Before moving to Korea, I loved the idea of living in Korea. As far as I was concerned, I was going to a land where food is delicious, people are beautiful, technology and products are amazing, and everything is cheap. I can confirm that my thoughts were true. But as I looked around upon my arrival, fellow young Koreans aged 18 – 30 were packing their bags, filling out visa forms and dreaming of a one-way ticket.
Not all Koreans are going to this extreme, but more young people are planning on moving abroad. A lot of people agree that Korea is a fantastic country, but Korean youths who cannot seamlessly adjust to social expectations are migrating in the masses. For these people, Korea is Hell Joseon.
What are they so dissatisfied with?
Lack Of Individualism
Those who observe Korean society externally view it as a booming creative country. While the extravagant publicity by the entertainment industry creates such an illusion, in reality people are trained from a very young age to not stand out. Schools and employers do not encourage individualism (개인주의), in fact they criticise it. Don’t worry, it’s not as dystopian as it seems. In Korea, life is just easier if one fits the mold of society.
Small habits such as leisure, and life decisions such as when to get married and occupation, is largely influenced by society. Those who want to adopt an alternative lifestyle or unable to fit into hetero-normative expectations, will require a tough skin, withdrawal from mainstream society and live knowing their burden on loved ones.
Competitiveness And Stress
While it is normal to graduate higher education at the age of 21 and start living alone in England, in Korea some people finish education as late as 26 years old. They may continue to build spec, prepare for job exams, as well as build experience with unpaid internships after they graduate. Youth unemployment in Korea is now the highest in 15 years. Even if one is qualified, it is highly likely that they will get turned down from a job for the smallest flaw.
Smart and qualified individuals seek jobs abroad to escape the stress and competitiveness of Korean society. Many people have been disappointed by the job hunting and education system and want to live peacefully. While misconstrued idyllic dreams of the West are a different problem, they seek a better life for themselves and for their future children. As people’s ideas of lifestyle changes, many young people want their children to grow up playing in the grass, and don’t want them to undergo the gruelling system they have endured.
It is expected of workers to work overtime (야근) sometimes without getting paid. It’s not a couple minutes, but sometimes hours of unpaid overtime, everyday which shaves away free time. I personally know a woman in her late twenties who worked for a famous electronics company. She worked from 7am in the morning to 1am dawn the next day. Sometimes she would be forced to work more or even sleep at her desk. She told me that on average she slept 4 hours a night during the busy seasons, and she didn’t see the sun for months which triggered depression. She quit after working there for two years, and the only reason why she didn’t quit sooner was because her work experience at that company increased her chances of moving to Australia.
Workers feel trapped by their requirements but dare not to speak out because they could lose their livelihood instantly. A lot of workers are dissatisfied with their low pay, poor working conditions, unethical requirements, and unstable job security, but ways to tackle these issues are limited. Work harassment and shady scandals have given young people a bitter taste of their future.
For some, it may not be Korea ‘pushing’ them out, it may be other countries ‘pulling’ them in. In the past, Korea kept to itself and was so patriotic to the brink of being xenophobic. However, travel and the internet has made the world smaller and people started desiring other lifestyles. Korean modernisation has embraced westernisation, so transitioning from Korea to the US doesn’t seem like such a huge leap anymore. As young people learn more about other countries and open up to new possibilities of a new life; living abroad looks more appealing. After all, it’s natural to compare and want the things that others have.
If you ask students or working professionals taking extra language classes, why they are learning a second language, the most common response will be because they want to go abroad to travel or live. South Korea is not a bad country at all, there are many countries worse, but it makes perfect sense that hardworking people would want a better lifestyle. The ‘struggling-worker-who-sacrifices-everything-for-family-and-glory’ stereotype is wearing thin, and now people are realising that they are entitled to a better future.
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