The Politics of Loneliness in South Korea
by Abbie Sharp
In the collectivist culture that people are pressured to follow in South Korean society, the loneliness that comes with not fitting perfectly into this culture can be suffocating. In fact, the all-encompassing loneliness and hopelessness in result of this is such a big issue in South Korea. Several subcultures and an entire generational stereotype has formed, much like the experiences and stereotypes of ‘millennials’ of the West.
The generational stereotype against young people in South Korean culture is almost hierarchical in structure, and is split into separate sub-groups; the ‘first’ is known as ‘삼포세대’ (sampo-sedae), or the ‘three giving up generation’. The three in the name refers to what this generation is giving up; relationships, marriage, and having children. However, young people who perceive themselves to have less opportunities than older generations may also give up more than just these three things. ‘오포세대’ (opo-sedae) – ‘five giving up generation’ – must also give up wishes of good employment and home ownership, and ‘칠포세대’ (chilpo-sedae) – ‘seven giving up generation’ – includes any interpersonal relationships, as well as hope for a better future in general. The very height of this cultural hopelessness is ‘완포세대’ (wanpo-sedae), or ‘complete giving up generation’, in which people find themselves believing that suicide is the only option left. These aren’t the only terms to describe the lonely people in South Korea, either; the word ‘혼적’ (hon-jok, translated literally to ‘lonely tribe’) is commonly used as slang to describe the ‘unsociable’ and lonely youth of South Korea.
Of course, the issues surrounding the lack of housing, employment, liveable wages, and opportunities for young people are not unique to South Korea. These topics are very much global issues that so many young people, especially those from minority or working class backgrounds, are struggling to overcome. However, South Koreans also struggles with issues that, when paired with these difficult obstacles, lead many into hopelessness – and with that, identifying with the sam, o, chil, or even wanpo-sedae generations.
One main issue is the extreme pressure to succeed in a very specific way; for many young people, they carry heavy expectations from family and society to exceed as lawyers, doctors, or other ‘traditionally’ successful career workers. If not that, then they are expected to gain a well-paying, comfortable job as an office worker for a large, successful company. With this pressure also comes incredibly intense expectations to succeed at school in order to get into the top three universities in South Korea (known as ‘SKY’, named after Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University). At the same time, young people are expected to find a partner, marry, and have children all before thirty, despite the fact that juggling a romantic relationship and a successful career is seen as a hopeless effort by many. Because of these expectations, mental health issues are rife within South Korea – and the taboo that stops people from talking about their mental health publicly only worsens this. Looking at these positions that young people are forced into, it’s easy to understand how young people find themselves identifying with any stage of the ‘giving up generation’.
However, loneliness is not exclusive to young people, and the issues within South Korean society that allow loneliness to morph into something much more dangerous have existed for long enough to also plague older members of society, to the point where specific language also exists to describe those who live by themselves and die alone because of their lack of social contact – also known as ‘고독사’ (godoksa). In fact, rates of godoksa rose by 80% from 2012 to 2016 and have continued to rise since then. This is all despite the cultural shift that has begun to shine a light on these issues – including an exhibition in Seoul’s MMCA gallery by Park Hyesoo (‘To Future Generations’, which includes a section dedicated to a highly celebrated Korean independence soldier who died alone in his home). Similarly, the rates of people living alone and finding themselves single throughout their lives are growing quickly due to the fact that many people do not have enough economic freedom to pursue a romantic partner; the phrase ‘time is money’ is a very real idea in Korean society.
Ultimately, many of these issues fall back on the South Korean government and the lack of safety nets they provide for their citizens, including a lack of proper financial support for the retired, poor, and unemployed, regardless of age or gender. In a similar way, many of these issues with loneliness are due to the intense societal pressures placed upon people within Korean society. These issues grow into pressure that is easier for younger people to ignore rather than face, ultimately leading to lonely lives and the scary chance of being a part of the growing percentage of ‘godoksa’. However, many young people don’t see identifying with ‘giving up’ as being entirely negative; for many, being part of the sam- or opo-sedae generations are also a way to focus on themselves and what they enjoy. Though there is a feeling of hopelessness and of being lost in a society that values unattainable ideals, the acceptance of independence and the rejection of such a society can be incredibly freeing. Although, it comes at the cost of potential isolation, both social and personal, that can be a very legitimate danger.
Study Abroad Columnist: Abbie Sharp, 3rd Year BA English Literature Undergraduate. Currently studying abroad at Seoul National University, Seoul.