The political landscape in South Korea underwent a significant and unexpected shift last month, with the ruling Saenuri Party falling short of a parliamentary majority, thereby leaving it effectively incapable of passing legislation. The rout comes largely as a result of deepening public discontent over the government’s failure to enact reforms to stimulate stagnating economic growth. This trend has been exacerbated by an 18.8% drop in exports, which is highly concerning for policymakers given the country’s dependence on trade.
In the context of the election results, however, public misgivings over the Park government’s incompetence are not limited to the economy. Worsening inequality, and a youth unemployment rate that hit a record 12.5% in February, are ostensibly more pressing concerns amongst the youth demographic in particular. Indeed, the ineptitude of the government to mitigate such issues is the likely catalyst behind the nascence of ‘Hell Chosun’, a new paradigm of economic disenfranchisement and cynicism among young Koreans.
Hell Chosun is a compound word which epitomises the frustration of many toward a society perceived as a hellish modern reincarnation of Chosun, the five-century-long dynasty that preceded the modern South and North Korean states. Chosun was a feudal system in which a rigid Confucian hierarchy dictated the order of society. In Hell Chosun, societal order is largely determined by inherited economic standing; those born with golden spoons have access to the best educational opportunities and ultimately secure the most sought-after jobs, while the majority face intense competition for an entry-level position with one of the many chaebols, or massive family-owned conglomerates. Young job seekers now also have to contend with structural shifts away from creating full-time positions to a surge in irregular employment.
Hell Chosun embodies the intense scepticism that young Koreans feel in regard to the meritocratic potential of their society. Periodic incidences of nepotism, such as the inexplicable admittance of Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan’s daughter to a plum ministerial job, do little more than aggravate such cynicism. A consequence of this has been the demonisation of the notion of ‘noryeok’ (effort), labelled by Hell Chosun’s pioneers as an insidious tactic by the elite to perpetuate the myth that professional mobility and justice continue to exist in South Korean society.
Apart from signalling the demise of the Park regime, the elections heralded the return of an individual widely viewed as capable of remedying the country’s many ills. Ahn Cheol-soo, the business magnate and household name who has been depicted as a Korean Bernie Sanders-esque champion of the younger demographic, broke away from the main opposition Minjoo (democratic) Party to form the ‘People’s Party’, which secured a larger-than-expected 38 seats partly by capitalising on growing discontent around Hell Chosun.
Ahn has re-emerged on the political scene several years after dropping his candidacy in the previous election to support Moon Jae-in, who lost to now-president Park Geun-hye. The results of this election have positioned Ahn as a power broker sincer his party is now capable of blocking legislation. This position will undoubtedly magnify his influence and elevate his policy agenda. His proposed reforms include the elimination of preferential treatment for chaebols and the cultivation of competitive small and medium enterprises to stimulate the job market.
Despite Ahn’s rising political star and popularity among young South Korean conservatives, tackling the Hell Chosun phenomenon, and all it represents, is an unenviable task. The core of this problem is that South Korea’s youth may simply be too educated. In a country where 70.9% of high school graduates go to university, the reality is that there aren’t enough white collar jobs to go around. The fiery ambition of South Korea’s students is further illustrated by steady rises in manufacturing and services employment, fields generally spurned by a younger generation pressured from an early age by hyper-competitive parents to rise above their peers to the top of the educational pyramid. If Ahn were to successfully candidate himself for the next elections, one of his first challenges would be to (barring a miraculous spike in chaebol recruitment) encourage more students to embrace a trade, or pursue the entrepreneurial career path and start their own business.
But diverting the aspirations of South Korea’s youth away from the identified professional safe haven of the chaebol is a formidable task. Figures indicate that those employed at small and medium enterprises earn on average barely more than half of those at large domestic corporations. And given the competitiveness of landing an elusive entry-level position at the biggest organisations, it’s increasingly difficult to hop from an SME to a chaebol later on. Pushing such an initiative would undoubtedly put a dent in his popularity among young voters.
Nevertheless, Ahn would be wise to take a page out of neighbours’ Japan and China’s book of national revival and place youth engagement at the top of his agenda. With his party positioned as the deal maker or breaker in the South Korean parliament, Ahn is in an ideal position to push his reform agenda, to re-engage and to give hope back to the country’s increasingly alienated youth.
Michael Parker is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Republic of Korea (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)