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South Koreans battling ‘Soon-sil Syndrome’

Six weeks into scandal, many complain of heightened stress, pent-up anger

Housewife Shin Yang-joo, 52, finds herself unable to stay calm when she watches TV news. 

Agitated and cross, she often gets on her computer to leave comments, sometimes with flavorful language, about the current political situation in South Korea. 

“It is almost like a knee-jerk reaction for me to express anger when I watch the news these days,” Shin said. 

The initial shock over the scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil has now turned into feelings of anger, frustration and hopelessness, she added. 

Shin is not alone with her pent-up emotions.

Six weeks into the Choi Soon-sil scandal, an increasing number of South Koreans are suffering from heightened mental stress and violent mood swings, satirically labeled “Soon-sil Syndrome.”  
A satirical replica of President Park Geun-hye with a rope tied around her is seen at a protest against the scandal-ridden president in Seoul on Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
A satirical replica of President Park Geun-hye with a rope tied around her is seen at a protest against the scandal-ridden president in Seoul on Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Last week, a man was arrested for setting fire to the birthplace of Park Chung-hee, the father of the incumbent president, in protest against the junior Park, who is refusing to heed the public’s overwhelming demand for her to resign. 

Angry voters are bombarding lawmakers still loyal to the disgraced president with angry phone calls and text messages, castigating them for not cooperating with the opposition-led move to impeach her.

Last month, a man drove an excavator into the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office building in Seoul, saying he wanted to help Choi die. On her way to the prosecutors’ office to face questioning, Choi told reporters surrounding her that she had committed a “capital offense.” 

On the previous day, another man had thrown dog feces at the office, criticizing the slow progress of investigation into Choi and the scandal.

Experts say citizens’ level of stress seems to have reached a point where some who suffer on an emotional roller coaster vent it out in a violent way.

“Citizens’ emotional stress has been accumulating since the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014. Now, the scandal involving President Park and Choi brought people’s level of frustration and shock to a peak,” said professor of psychology Ko Jae-hong from Kyungnam University.

South Koreans have seen worse cases of corruption involving former presidents. But the ongoing scandal ensnaring President Park seems to have a more personal impact on them, pundits say.

Former Rep. Rhyu Si-min said that South Koreans may have felt personally “insulted” by what Park and Choi did to the country. “Watching the scandal unfold, the public might have felt not just anger, but a very strong sense of insult,” Rhyu said on a TV program. 

Revelations so far suggest the president has relied on Choi, the daughter of a late cult leader, in both public and private life, letting her friend decide almost everything for her, including what to wear, say to the Cabinet and the public and whom to choose for key government posts.

Choi’s daughter is also found to have been illegally admitted to a prestigious university, and it seems like she was given special treatment wherever she went and in whatever she did.

Kim Dae-hyun, a 28-year-old who participated in the massive anti-Park protest Saturday, also spoke of a shattered faith in justice.

“Growing up, I was constantly told and encouraged by adults to study and work hard that I would succeed if I tried hard enough. But I found the reality was completely different,” he said.

“I’ve already experienced extreme irregularities, and my accumulated anger exploded after seeing this corruption scandal involving President Park.”

Professor Ha Ji-hyun of Konkuk University warns that citizens’ feelings of anger and dissatisfaction must be addressed in some way, or it could increase public disorder.

Ever since the scandal broke out in late October, South Koreans have been staging massive rallies every Saturday to demand Park’s immediate resignation. The most recent, held Saturday, drew a record 1.7 million in Seoul and 2.32 million across the country.

Despite the overwhelming display of public anger, President Park has refused to step down and the prospects for the opposition-led motion to impeach her remain unclear.

“No matter how hard I try, nothing has been changed. I do not know how to deal with the situation. This is what most Koreans feel right now, while they continue to see those who are directly involved in the incident claim their innocence and say the situation is unfair,” Ha said.

One way to cure the people’s stress and frustration is to punish the offenders.

“While neither of the president’s apologies, the prosecutors’ investigation nor the National Assembly’s reactions to the incident were able to calm traumatized citizens, a speedy process of bringing offenders to justice may be the only way to bring the stress level of citizens down,” said sociologist Chung Min-soo.

“For those angry citizens, coming together at candlelight vigils to beat the blues and express their emotions in the festive mood, as shown in recent rallies, can be a good way to survive this mind-boggling time.”

For those with a more serious case of Soon-sil Syndrome, the experts’ advice is to turn off the TV for now.

“Or set a certain amount of time to watch news. Negative news can impact viewer’s mental health,” Ha said.

By Kim Da-sol (