“Hell Joseon”:  The Paradoxes of South Korean Development

The paradoxes of South Korean development are profound indeed. On the one hand, the country’s rise from crushing poverty to glittering prosperity over the past 60 years has been nothing less than astounding. In 1960, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita gross national income of a miserable $120; today it is one of the wealthiest, with a median household income above those of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. It has triumphed in the cultural sphere as well, with its music, films, and television shows gaining a huge global audience. Yet for all this success, there is a widespread mood of despondency among many South Koreans, signaled, some argue, by their unwillingness to reproduce. The country’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has recently plummeted to 0.7 children per woman, by far the lowest rate in the world. If this trend persists, the South Korean nation will soon begin to rapidly contract. Although mass migration could slow the decline, it faces substantial opposition on cultural grounds. It thus seems to many that South Korea faces a singularly bleak future of national decline.

One can argue, however, that that there is nothing particularly paradoxical about South Korea’s situation, given that all other highly developed countries, bar Israel, have below-replacement levels of fertility. But the broader paradox remains: can seemingly successful socio-economic development really be considered successful if it proves to be demographically unsustainable, dependent on continuing migration streams from less-developed countries whose own birthrates are declining, and which are increasingly opposed by populist-inclining, anti-immigration electorates?

But as many writers have argued, concerns about the current birth dearth may be no more firmly grounded than the earlier fears about a “population explosion” that would supposedly generate mass starvation across the world by the late twentieth century. Indefinitely extrapolating almost any trend can indicate impending calamity, but few persist long enough to reach that point. South Korea’s fertility rate could certainly rebound. And, as many argue, if one considers the fact that South Korea is one of the world’s most densely settled countries, population reduction should not necessarily be considered a negative outcome. Some would also contend that by foregoing childbearing, South Korea’s young adults are better able to enjoy the fruits of their country’s extraordinary economic ascent. Despite its paucity of children, South Korea can therefore still be regarded as a resounding success. As the noted economist and public intellectual Tyler Cowen has recently quipped, “South Korea in 1960 was as poor as Central Africa. Today, it’s a very nice, pretty wonderful country.”

The problem with such thinking, however, is that large proportion of young South Koreans strongly disagree, regarding their country as anything but “nice [and] pretty wonderful.” Since 2016, many of them have been denigrating it as “Hell Joseon” (“Joseon” being the name of early modern Korea, a poor, class-bound, and rigidly hierarchical society.) They have concluded that they have no worthwhile future to anticipate regardless of how hard they work. According to a Wikipedia article, “by 2019, the phrase [Hell Joseon] had been superseded by a new term, ‘Tal-Jo,’ a portmanteau comprising ‘leave’ and ‘Joseon,’ which might be best be translated as ‘Escape Hell.’” To do so, many are simply opting out, giving up on marriage, family, children, and more. Some evidence indicates that this trend is intensifying, propelled by the COVID pandemic but remaining firmly ensconced in its uncertain aftermath. According to one interpretation, many discouraged young adults are now abandoning all hope (see thetable below).

Those who have “given up,” however, represent a small minority of South Korea’s youth, with many more soldiering on through their country’s grueling educational and career-advancement systems. But the problems that the disaffected young have identified afflict the entire country and partially underlie its fertility collapse. These problems, it is essential to note, are not unique to South Korea. They are also found in Japan, China, and Taiwan, and are thus characteristic of East Asia as a whole. But they are more extreme in South Korea, where they have apparently generated an immediate demographic threat.

Ironically, the same trait that allowed South Korea’s breathtaking rise is now contributing to its pending decline: extraordinarily hard work from childhood until retirement. For a compelling fictionalized account of the grueling nature of South Korea’s educational system, I recommend the “Pied Piper” episode of the acclaimed television show Extraordinary Attorney Woo (season 1, episode 9). According to one poll, a lower percentage of South Korean children reported being “happy at school” than those of any other country. Exhausting schedules are also typical of the workplace. As reported in an insightful Washington Post article:

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.” 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.

It is not just the long hours that that dishearten young adults, but also the conviction that they will not be able to succeed no matter how hard they work, feeling that the system is rigged against them. Although South Korea purports to be a meritocratic country in which anyone can get ahead by dint of diligence and intelligence, inherited class position, family and school connections, and even place of birth still matter a great deal. But for most parents, the belief in, and the desire for, upward class mobility for their children remains paramount, leading to huge investments in after-school schools and other forms of educational enrichment. The required expenditures are so large that having a second child often becomes financially impossible. This combination of financially stressed and educationally obsessed parents and emotionally stressed and deeply disillusioned children contributes to a yawning generational gap, undermining the cohesion of South Korean society.

As is the case in many other wealthy countries, the high cost of housing is another factor in South Korea’s declining birth rate. Many young couples cannot afford an apartment, let alone a house, large enough to accommodate more than one child. The lack of affordable housing in a country that is beginning to experience population decline might seem surprising, but it has been propelled several factors, including the continuing aggregation of people in a few major cities. Roughly half of the nation now lives in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. The country’s rural population, moreover, continues to shrink, although it is now so small (4.15 percent) that the pace of decline has slackened. Governmental policy, however, is probably more important – and far more perverse. As reported in a 2021 article in Foreign Policy:

The average price of an apartment in Seoul has doubled in the past five years under the current government’s misguided policies on mortgage rules and tax penalties. Four years ago, it would have taken 11 years’ worth of South Korea’s median annual household income to buy an apartment in Seoul. Now, it costs more than 18 years’ worth of income. Rents have shot up, leaving young people with limited savings and without a shelter.

Some observers have linked South Korea’s fertility implosion to its Confucian heritage, which will be the focus of the next GeoCurrents post.