She said WHAT?Three years in Japan were more than enough for the television correspondent Jeon Yeo-ok. The Japanese were uniformly hypocrites, she decided. They hid their true feelings and they were snakes in the grass.
Returning to Korea in 1993, Ms. Jeon got back at Korea's island neighbor. "There Is No Japan" was her savage take on that country. The book became an immediate best-seller and stirred a hornet's nest of controversy. Perhaps most surprisingly, the book did well in Japan, selling more than 100,000 copies.
In August, Ms. Jeon, now 43, dipped her poison pen in the inkwell and followed up on the Japan book with "There Is Korea," which has also become a best-seller. This time out she attacks Korea. But curiously, Ms. Jeon's recent study ends with a glimmer of hope for the country.
Has Jeon Yeo-ok -- long a tart-tongued, angry, whip-smart and aggressive feminist -- gone soft? Has she turned into "Nellie Nice?"
"There Is Korea" is a collection of short essays from Ms. Jeon's life experiences. In one piece, titled "Out of Africa," she uses a trip to that continent to delve into the main problem of society -- authoritarianism. She took the package trip as part of a tour with a group of Korea's opinion leaders, who turned out to be slaves of social hierarchy. She mocked them mercilessly.
Is there anything on earth that she does not find fault with? Apparently the answer is no, but she does see a bright silver lining to Korean society. On a walk in Youngsan Family Park on a recent afternoon, Ms. says, "If Japan was a patient slowly dying from a chronic disease, Korea is suffering from an acute disease like appendicitis. With one major operation, Korea can be safe and sound."
She says she witnessed the potential for Koreans to be the pivot of Asia during the World Cup.
To her eyes, however, there are some die-hard aspects of Korean society that need major surgery. She soon starts on her diagnosis. "You know what's the biggest thing that's eating this society? The dead weight of ajumma in this country. There are 6 million of them and they're a waste of great human resources.
"Ajumma are just too lazy, clueless to any kinds of self-development. They don't know how to make the best of their time; they're just wasting it away, doing nothing. As a wife, one should be a good partner to her husband. But to me, some of them are just nothing more than prostitutes. They're the ones who need a revolution."
Men, especially politicians, are not safe from her daggers, either. "This country will have hope only when the old diehards withdraw from the political stage."
Though people buy her books, not everyone is enamored of Jeon Yeo-ok.
"She's a scoundrel, lost in a swamp of words," says the novelist Lee Mun-yeol.
"I hate her," says Lee Hee-suk, a Seoul housewife. "Jeon doesn't understand why ajumma are ajumma. This society encourages ajumma to be ajumma."
Ms. Jeon is the age of an ajumma, but she detests the idea of being one. She has the reputation of being the busiest person on earth, with her cell phone ringing nonstop. She's a go-getter, with a lengthy resume as an author, columnist and owner of an Internet content firm. Ms. Jeon called it quits as a television journalist after the success of "There Is No Japan." The book's profits let her do what she wanted.
Mention of her resume brings irritation. "Why should I talk about the past? Which school that I went to, where I'm from and what kind of family I'm in -- these are some things that Koreans think the most important. But in fact they are things that spoil this country real badly."
At the risk of ruining Korea, though, here's a little bit of her background. As the eldest daughter of the family, she went to Ewha Womans University, where she studied sociology and then worked as a reporter for KBS-TV. "The only place that offered a chance to women at that time, at least theoretically, was the media. That's the only reason I went there."
After her Japan hit it big, Ms. Jeon followed with "Women, Be the Terrorists" and "Women, Feel and Explore," also best-sellers.
She is happily married to a cameraman, Lee Sang-man, her former colleague at KBS. The couple have a 7-year-old son, Lee Yun-hyeong.
Ms. Jeon's mother did not want her to get married, extraordinary in Korea's marriage-obsessed society. In a rare moment of benevolence toward another person, she says, "My mother is like a mentor to me." Her mother is one of the very few people that Ms. Jeon respects. In "There Is Korea," she writes that the only people she looks up to in this country are her mother and some self-made individuals, people with no connections.
Ms. Jeon is certainly self-made. The stories of her battles against the social stigmas facing women at her conservative workplace, KBS, are legendary. She paved her own way to become named the first female correspondent to be based abroad, in Tokyo. She had to fight for that position, however. And when she got to Tokyo, she did not waste time. Instead, she absorbed the culture and found the inspiration there to write the book, the big breakthrough in her life. "Money is something important in this world," she says. "When I make a deal, I always talk about the money first. I made a fortune thanks to the success of the Japan book, and thus I could quit the company."
Going solo brought her even more luck ?she has been sought-after and active as a columnist, radio talk show host and author.
That she has as many enemies as fans, does not frighten her. Earlier this year, she wrote a column for local newspapers that named the worst physicians in Ilsan, Gyeonggi province, her home. Her son had fallen sick with a fever a few nights earlier, and when she took him to a hospital near her home she was taken back by the doctor's insincere attitude. The column generated much controversy, as always, but this time the Korean Medical Association filed a suit against her for defamation. A court found her not guilty. Ms. Jeon says she thought about counter-suing, but decided it was easier just to let the matter drop. "I hate something ineffective," she says.
Then she begins to attack the absence of noblesse oblige of the elite class in Korea, which she says starts from the doctors. "This society needs a big cleaning-up," she says.
From there, she segues into her 10 tips on how to make Korea strong. Ms. Jeon wants her fellow Koreans to realize that there's no such thing as a free lunch. All Koreans, she says, must stand on their own two feet, breaking free from all their connections and using the great potential energy of the women workforce.
"A country that knows how to make the most of its woman power succeeds at the end. Korean men are now exhausted. Women are like an undeveloped gold mine."
Her frank talk makes one wonder if she should be standing in the National Assembly or perhaps in the Blue House. Does she want to be a politician? "No," she says straight-up. She knows she's not just the type. "I love to cook, not to clean."
Ms. Jeon has set up her plan of what her life should be like. She has already finished writing another book. And she wants to start a magazine that profiles Koreans. "I'm talking about a quality magazine, not just some trash that I've seen."
Her ultimate goal is to be a novelist. "Like John Grisham," she says. "You know, novels that enlighten the dark side of society."
by Chun Su-jin