Is this Hell Joseon?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Cynics lamenting tough socioeconomic conditions for the young during the Park Geun-hye administration branded Korea “Hell Joseon,” a sarcastic allusion to the feudal Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) where social success was impossible unless one was born to a noble family. Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk — then a Seoul National University law professor hugely popular with the young generation with his uniquely progressive assertiveness — encouraged the young to stand up to the frustratingly immobile society, where decent jobs were rare even for people with good educations, and the dream of having a home and family started to become impossible for some in the deeply polarized society. Similar hopeless slogans were coined by people in their 20s and 30s.
After the launch of the liberal Moon Jae-in administration in May 2017, that sarcastic phrase suddenly disappeared. Have young people’s lives really changed for the better since then? President Moon promised to create a society where “opportunities would be equal, the process fair and the results just.” How much has he achieved? The so-called “Hell Joseon index” should tell us. Its sub-indices are housing prices, incomes, marriages and the birth rate. From the raw data, Hell Joseon has gone nowhere.
The economy managed to achieve pitiful growth last year. The annualized growth rate was 2.0 percent at best in 2019, lagging behind our potential growth rate. Even in the posh neighborhood of Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul, boutiques and luxury shops are emptying out. The vacancy rate in the popular shopping and dining district of Sinsda-dong has soared to an unprecedented level.
Numbers do not lie.
The anti-market and anti-business policies included under the government’s income-led growth rubric have been bruising. Double-digit hikes in the minimum wage for two straight years and the universal enforcement of a 52-hour workweek were hard on low-skilled workers, the self-employed and small business owners. Incomes of the bottom 20 percent income group fell for seven consecutive quarters. Self-employed people who hired staff went out of business one after another. Facilities investment has been in a slump for two years. Korea Inc. has started taking its businesses elsewhere, elevating overseas investments to record highs. That means jobs were lost in Korea — exported, in effect. Exports of actual products, on the other hand, have shrunk for 13 months in a row.
The so-called “livelihood index” compiled quarterly by the Institute for the Future of State has hit an all-time low. Even the middle-income class — the backbone of our economy — were hit hard. That pivotal group accounted for 67.9 percent of the Korean population in 2015, which slipped to 58.3 percent in 2019 after they came under a heavy tax burden as a result of the government’s obsessive war on real estate speculation despite a slowed economy. In Seoul, 300,000 families saw their property tax bills increase by 30 percent last year. The government plans to issue 60 trillion won in new debt to finance its supersized budget of 512 trillion won this year amid waning tax revenues.
The Hell Joseon days have, in fact, just begun. The snowballing national debt will be bequeathed to the people in their 30s and 40s — and onto their children in 10 to 20 years. The hopeless generation has entirely given up, making South Korea the only country on the planet with fertility rates in the zeroes. After the leftist — and populist — administration let down its mask and bared its hypocrisy, its promises of equality, fairness and justice are laughed at. In a New Year’s press conference, Moon talked as if all was well. In a buoyant voice, he claimed positive economic indicators were dominating negative ones. We hope he may someday open his eyes to reality. Otherwise, there will be no exit from Hell Joseon.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 15, Page 34