Under a bright waxing moon, a band played traditional mudangchum music for an audience as they danced in front of a statue of Joseon-era admiral Yi Sun-sin. Couples took selfies with murals and artworks erected by local artists nearby. Elsewhere, volunteers walked the streets picking up refuse, while camping tents pitched along the Chonggyecheon stream swayed slightly to the breeze as occupants slumbered inside.
Last Saturday and Sunday, crowds of over 500,000 South Koreans assembled in Gwanghwamun and City Hall district in Seoul. If it wasn’t for bright red picket signs, large banners with the word “revolution”, and chants of “Park Geun-hye resign”, the lively scene might have seemed more like a festival than an entire nation in a state of protest.
Since last month, South Korea has been mired in its biggest presidential scandal since the nation’s democratisation almost three decades ago. President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late former president and dictator Park Chung-hee, has been under public scrutiny for allegedly granting her friend and confidante, Choi Soon-sil, financial favours and unauthorised say over political matters.
Three major protests have taken place so far, each one larger than the last. At last week’s event, participants included labour unions, university student unions, farmer unions, left-wing parties, families of the Sewol ferry disaster victims, feminist groups and citizens from all walks of life.
The congenial atmosphere was reminiscent of the early days of Hong Kong’s own 2014 umbrella movement, when crowds of up to 200,000 camped out in Central over 74 days.
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And while the historic rally in Hong Kong was centred around the pursuit of universal suffrage, some critics believe the underlying cause of frustration among protestors was due to a variety of social issues including economic inequality, lack of career prospects and social mobility, and the sky-high cost of living in the city.
South Korea also faces a myriad of similar but culture-specific issues. A combination of archaic social norms and corrupt institutions have contributed to the nation’s serious issues of economic, social and gender inequalities.
The protests in Seoul have been peaceful and orderly so far, but some believe it is only a matter of time before the figurative levee breaks.
“Frustrations run far deeper than any present [presidential] scandals,” said Michael Hurt, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
“Class division and increasing income inequality adds to a growing sense that the old promises of sacrificing, working hard and simply getting by based on one’s blood sweat and tears, is from a time that is no longer relevant.”
Like many young Hongkongers, South Korean youths feel frustrated by the lack of career prospects and social mobility in their country.
Last month, the nation’s unemployment rate was reported at 3.4 per cent according to Statistics Korea. Youth unemployment (ages 15-29) was recorded at 8.5 per cent year-on-year, the highest gain for October in 11 years.
Hell Joseon, a term first popularised last year, is often used to describe inequality in South Korea.
“We call Korea ‘Hell Joseon’ because it was the name of a past dynasty known for its rigid social hierarchy,” said Lee Se-young, a student protest organiser.
During the Joseon era, a time when bloodlines and family background were of utmost importance, the ruling class constituted just 10 per cent of the population.
“This is an old-fashioned country,” said Lee. “We say there is no longer a caste system now, but it actually still exists… It’s especially hard for younger generations because they officially enter this system after graduating from university.”
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In a recent op-ed in a local newspaper, Kim Nuri, a professor at Chung-ang University, said Korea was a country dominated by “absolute rulers”, including religious leaders, chaebols (Korean tycoons and conglomerates), politicians and professors at the top. “The problem is not with Choi Soon-sil or president Park, but within our system of democracy,” he wrote.
“This society governed by authoritarianism and slavery [of the people below] is but a slave democracy.”
Watch: Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans march demanding president’s resignation
Han Seung-hun, a third-year political science major at Konkuk University, said he was concerned about his future.
“No matter how hard I work or study, if my family’s social status does not improve, then I cannot advance. So you can’t succeed with hard work only. If I want to move up, my parents and grandparents have to have been successful in the past.”
“These kinds of frustrations are adding up, and someday our society will explode,” said Han.
Women in Korea feel especially disillusioned about achieving their full potential in a patriarchal society.
“There is a lot of sexism and inequality. That is a fact,” said student protester Kim Yong-joo. “Even when I try to get a job, people always prefer hiring men over women. And if I become pregnant, it will be hard to keep my job. And if I don’t get married, people will think that something is wrong with me. There is nothing we can do.
“[Growing up,] I knew Korea was not a perfect country to live in, but [the problems] didn’t seem this serious,” she said.
In a survey conducted by cable TV news JTBC last year, 88 per cent of 21,000 Korean respondents said they had thought about emigrating to another country because they did not like their own. Reasons included distrust in the government, career and financial concerns.
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South Koreans are beginning to see the social reality of modern Korea, said academic Michael Hurt. “People are starting to have a sense that not only is [their] democracy [a farce], but that the entire game is rigged, and that indeed the only people who get ahead are people with existing amounts of social and economic capital,” said Hurt.
“Korea is in the middle of a watershed moment in which the dominant programming and narratives they’ve been given are being exposed as phoney.”
At a press conference earlier this week, former opposition leader of Korea’s liberal Minjoo party, Moon Jae-in called for major change. Our nation needs to break away from its past and start a new revolution, he said.
“We need to create a fair world without corruption and privilege, no more gutters and no more silver spoons.”
Crystal Tai is a journalist based in Seoul and Hong Kong