The sinking of the ferry Sewol, which left more than 300 dead or missing, was inarguably one of the most traumatic events for in South Korea this year.
Despite the woeful tragedy, what some found even more disturbing was the infamous “binge-eating” strike. It was held by a group of young men back in September to insult Kim Young-oh, the grieving father of one of the ferry’s teenage victims, who had been fasting to demand an independent probe into the disaster and the government’s rescue efforts.
The young men, many of whom turned out to be members of “Ilbe” ― a controversial online community site known for its politically far-right and hateful written content against social minorities ― purposely ate pizza and fried chicken at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, only 200 meters from the mourning father during his public hunger strike. They accused Kim of “asking too much” and “being manipulated by the current government’s political opponents.”
However, the “binge-eating” strike was just the beginning of Ilbe’s offline emergence. Earlier this month, a teen Ilbe member set off a homemade bomb during a public discussion event, hosted by a Korean-American author and a left-wing activist who are accused of being North Korean sympathizers.
The 18-year-old, whose Molotov cocktail injured three of the attendees at the scene in Iksan, North Jeolla Province, reportedly “loathes” North Korea and posted an entry on Ilbe prior to committing his crime. He wrote: “If you ever hear the author Shin Eun-mi was bombed and killed, know that I was behind it.” Upon his arrest, the teen, surnamed Oh, was praised as a “hero” by some of his fellow Ilbe members for his crime.
While Oh was taken into custody by the police right after the attack, such incidents are raising concerns about the alarming state of hate crimes and their complex background in South Korea, where hate speech and anti-discrimination laws do not exist despite the U.N.’s continued advisement.
Some warn that Ilbe members are in fact similar to European fascists in the mid-20th century.
Defining hate speech
In many countries, hate speech is defined as any speech ― including speaking, writing and gesture ― that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, gender, religion, disability, nationality, ethnic of origin and sexual orientation.
Inciting hatred against people on the grounds of such attributes can lead to imprisonment in a number of countries, including Germany, the U.S., Canada and U.K.
A few countries, including Croatia, Norway and the Netherlands, go as far as to protect one’s life philosophy and political views or any other beliefs from hate speech attacks.
South Korea, which like Japan does not ban hate speech and doesn’t have anti-discrimination laws, ranked second among the OECD member countries in terms of social conflict last year.
Earlier this month, the Seoul City’s enactment of the Charter of Human Rights was canceled due to fierce protests from gay rights opponents and Christians. In October, a U.N. envoy said the country has some “serious issues” with racism and xenophobia.
While many experts say that hate speech against immigrants, foreign nationals, women and the disabled must be banned, some find hate attacks between Koreans with different political or religious views much more difficult to regulate, particularly because of the peninsula’s divided state.
Choi In-sub, a former senior research fellow at the state-run Korean Institute of Criminology, said South Korea should regulate hate speech, but the country faces unique challenges when it comes to protecting individuals’ freedom of political thought ― due to its postwar political climate against North Korea.
The Korean Peninsula is in a technical state of war because the Korean War (1950-53) ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. In South Korea, activities or speeches in favor of the North Korean regime may be punishable under the disputed National Security Law.
Just last week, South Korea’s Constitutional Court disbanded a left-wing political party, of which a number of members were found guilty of plotting a pro-North Korea rebellion to overthrow the government earlier this year.
“How we should define hate speech in this country is tricky,” he said.
“Should we include ‘political views’ to be protected against hate speech (when pro-North Korean political activities are considered illegal)?”
However, Choung Wan, professor at Kyung Hee University Law School, said both the terror attack by Oh and the “binge-eating” protest against the Sewol victim’s father, can be clearly viewed as acts of hate crime.
“Expressing your opinion is one thing,” the law expert said in a phone interview. “But if you are hurting others in the process, it’s called violence and discrimination.”
Like Choi, Choung also said it is important for South Korea to promulgate comprehensive legislation against hate speech crimes, as the country is becoming more diverse socially, ethnically and culturally.
“Hatred often consists of regional prejudice and this is also linked to racism,” Choung said.
“And there is no ‘natural’ way of combating prejudice. For many, it does not go away ‘naturally.’ That is why we need to regulate hate speech. Seemingly innocuous prejudice may snowball into more pernicious forms (when expressed and shared by many), and result in dangerous consequences.”
Under South Korea’s current criminal laws, insulting and defaming a specific individual can be a crime if the remark “was made publicly and damaged the social reputation” of the person.
The laws, however, don’t include hate speech in its definition of criminal insult and defamation.
Portrait of a young, ‘right-wing libertarian’
In a small, residential apartment in Shilim-dong, Seoul, Kim Sang-hoon runs the Union of the Liberty, one of the city’s most controversial right-leaning student organizations.
The 30-year-old claims he was the first person to come up with the idea of the “binge-eating” protest against Sewol victims’ families, although he and his 2,000 group members never ended up participating.
Polite and seemingly confident, Kim hardly lost his calm while speaking.
“You have to be thick-skinned to be in my position,” Kim said in an interview at his office.
Kim claims he and his group had been planning to hold the protest on Aug. 28, but canceled their plan as Kim Young-oh coincidentally quit fasting that same day.
However, some members of Ilbe were inspired by Kim’s idea that was promoted within the right-leaning communities, and launched their own binge-eating protest prior to Kim’s originally scheduled event.
Kim, a former b-boy and a graduate of Yonsei University’s commerce program, defines himself as a “libertarian,” who values freedom, deregulation and national security.
Kim said he supports gay rights, disagrees with capital punishment and thinks drugs and abortion should be legalized. He believed the disbanded left-leaning Unified Progressive Party had been a threat to the security of South Korea.
Kim joined Ilbe in 2013 with the sole purpose of promoting his own organization. He said he disagrees with a lot of the views shared on the forum, as well as the way they held their “binge-eating” protest. According to Kim, he had planned to hold his original protest in a “respectful” manner.
He and his group intended to get on their knees and eat in front of the Sewol victims’ families to the point of getting sick ― so the families would “finally listen and learn that there are options other than the hunger strike.”
Kim believed that Kim Young-oh was being used by left-wing politicians, who were determined to derail the current government’s political agenda. By asking for the right to make accusations and investigate the disaster, the father was in fact “looking for an opportunity to seek revenge,” rather than a fair investigation, Kim said.
“I wanted Kim Young-oh to stop fasting, but it seemed like he would never listen to me (unless I did something extreme),” he said, claiming his verbal protests fell on deaf ears during his visits to Gwanghwamun Square to speak with the families of Sewol victims.
“Think about it. What would be more dangerous ― not eating anything for a day or eating nonstop for a day? It wasn’t my plan to eat for pleasure.”
The young activist is most inspired by American economist Milton Friedman and Syngman Rhee, an anti-communist and the first president of South Korea who resigned following protests against a disputed election.
“He introduced capitalism and liberalism into Korea when many were in fact supporting communism,” he said, referring to Rhee. “I think that is a notable achievement.”
Kim’s organization has held gatherings with a number of right-leaning figures, including Byun Hee-jae, a conservative commenter, and lawmakers Lee No-keun and Kim Young-woo.
Ilbe, on the other hand, has been endorsed by Jeong Seong-san, a North Korean defector who currently works for the ruling Saenuri Party.
Misogyny, internalized racism and regional dispute
According to law professor Choung, many views shared on Ilbe against Korean social minorities, including Korean women and people of Jeolla origin, can be regarded as forms of hate speech.
For example, the members call those from the Jeolla region “hong-eo,” the Korean word for fermented skate fish rays, which is Jeolla’s regional specialty known for its distinctive taste.
They would also use Jeolla’s regional accent, along with the derogatory term “hong-eo,” when insulting people from the region, where the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement took place.
While left-leaning scholars and politicians call it an inhumane massacre by former President Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarian government ― it is estimated that almost 250 were killed ― their far-right counterparts believe it was orchestrated and inspired by communist sympathizers.
“I would have to say that (the regional conflicts in Korea) are very serious and concerning,” Choung said. “Such hatred against one another especially escalates during election season.”
Meanwhile, many of the members use the term “kimchi-nyeo” (meaning kimchi woman), a derogatory word to describe Korean women by Korean men. In general, a kimchi-nyeo refers to a young Korean woman who is shallow and overly materialistic, and who expects her boyfriend to pay during dates and for the wedding.
Such generalized prejudice against Korean women was reflected on a controversial contraception poster released by the government earlier this month.
The poster, which was discarded after receiving public criticism, features a young couple ― with the man carrying his partner’s pink handbag and six other bags after what appears to be a shopping trip. The smiling woman, on the other hand, is carrying nothing. The poster reads, “Even though you leave everything to him, don’t leave the responsibility of contraception to him as well.”
The fact that the derogatory term to describe Korean women by Korean men uses the word kimchi ― the iconic Korean dish closely linked to its national identity ― can be seen as a product of internalized racism, according to scholars.
“I find the term ‘kimchi-nyeo’ to be a concrete expression of Ilbe’s embodiment of both nationalism and self-loathing. Ilbe members are known for describing their fellow Koreans as ‘migaehada’ ― primitive ― because of what they see as the Korean nation-state’s failure to subscribe to a certain idealized global norm that they venerate,” scholar and editor of Korea Expose Koo Se-woong wrote in an email interview.
“When Ilbe members disparage Korea and Korean women, they are disparaging themselves. Although they set themselves apart from the national collective by presenting themselves as privileged, ‘informed’ citizens, they are still expressing doubts at their own identity as Koreans and therefore internalized racism.”
Behind the hatred against the weak
Ahn Sang-soo, a researcher at Korean Women’s Development Institute, said such self-loathing as well as hatred expressed against the minorities are linked with the “extremely difficult reality that Koreans are faced with,” in the country with the longest working hours and the highest suicide rates in the OECD.
“They feel like they can’t fight the system, so they are taking their rage on someone else, someone who holds less power,” he said.
The country’s present rate of income inequality is alarming. According to a recent study by economist Kim Nak-nyeon at Dongguk University, almost half of some 30 million working Koreans earned less than 10 million won ($9,120) a year as of 2010.
While the mean average yearly income was 20.46 million won, the median income was only 10.74 million. Having the average income at a much higher value than the median means that the nation’s salary distribution is highly uneven.
On top of this, the number of contract workers with limited work security surpassed 6 million last month, for the first time since the government started collecting data in 2002.
Also as of this year, Korean households owe more than 1,000 trillion won ($932 billion) ― which means the per capita debt works out to 20 million won.
“At times like this, it is not unusual to seek out a scapegoat so that collective rage can be focused on one particular target without destabilizing the whole of society,” scholar Koo wrote.
This reality was evident in a story shared by the right-leaning activist Kim Sang-hoon.
“I have a friend who said he wishes it were possible to chemically castrate himself for just two years so he can focus on building up his resume, without having to worry about his libido and (spending money on dates),” he said.
In his essay published earlier this year, scholar Koo warned the current situation in South Korea as well as Ilbe’s activities ― endorsed by certain political circles ― are similar to European fascism in the mid-20th century.
“Extremist ideologies arise in extreme circumstances,” Koo said. “Politically, economically and socially, South Korea is truly in a dangerous moment.”
By Claire Lee (email@example.com)