific region. Here, the poorer half of the population own just 2 per cent of the country's assets, and the most common complaint is those born rich get the best jobs and education, while those born poor remain poor.

Young people believe their generation cannot enjoy the aspects of life others before them had, such as marriage, children, employment and home ownership.

In an online survey by the Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company, 88 per cent of 21,000 youngsters surveyed said they hate South Korea and have thought of emigrating, while 93 per cent said they are ashamed of being South Korean.

Is "Hell Joseon" a reality? We speak to seven under-35s to find out.


Middle-school student Park Ah Hyun, 15, said: "I always think about how I'm going to live in the future. It's quite depressing. We're going to have no money, no home and no food to eat."

The Daegu native wants to study fashion at a university in Seoul, but is worried about doing well for the Suneung, or the College Scholastic Ability Test. She does not go to a cram school, but will enrol in one when she enters high school next year.

Her parents are supportive of her dream. "My father works in a big company and he works very long hours. I'm grateful that he supports our family, but I don't want to live like that."


Civil servant Kwon Byung Sam, 28, who works at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, thinks more people could escape "Hell Joseon" if they lived outside of Seoul, like him.

After graduating from Sungkyunkwan University with a law degree three years ago, he has been living and working in Sejong, South Korea's administrative capital. "Seoul is the real problem. Everything there is much more expensive. There should be efforts to move people out of Seoul. But in Korea, we think going to the best universities will give us the best lives, so young people prefer to live there.

"For universities in other parts of Korea to improve, those areas need to become more advanced. Things will change maybe in about 100 to 200 years. It will take a long time to solve this problem."


"I've worked for 10 years and, even with my wife's salary, we need to borrow 40 per cent of the price of a house in Seoul," said university officer Fernando Lee, 33, who hopes to buy his first home next year.

The Seoul National University graduate currently rents an apartment in Wangshipni with his wife and two children, aged four and one.

"We can afford our current lifestyle. Even though we don't have much savings, calling it 'hell' is a bit of an exaggeration. I don't feel it, but maybe my kids will.

"The other day, my daughter told me she needs to lose weight. I was very shocked. She's only four and our competitive society is already affecting her. I would definitely move overseas if I could. If not, I would send my kids to study overseas."


"When we were young, we were taught that if we didn't go to university, we would be jobless losers. So we all studied very hard, and invested a lot of money and time in our studies.

"After graduation, we were all expecting well-paying jobs. Our parents and even our grandparents expect us to get well-paying jobs. But now it's hard to get employed. Even if you get employed, working conditions are so bad, it feels like there's no hope," said Ms Chloe Park, 24, who graduated from Sungkyun-kwan University in February with a psychology degree. She is still looking for a job.

"We should start telling kids there is no one route to follow. They don't have to take our route to be successful. For us, it's already too late."


"There are a lot of jobless young people who spend the whole day in front of their computers being angry on the Internet. 'Hell Joseon' was invented by them," said Mr Choi Ju Seo, 26, who runs a vintage clothes store in Sindorim. He also works part-time at a tobacco store in Itaewon.

"It's true that it's very difficult to live when everything is very expensive, but every generation has its problems, and this is ours."

He grew up in Sindorim with his aunt, but went to high school in Tokyo, where his parents live. Mr Choi enlisted in the military after high school, and started working after his mandatory national service.

"I didn't see the need to go to university. I opened my shop because I love vintage clothing, but it isn't doing so well. I hope to move to Hongdae. Even though the rent is much higher, there will be more customers there."


Mr Son Min Joon, 22, thinks "Hell Joseon" is an extreme sentiment coined by people who cannot get work. He agrees with the notion that finding a job is difficult because of high university fees, the focus on prestige and nepotism.

"I'm not too ambitious. Those who go to a prestigious school in Seoul expect to get better jobs, but I'm content with what I'm studying. I think I'll be able to live happily."

The youngest of four children, Mr Son studies automotive engineering at Chungbuk Health and Science University in Cheongju. He is on study leave now and will enlist for military service soon, but plans to return to his studies to become a car mechanic.


Working in a chaebol, or family-owned business conglomerate, is not as glamorous as most people think, said Mr Kim Tae Hong, 35, who works in the buying and purchasing department of Samsung. He does not think "Hell Joseon" is an exaggeration.

"I was an electronics engineer before switching departments. I used to work at least 16 hours a day. Once, I even worked for 36 hours straight. My current position is a bit better. I now work 10 to 12 hours a day."

He rents an apartment in Seoul with his wife, and they do not plan to have children because it is too expensive, he said.

"It's trendy to send your children to an English-based kindergarten, and that costs 2 million won (S$2,500) a month. If we have kids now, they'll be in middle school when I retire. We won't be able to afford tuition fees on our pensions."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline South Korea's young lament inequality in their society . Subscribe