By Se-Woong Koo
One of the biggest scandals of 2010 involved Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, whose own daughter was found to have mysteriously qualified for a plum job inside the ministry, presumably with the father’s backing.
This itself would not have been ordinarily such big news in South Korea, but the timing was most unfortunate for the minister-daughter duo: Only two weeks earlier then-president Lee Myung-bak had announced the launch of a campaign to make South Korea a more “Just Society.”
Yu was forced to resign in a bid by the Lee administration to contain the damage from the scandal, but it was already too late. A poll conducted in the aftermath of the scandal showed that more than 70 percent of South Koreans believed their country to be a place without justice.
Perhaps more importantly, the development underscored a certain truth of South Korea: a country where official rhetoric in service of a lofty ideal could scarcely be more distant from a reality controlled by self-serving figures in power.
That episode came to my mind a few days ago as I encountered the news that three out of four attorneys hired at the Board of Audit and Inspection — the government organ responsible for nothing less than monitoring the behavior of public officials — were children of high-ranking officials and lawmakers suspected of being hired not for their abilities but for their family backgrounds.
Five years after Yu’s resignation and the attempt to make South Korea fairer, the life of South Koreans continues to suffer from small injustices that reflect the existence of two realities here: one available only to those from the right backgrounds and another that is experienced by everyone else.
Though an exact number is hard to come by, it seems that more and more South Koreans in their 20s and 30s are calling this gap between the two realities proof of South Korea as “Hell Joseon” — an infernal feudal kingdom stuck in the nineteenth century — and this language is catching on, to much hand-wringing in the domestic media. There is even a website dedicated to exposing South Korea’s ostensibly hellish and backward reality — named Hell Korea — and each morning I find the Hell Joseon Facebook group with more likes than the previous night. Read more