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[Robert J. Fouser] What happened to “Hell Joseon?”

Aug. 15, 2017 - 17:44 By Robert J. Fouser
Remember “Hell Joseon,” the name for South Korea among social critics that spread rapidly on social media a few years ago?

The election of President Moon Jae-in in May after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye stirred new hope in Korea, helping to push Hell Joseon to the sidelines. President Moon has initiated reforms and has offered reassuring leadership amid sharply rising tensions between the US and North Korea. The public has approved, and his approval rating has not dropped below 70 percent since taking office.

Looking back, Hell Joseon was a response to Park Geun-hye’s problematic presidency. Though she was the only president since democratization in 1987 to receive over 50 percent of the vote, she got off to a weak start because of accusations that National Intelligence Service had conspired to use social media to help her campaign.

Her subsequent attacks on the political left caused fears of a broader attack on democracy. She inherited a tense situation with North Korea that only grew worse during her term. Slowing economic growth and social problems related to the aging population suggested that Korea’s best days were behind it. The sinking of the Sewol Ferry in April 2014 became a symbol of the sadness and despair that Hell Joseon represented.

The rise and fall of Hell Joseon points to an important narrative in Korean society: progress.

Progress, of course, has two levels: measurable progress and perceived progress. Measurable progress is facts and hard data, whereas perceived progress is subjective feelings. These two levels usually reflect each other, but not always. A booming economy, for example, can create a housing shortage that causes the cost of housing to rise faster than income, which causes people to feel that they are falling behind.

Hard data shows that South Korea is an astounding success. No nation has made as much economic, political and social progress as Korea. The rapid and sustained economic growth has created a strong middle class that has in turn created social stability. Universal health care has helped make life expectancies some of the longest in the world. Investment in education has made Korea one of the most highly educated nations in the world and created a large pool of highly talented labor. Similarly, investment in infrastructure has given Korea fast internet, fast trains and good public education.

Political progress has been more arduous, but is equally astounding. Though founded as a democracy in 1948, Korea experienced several dictatorships that squelched democratic aspirations. In 1960 and again in 1980, dictators crushed popular democratic movements. The 1987 uprising succeeded in putting Korea on track toward democratization. Korean democracy has remained stable through three transitions of power from one party to another and two presidential impeachments.

The political right and left react differently to the hard facts of Korea’s astounding progress. The right lauds economic progress and views the dictatorships as necessary evils in the process of development. This makes it inherently uncomfortable with the narrative of democratization. The left, meanwhile, takes rightful credit for democratization, but questions the narrative of economic progress. This follows similar distinctions between right and left in other countries. And, as in other countries, both sides pick facts and cook data to fit their inherent bias.

In politics, perceptions come from facts, but also take on a life of their own. As a perception takes hold, facts that fit the perception grow in importance while other facts fade into the background. The perception takes on a life of its own until an event casts it aside.

To date, no Korean president has left office with much popularity. All have faced varying degrees of controversy after leaving office and three have been jailed. A dangerous mix of money, power, and family ties is the main cause of this miserable record.

The success of Moon Jae-in’s presidency will hinge on the success of his policies in maintaining progress, both real and perceived. Leaving office as a popular president would require that he buck a trend that goes back to Syngman Rhee, the first president. To do so will require skill and discipline. Transparency must be maintained and greedy subordinates controlled.

As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” If so, then Korea is due to have a president who starts a new rhyme, one of progress, by leaving office with dignity and respect. If not, then Hell Joseon will return and take the president down.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.