The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Young South Koreans call their country ‘hell’ and look for ways out

A lone office worker is doing an overtime shift in downtown Seoul. (Jun Michael Park/For The Washington Post)

Don't be fooled by the bright lights, the zingy K-pop music, the ubiquitous technology. South Korea is, in the minds of many young people here, a living hell — and they're not going to take it anymore.

It’s a place where, according to a growing number of 20- and 30-somethings, those born with a “golden spoon” in their mouths get into the best universities and secure the plum jobs, while those born with a “dirt spoon” work long hours in low-paying jobs without benefits.

This Korea even has a special name: “Hell Joseon,” a phrase that harks back to the five-century-long Joseon dynasty in which Confucian hierarchies became entrenched in Korea and when a feudal system determined who got ahead and who didn’t.

“It’s hard to imagine myself getting married and having kids. There is no answer or future for us,” says Hwang Min-joo, a 26-year-old writer for television shows.

Hwang often goes to work on a Monday morning with her suitcase, not leaving again until Thursday night. She eats at her office, takes a shower at her office, sleeps in bunk beds at her office. “If I finish work at 9 p.m., that’s a short day,” she said.

Paychecks come irregularly — or not at all, if the show gets axed — and because she doesn’t have a contract, Hwang wonders when she goes to sleep each night whether she’ll still have a job in the morning. She can make this life work only by living at home with her parents — when she goes home, that is.

“If you have enough money, South Korea is a great place to live. But if you don’t . . .” she trails off.

Such complaints are common among Hwang’s generation. Their parents lived through South Korea’s astonishing economic rise during the 1960s and ’70s and then saw democracy arrive in the ’80s. But those born after that period of rapid improvement see only the downside: megalithic businesses that provide status and good pay for their employees, with everyone else just muddling through.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, many people around the world have lost jobs, homes and hopes. But in South Korea, such losses are felt especially acutely because of the sharp contrast with the heady days of industrialization.

The economy is sputtering — growth slowed to 2.6 percent last year — and its slide has been accompanied by an increase in “irregular” jobs that offer no security and no benefits, a trend felt keenly by those trying to get on the job ladder. Almost two-thirds of the young people who got jobs last year became irregular workers, according to Korea Labor Institute figures.

Even people at the conglomerates are feeling the pinch, with big names such as Samsung, Hyundai and Doosan laying off workers or calling for early retirement.

Amid the gloom, more and more young Koreans are taking to social networks to complain about their plight.

There's a Hell Joseon group on Facebook that boasts more than 5,000 members and a dedicated "Hell Korea" website that posts graphic after graphic to illustrate the awful state of life in South Korea: the long working hours, the high suicide rate and even the high price of snacks.

Numerous online forums offer advice on ways to escape. Some

help South Koreans apply

to the U.S. military, a move that can offer a fast track to U.S. citizenship. Others offer advice on

training programs for aspiring welders, a skill that is reportedly in demand in the United States and Canada.

And it’s not just an Internet phenomenon. Novelist Jang Kang-myung’s “Because I Hate South Korea” — a fictional work about a young woman who emigrated to Australia — shot to the top of bestseller lists last year.

When writer Son A-ram published a piece titled "The Declaration of a Ruined State" in the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper, it quickly went viral.

“If my life continues this way, I don’t really see much of a future,” says Lee Ga-hyeon, a 22-year-old who has taken time off her law studies to work at a union for part-time workers. “In South Korea, ‘part time’ means working full-time hours at the minimum wage.”

While she was studying, Lee worked at McDonald’s and then at a bakery chain, often working six hours a day, five days a week, in addition to studying full time. The rent on her “shoe-box-size” room cost almost half her monthly earnings of $450.

“I want to become a certified labor lawyer so that I can help others in similar circumstances,” she said.

Not that those with more stable jobs are much happier. In this working culture, 14-hour days are the norm. In 2012, a left-leaning presidential candidate ran on the slogan: “A life with evenings.”

Song, a 34-year-old whose wife had to quit her job when they had their daughter last year, switched to a less-prestigious job because he was regularly working from 8 a.m. one day until 1 a.m. the next. “My boss always said, ‘The company comes first; your family comes second.’ ” said Song, who asked to withhold his full name for fear of getting into trouble at work.

Most frustrating of all, many young people say, is that their parents, who worked long hours to build the “Korean dream,” think the answer is just to put in more effort.

"My parents think I don't try hard enough," said Yeo Jung-hoon, 31, who used to work for an environmental nongovernmental organization but now runs a Facebook group called the "Union of Unskilled Workers." "One time after a meeting, my boss said in front of everyone, 'I don't think you're suitable for this job.' I felt humiliated, but I couldn't quit because I needed the money. It is a hell without an exit."

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Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.