The Spoon Theory

The Spoon Theory

In the midst of high unemployment, rising living costs and intense education, online memes condemning Korean society have spread like wildfire; one of which is ‘the spoon theory’. According to this viral concept, wealth and social status is ranked into gold (금), silver (은), bronze (동) and soil/dirt (흙).

Which Spoon Are You?

Much like the English idiom ‘born with a silver spoon’ where silver cutlery was a symbol of wealth, the gold spoon represents the wealthiest and most privileged people in Korea. The silver spoon is a relatively wealthy family with $1-2 million in assets and are the top 3% of the population. The bronze spoon represents 7.5% of the population with an annual salary of $50 -80,000. Other than saving and living frugally, life is comfortable. The dirt spoon represents the rest of the population. These are low income working class families which are unable to financially provide extra tuition or other luxuries.

How ‘Gold Spoon’ Quickly Became An Insult

Someone with a gold spoon ‘geumsoojuh’ (금수저) has inherited many benefits (mainly wealth) from their prosperous family background. The term has seeped into common vernacular as a derogatory comment, as it implies being spoilt and not hard working. This is due to the the lower classes’ growing resentment who believe that they could have been successful too if they had the same opportunities as the gold spooners. In other words, despite their hard work, Korean society only caters to the rich. Everyone wants to believe that they have worked hard for their success and wealth, so to be labelled as having a ‘gold spoon’ disregards their efforts.

Our Infuriated Young Adults

At school, society promised that every bead of sweat they produce when you are young, will prevent every tear drop when they are old. They were promised wealth, happiness, security and freedom (everything their childhood lacked), if they sacrificed everything.

But, no jobs and no money have come their way.

Young people are angry at the injustice of society and empty promises. It’s hard not to empathise with them, and it is no surprise that they would vent their frustration at the successful people who have received special treatment from family connections. Many feel doomed.

The Ugly Truth

Society is partly to blame. It is a publicly acknowledged opinion that life in Korea is easy with money, as money can solve all your problems. Wealthy children have access to expensive extracurricular tuition and can have international education. These are all very important to land a job. Powerful parents can pull strings to give their children opportunities and experiences. Admittedly, parents play an important role in the quality of modern life in Korea due to tough competition in modern society. However, it is not all the fault of society. Blaming others on one’s misery is unfortunately common.

Comparison And Self-Loathing

Striving to be better and be the best is in Korean blood. Naturally, this means dissatisfaction in one’s current position as you must, always be looking and striving for more. This outlook is useful as it fuels work ethic, however it also encourages dwelling on one’s misfortune. The idiom ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ is reflected in the Korean idiom ‘Another person’s rice cake always looks bigger‘ (‘남의 떡이 커보인다’). Envying and comparing with someone better than you is supposed to be a healthy way to fuel passion in Korean society.

Not everyone is ungrateful. Some people are extremely thankful, despite only been given a dirt spoon. As one netizen commented that they have been provided dirt by their parents to become a strong tree. While this individual is inspirational, they are in the minority. Most children born in poverty are dissatisfied.


A positive perspective on life seems to be an important factor whether one is wealthy or not. Constant competition and seeking satisfaction through comparison will not lead to happiness, instead we must teach ourselves and our children inner happiness (자기만족). But telling that to struggling youths now is impossible and futile. For now everyone must relentless struggle forward, preferably without petty insults.

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    “개천에서 용 났다”는 말이 점차 듣기 어려워지는 이유 | zmon21님의 블로그

    […] “어느 정도의 부정부패와 독직(瀆職)에는 체념한 상태다(become resigned to a certain of corruption and influence-peddling). 그러나 제아무리 권력층일지라도 위험을 각오하고 얽히지(mess with at their peril) 않으면 안 되는 불가침 대상(sacred cow)이 있다. 교육의 평등성이다. 그런데 최순실의 딸 정유라가 ‘배후 조종(a string-pulling)’으로 이대에 부정입학 해 온갖 특혜를 누린(be given all sorts of preferential treatments following an illicit admission) 것도 모자라 ‘돈도 실력이야. 니네 부모 원망해(blame your parents)’라며 비웃었다(make fun of others). 이것이 촛불 집회와 박근혜 대통령의 몰락에 기름을 끼얹었다(fan the flames of candlelight rallies and her downfall).” AFP통신은 ‘최순실 게이트’의 한 단면을 이렇게 분석했다. “엄격한 성적 위주 교육(rigorously meritocratic education)이 한국전쟁 잿더미에서 기적을 일궈냈다. 명문대 입학은 미래의 성공, 사회적 지위, 결혼의 향배까지 좌우하는 필수적 요소로 여겨졌다(be seen as vital to a student’s future prosperity, social standing and even marriage prospects). 이런 치열한(be cut-throat) 경쟁 속에서도 시험의 공정성에 대해선 변함없는 대중의 믿음과 신뢰(steadfast public faith and trust in the exam’s fairness)가 있었다. 똑같은 날, 똑같은 시험을 보고(sit the same paper on the same day), 그 성적에 따르는 결과에 승복했다(go along with the results). 그래서 ‘개천에서 난 용(a dragon from a ditch)’이 가난하고 변변찮은 배경에도 불구하고(despite their poor and humble background) 사회계층을 치고 올라갈 수 있었다(rise up the social ladder). 그런데 점점 벌어지는 소득과 기회의 차이로 인해(due to a widening disparity in incomes and opportunities) 언제부터인가 교육 불평등마저 초래되고(give rise to the educational inequality) 권력과 부를 대물림하면서(pass down power and wealth to their children) 대중의 불만이 고조돼왔다. 마침 박 대통령 집권 시기가 점증하는 이런 동요와 겹쳐 있던(coincide with the growing disquiet) 차에 정유라 사태까지 불거졌다. 그래서 “지금의 땀 한 방울(every bead of sweat)이 나중의 눈물 한 방울을 막아준다(prevent every tear drop)”는 말을 더는 못 믿겠다는 학생들이 연애·결혼·출산을 포기했다는 ’3포’, 내 집 마련과 인간관계까지 포기한 ’5포’, 꿈과 희망마저 포기했다는 ’7포 세대’와 함께 길거리로 나온(take to the streets) 것이다.” 윤희영 디지털뉴스본부 편집위원 […]

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