Young South Koreans and their outrage at the Cho Kuk controversy

Posted on : 2019-09-15 08:52 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
To the youth, Cho is yet another figure of privilege who represents an unending world of inequality
For exactly one month, South Korea was roiled by the Cho Kuk controversy. A month passed from Cho’s nomination as justice minister by President Moon Jae-in on Aug. 9 to Moon’s confirmation of that appointment on Sept. 9. During that month, a panoply of allegations was raised about Moon’s former senior secretary for civil affairs. Students opposed to Cho’s appointment organized candlelit demonstrations. On Sept. 9, the day of the appointment, some 500 former and current students at Seoul National University assembled, while 70 students at Pusan National University held a third candlelit rally there, asserting that Cho doesn’t deserve to be justice minister and demanding that he immediately step down.

Though numerous allegations swirled around Cho, the ones that were most frustrating for South Korea’s young people concerned his daughter’s questionable admission to various schools and universities. The heart of the allegations was that Cho’s family had exploited their social status and personal connections to help their daughter build impressive credentials in high school, which then secured her admission to university and medical school. Young people who weren’t in a position to accumulate any credentials period felt particularly angry, frustrated, and deprived. The Hankyoreh examined the wounds inflicted over the past month by interviewing experts and talking to members of the younger generation, including students at universities in the provinces, new graduates who are looking for work, and current employees who graduated from vocational schools.
Cho Kuk
Cho Kuk

Hypocrisy of the “86 generation”

“They’re the generation that helped achieve democracy, but since coming to power, they haven’t felt guilty about passing that power down to their children. That’s the hypocrisy and the limitation of the 86 generation,” said “Lee Hye-ri” (not her real name), a 27-year-old who graduated from a university in the countryside and is not looking for work.

The “86 generation” refers to Koreans who were born in the 1960s and came of age during the democracy protests of the 1980s.

Lee emphasized that, when she heard about the university admission scandal, she was angry not so much at Cho’s daughter as she was about the “86 generation” to which Cho belongs.

Over the past month, many leading figures in the 86 generation took to social media to defend Cho, both as a friend and as a colleague. While the 86 generation is often credited with having fought against the dictatorship and brought democracy to the country, Lee found herself wondering about that generation’s actual ideals.

“The 86 generation helped build a procedural democracy through the student movement and political participation, but since then they haven’t made much of an effort to build a just society,” Lee said.

Young people agree that, even if the attacks on Cho were excessive, the 86 generation is much the same as the conservative establishment, once its façade has been ripped away.

“It turns out that the people who attacked the 1% in a narrative of the 1% against the 99% were actually part of the establishment. When the narrative is reinterpreted as the 20% against the 80%, they belong to the 20%. I used to believe the sincerity of Cho’s words and attitudes, but he’s also part of the establishment. That’s shed a clear light on the kind of discrimination that Koreans have perceived, but not expressed,” said “Kim Seong-hye” (not her real name), a 23-year-old who is studying at a university in Daegu.

“Classes and cohorts are differentiated according to whether or not you possess some specific knowledge. That has made us aware of the structural problem in which society is divided into the ‘establishment cartel’ and the class of ordinary people. The progressive cause has lost its value, and the 86 generation has devolved into an ‘interest network,’” said “Choi Hyeon-sik” (not his real name), a 29-year-old graduate from a university in South Jeolla Province who is currently looking for work in Seoul.

Analysts think that the Cho controversy has caused young people to feel an extreme sense of betrayal. “The world created by the 86 generation is one in which SNU students and Korea University students are supposed to feel equal around each other, but no such equality is expected between SNU and Korea University students and students from universities in the countryside,” said Lee Tae-gwang, a professor of global communications at Kyung Hee University.

“What it comes down to is that young people have figured out that the spirit of the 86 generation — the idea that people should give up their privileges, go down to the factories, and commune with the masses — that spirit doesn’t exist anymore. The 86 generation is focused on finessing their election strategies and no longer have time for the old cause.”

“When any generation enters its 50s, its members constitute the elite of society and the establishment. On top of being the establishment, the 86 generation has close links through personal networks they’ve been building since their 20s. Plus, the whole generation is good at politics,” said Park Seong-min, a political consultant.

“Young people think they’re struggling not against the progressives or conservatives but against the establishment itself, and the elites who compose it. But people in their 50s keep arguing that the other side is the greater evil. Young people are enraged by this tendency to lecture and condescend.”

Students and former students of Pusan National University rally in front of the school to protest Cho Kuk’s justice minister appointment on Sept. 9. (Yonhap News)
Students and former students of Pusan National University rally in front of the school to protest Cho Kuk’s justice minister appointment on Sept. 9. (Yonhap News)

Legality and fairness

“Opportunities will be equal, the process will be fair, and the results will be just.”

The promise was made by Moon, but young South Koreans slogging through the Cho scandal found themselves wondering whether the president was capable of keeping that promise. The scandal has caused more people to think that South Korean society ignores unequal and unjust outcomes on the pretext of technical legality. Each time an allegation was raised about how Cho’s daughter got admitted into school via unsavory means, Cho and the 86 generation insisted it wasn’t a problem because no laws had been broken. But that excuse just made young people even more cynical.

“In the past, the younger generation got outraged when procedural fairness wasn’t respected,” said Lee Hye-ri, referring to Chung Yoo-ra’s unfair college admission. But the issues surrounding Cho’s daughter “have showed us that even procedural fairness, or in other words a legally designed system, is fully capable of producing inequality,” Lee said.

That view was shared by “Park Yeong-a” (not her real name), a 25-year-old who is hunting for a job. “The 86 generation’s limited understanding is demonstrated not so much in Cho and his family’s illegal behavior as in the excuse that nothing illegal occurred. They themselves have demonstrated that the legal framework is enabling them to pass their wealth down to their kids,” she said.

“The claim that everyone was getting into foreign language high schools like that doesn’t hold water. Perhaps those options were available for children born into privilege, but most people aren’t part of the elites. Progressives and conservatives aside, the younger generation has confirmed for themselves just how stratified South Korean society is, and that has multiplied their frustration and anger,” said Lee Byeong-hun, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University.

The Cho Kuk scandal has shown that, until these structural issues are rectified, the younger generation won’t be persuaded by values and ideology alone.

Even envy is class-dependent

This structure has effectively deprived young people of their chance to even feel deprived. Kim Seong-hye, who attends a university in the countryside, said the controversy over Cho’s daughter felt like “the story of a completely different world,” something so distant from herself that she couldn’t muster up any envy. According to Kim, relative deprivation is an emotion reserved for students with wealthy parents at South Korea’s prestigious “SKY” universities (Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University).

“I was just shocked that her parents could build up that level of credentials, but the fact is I didn’t feel any envy. I never had a dad like Cho Kuk, and neither did anyone I know,” Kim said.

“I used to get angry that people would come up with that kind of scheme on behalf of their children, but nowadays the sad thing is that I just take it for granted and don’t even get angry about it. I guess that I’m already so disappointed in Korean society that such facts aren’t capable of disappointing me any further,” said “Hwang Seung-jin” (pseudonym), a 20-year-old office worker who graduated from a vocational school.

“When Cho said during his press conference that he would never be able to understand the feelings and suffering of the ‘dirt spoons,’ I felt yet another pang of jealousy. For people like Cho, ‘dirt spoon’ is just another label, but for others, it’s a bruising stigma forced upon them by society,” said Park Yeong-a.

“Dirt spoon” is a slang term in Korea that describes those who enjoy few privileges or advantages.

“The young people who have lost faith in Korean society don’t even have the mental energy to listen to someone else’s explanation,” Park added.

Treating young people as pawns in a game reserved for elites

Another criticism offered by young people is that the establishment has treated them as pawns in a game reserved for the elites. “It made me angry to see the hypocrisy of Cho Kuk and the 86 generation that he represents and the attacks by the conservative establishment, who are just the same, or even worse. They tell us young people to make changes, but they don’t give us a choice or a voice. Once again, young people are being used,” Kim said.

“In his lectures to the youth, Cho Kuk had condemned the hereditary succession of wealth through income, assets, education, and place of residence, but it turns out that his innocence was feigned. The 86 generation has supported progressive values and supposedly dedicated themselves to the disadvantaged and social reform, but now we’ve seen that they were simultaneously and secretly attempting to exploit loopholes in capitalism,” said Kim Man-heum, director of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership.

Some experts think this conflict has been exacerbated by the 86 generation’s blinkered partisanship. “The school admission issue encompasses a complex range of issues, including Cho’s personal ethics and the hypocrisy of the progressive elites. But the 86 generation keeps pushing an us-and-them narrative, and the only justification is gives for defending Cho Kuk is that ‘the Liberty Korea Party is bad.’ Instead of offering an apology and showing some remorse, they get upset and act as if they’re the injured party, which has just whipped up further outrage,” said Yun Tae-gon, head of political analysis for a think tank called Moa.

By Kwon Ji-dam and Yi Ju-been, staff reporters

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