Crisis of youthIn his latest book “Beautiful Than Flower,” famous Korean novelist Han Soo-san traces the thorny and blood-stained trajectory of the South Korean Roman Catholic Church. As I read the book, I brooded on the immense power of youth. The author follows the pilgrimage to Macau by three Korean seminarians - Kim Dae-gon, Choi Bang-je and Choe Yang-eop - who arrived on the Portuguese colony in December 1836 after traveling six months on foot. The Rev. Thomas Choi Yang-eop (1821-61), Korea’s second ordained priest, was referred to as the “Martyr of Sweat” and died at the age of 40 in Moonkyung, North Gyeongsang, from overwork. The author, who traveled from Seoul to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Macau with the help of modern transportation, was stupefied by the painful journey the young boys had endured in order to study for priesthood 170 years ago.
“I could not believe a 15-year-old could cross the vast Chinese continent to travel to the southern tip. Their bowls of youth, hope and goal may have been different from ours today. ... If they were born today, they would have been common middle school students trudging their way back home from late-night extra studies at cram schools or helplessly losing money to bullies outside school. How, at such a tender age, could they have dared to walk as far as Macau?” the author wrote in the introduction.
A 15-year-old today is a teenager who attends middle school. In the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), there was no concept of teenagers. Although too grown to be a child and yet not mature enough to be an adult, a boy or girl often was married off or went through a ritual to be declared an adult. Due to the short lifespan in those days, boys and girls became adults sooner. According to studies based on statistical records from 1906 to 1910, people on average lived up to 24. At this age today, men would finish their compulsory military service and return to their universities. Women would have either found a job or begun a graduate course. In the Joseon era, Gen. Nam Yi became a war minister at the age of 27 and Seo Jae-pil, a renowned independence activist, instigated the Gapsin coup in 1884 at 20.
Some might ask, “Why suddenly talk about the past?” It may be because of the popularity of the term “surplus” among the young generation these days. Words like redundancy and wastefulness, popular among the young generation, underscore their sense of frustration, defeatism, self-contempt, over-dependence and immaturity. They also may reflect desperation and longing for a way out. Korea went through several surpluses. Under the South Korea-U.S. agricultural agreement in 1955, American flour, cotton, wheat and rice flooded into war-devastated South Korea. Some argue the cascade wreaked havoc on the country’s food production base, but that did not matter to the hungry people. I, too, remember being thankful for a pack of flour stamped with a logo of South Korea and the United States shaking hands.
The second surplus the country encountered was in the 1980s. From the teachings of Karl Marx, I learned that capitalism fed on the surplus value of workers. Social science in those days meant leftist theory. The pursuit of those studies underscored a longing for democracy under a military dictatorship that hated Marx.
The surplus spoken about by today’s youth cannot be explained or understood through the perspective on modernity held by the generation that went through Korea’s process of industrialization and democratization in the 1970s and 1980s. It does not mirror an aspiration to fight hunger or attain democracy. It can be understood as a desire for an escape from a dysfunctional state and a slow-growing society. What the youth are most frustrated about is the bottleneck in social mobility. They lack hope that they will get a decent job or accomplish anything.
The surpluses of the 1950s fed a fledgling nation and brought about democracy in the 1980s. The young generation is asking for a new surplus in the 2010s. The future generation is withering away in helplessness because adults are too busy fighting among themselves over petty issues. The boldness, ambition and dreams the young bore at the age of 15 are no longer found among Korean teenagers. An absence of accountability in adults has made the young forever immature and dependant.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun