The Koreas

Is South Korea Now ‘Hell Chosun’?

The idea of Korea as “Hell Chosun” captures a creeping sense of futility among young South Koreans.

Steven Denney
Is South Korea Now ‘Hell Chosun’?

A painting of a South Korea classroom by Kim Hong-do (1745-ca. 1806) in the latter Chosun period.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ 국립 중앙박물관 소장

The rising popularity of the “Hell Chosun” Facebook group and the “Hell Korea” online forum suggest many South Koreans, especially younger people, are growing increasingly dissatisfied or disillusioned with the state of South Korean society.

Hell Chosun is, according to Se-Woong Koo’s description in a recent Korea Exposé article, “an infernal feudal kingdom stuck in the nineteenth century.” It is a place where ambitions are crushed and free will an illusion: “[B]eing born in South Korea is tantamount to entering hell, where one is immediately enslaved by a highly regulated system that dictates an entire course of life. Onerous education and service in the abusive military are the norm.” The rich and famous bypass the entire hellish system by instrumentalizing their wealth and connections, whereas people of the modern Third Estate either slave their way into a corporate job or “take refuge in the Fortress of Bureaucrats by taking the civil servant examination.” Those who do neither “wallow in the Pool of Joblessness” or “become self-employed and eke out a self-sustaining but disreputable bandit-like existence on the margin of society, or wade through the Forest of Emigration and leave South Korea altogether, finding freedom” abroad.

Hellish indeed.

The Hell Chosun construct paints a most distressing picture of what life is like in contemporary South Korea. There is, no doubt, a small amount of truth in this extremely hyperbolic description of society. South Korea is an ultra-competitive place, where youth is raided by cram schools, night schools, and little sleep. The job market is no less competitive, where the more “specs,” or academic and career qualifications, someone has the more likely they are to be hired. With fewer and fewer permanent positions available for new graduates, life after a grueling education (where one acquires specs) doesn’t look great, and the demand for more specs is increasing.

See also: vicious cycle.

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But how hopeless or trapped do South Koreans really think they are? South Korean society is competitive, but do people really think they have little control over their own lives? Koo, in his piece, admits that it is difficult to know exactly how many people think of their country as Hell Chosun. But there are ways to find out.

The World Values Survey (WVS), a cross-national survey database that maps changes and variations in values over time, has data for at least one pertinent variable: How much “freedom of choice and control” people think they have over their own lives. More specifically, the variable (V55) asks: “Some people feel they have completely free choice and control over their lives, while other people feel that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them. Please use this scale [1-10 scale] where 1 means ‘no choice at all’ and 10 means ‘a great deal of choice’ to indicate how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out.” [The survey questionnaire is available at the WVS website.]

To measure the variation over time, I chose data at three different times for which data are available: 1990, 2001, and 2010. The first year, then, serves as the baseline.

The aggregate data show mean scores of 7.53 (1990), 7.14 (2001), and 6.57 (2010). This means that while most of the South Korean populace thinks they have a relatively good deal of free choice and control over their lives, the average has been steadily decreasing (-0.96 over 20 years), indicating a creeping sense of futility or loss of control. This is in line with the Hell Chosun thesis.

Divided by age group, the data show significant differences. For the “up to 29” group, the mean scores were: 8.10 (1990), 7.54 (2001), and 6.84 (2010). The decrease in a sense of freedom of choice and control is significantly greater for this age cohort than the average for the entire population (-1.26 over 20 years). This also confirms the Hell Chosun thesis, and is in fact what the medieval metaphor is all about: an increasing sense of helplessness among young South Koreans.

One might be quick to note that even for the “up to 29” age cohort, most people have a relatively positive outlook. This would be correct, but if one were more interesting in trends over time rather than snapshots of reality, then the developments over the last 20 years are some cause for concern.

While the data provide some corroborating evidence for the Hell Chosun thesis, the data don’t speak for themselves. The gauntlet of life, as described by Koo, may be what’s driving the change, but one ought to be cautious of exaggeration.