South Korean Economy Hits the Young
Mar. 23, 2017
Young people in South Korea are angry at the growing gap between rich and poor due to the country's sluggish economy.
Last year, the unemployment for their generation approached 10 percent. Nearly half of those who manage to find a job end up in temp positions, earning less than 50 percent of what full-fledged workers get. Some are angry that without family connections, it is hard to get good opportunities.
In late February, new graduates celebrated at Seoul National University, but these days, even students from a top-notch school aren't confident of getting a stable job.
"I still don't have any prospects. But it's important, I'm graduating," said one female student at the event.
Only about half of South Korean college grads are able to secure full-time positions after finishing school. Many young people flock to Noryangjin, known for its cram schools for civil service tests or other qualifying exams. Those who live there have long been in search of stable jobs.
Students often stay in cheap dormitory-style housing called Koshiwon while they prepare for exams. For the past 2 years, 29-year-old Lee Seung-yeop has been renting a small room in one such dorm.
Lee graduated from a local university and has been studying to pass an exam for public servants. Five years have gone by with no success. The civil service has become a popular career choice as the economy continues to stagnate and companies hire fewer employees. Competition is intense -- the odds of passing the exam are said to be about 1 in a 100.
"If I don’t pass the exam this year, I`ll feel so bad for my parents. I'm ashamed to even see my friends and my cousins," Lee says. "I’ve been studying way too long, so I don’t want to see them."
Lee received no financial support from his parents. He works at the Koshiwon where he lives. He helps maintain the building in exchange for free rent.
Lee barely scrapes by, working another part-time job that provides meals. He doesn't get home until 9 p.m. and when he has free time, he spends it studying.
"My life is meaningless, just a repetition of working, studying and sleeping -- an endless cycle," Lee says. "I'm terrified of having nowhere to go as I get older. Now I am at the point of having to decide what to do with my life. Thinking about the future is scary."
The phrase "Hell Korea," is found on one website popular among youth. The term depicts the Lee Dynasty, which enforced a strict class system.
"I don't want to live in a country like this anymore," reads one message posted on the website.
"I envy people who live abroad," reads another.
A growing number of young South Koreans are giving up on finding a job, and are looking to move abroad. One company helps people emigrate, or get a working-holiday visa in Australia or New Zealand.
Park Sarah visited the company's office to discuss her options.
"I want to emigrate," she tells the staff.
Park studied animation at university. She has been stuck with only part-time opportunities. She is disappointed with South Korean politics, including the scandal around former President Park Guen-hye and Choi Soon-sil. Choi's daughter was suspected of receiving preferential admission to a prestigious university.
"I can really feel the inequality in our society. People are treated differently according to their social and economic status," Park says. "That's why I'm starting to think about moving abroad."
A book titled "I Hate Korea" is becoming popular among Korean youth, and is a bestseller. It tells a story of a woman in her mid-20s who graduated from a top-level university. But she decides to emigrate to Australia because she feels she can't survive in South Korea without any special qualifications or family connections.
The author, Jang Kang-myung, says he wrote the book based on extensive research on trends among youth.
"Younger generations see big differences between the rich and the poor, for example that only children of the wealthy get special favors or get into universities using their connections," Jang says. "Then they start to think that living in South Korea is impossible. As a result, they feel frustrated and a sense of doom, that things won't improve."
On March 5, a new party called Our Future held its inaugural meeting. It has 5,500 members and the average age is 27 -- the youngest of all South Korean political parties.
"The time has come to step up with Our Future,” co-representative Wo In-chul said at the event. "Let's demand change in our government. Let's demand change in our society, and our future."
Membership is mainly comprised of students and young people with irregular jobs. The party's main goal is to promote equality in society.
At the party’s convention, 28-year-old Kang Na-eul kicks off the event. After graduating, she took a job in social services and has been helping the poor. Seeing social inequality first-hand, she joined the party. She hopes to change society for the better, one step at a time.
Kang hosts a weekly livestreaming program and discusses the party’s policies with other members online.
"The recent scandal was good in a way, because it made people start paying attention to politics," Kang says. "We’re living in an era in which it’s up to ordinary citizens to bring change to society."
Young South Koreans are becoming more vocal about social inequality. It remains to be seen if their efforts will help reduce these disparities for future generations.