"When I met a new friend in Busan, he asked me where I was from. I said Gwangju and he called me a ‘Jeolladian.’ I did not know what it meant at first."
A 20-something cellphone seller in Busan, S has lied about his hometown to his customers, not wanting to cause any unnecessary trouble.
"My customers would ask me where I was from," he said. "I did not say that I was from Gwangju because I thought it would not benefit me in any way if I told them the truth. So it was a white lie for me."
Jeolladian is a derogatory term against people from the Jeolla provinces, often used on the far-right website Ilbe.
Korea is mostly known for the division between the South and North on the global stage. But the cracks extend all the way to the bottom of the peninsula, where deep-rooted regionalism prevails.
The regional rivalry goes both ways – between the southwestern Honam region that includes the Jeolla provinces and Gwangju, and Yeongnam, which comprises the Gyeongsang provinces and the cities of Busan, Daegu and Ulsan.
A woman in her early 30s told The Korea Herald of her struggles at the Seoul branch of a company based in Gwangju.
"As my company was established in (South Jeolla Province), most of the employees are from Honam. There is one supervisor in his 40s who obviously treats me badly just because I’m from Daegu," she said.
"Another senior employee says 'Hey, Daegu' whenever he calls me."
A recent survey shows how hatred based on regionalism is a common problem.
Conducted by Realmeter on behalf of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in May, the survey asked people who were the most targeted group for hate speech both online and offline.
With the option to select multiple answers, people who were born in certain regions were the second-most picked group for both online and offline.
About 3 in 4 respondents said they have seen hate speech based on regionalism on the internet while a little less than 70 percent said they have witnessed the same type of hatred in their daily life.
Although a newer rupture has emerged between Seoul and the rest of the country, the most well-known regional enmity in Korea is between Honam and Yeongnam.
The beginning of the decadeslong rivalry between the two regions, dates back to the days of former President Park Chung-hee, who came to power after leading a military coup in 1961.
"Regional sentiment deteriorated dramatically with the regionally unequal economic development carried out under the Park Chung-hee administration on top of the tragic disaster in Gwangju in May 1980," Han Hong-koo, a professor at SungKongHoe University, wrote in the Journal of History in 2019.
"Regional enmity exploded in the direct presidential election, which was revived after 16 years in 1987. The country’s regional enmity worsened extremely because Korea’s political forces actively manipulated it."
Most countries have some level of regional enmity, but South Korea may be the only country that has had its politics dominated by regional conflicts and disputes for 30 years without other major divisions, such as racial, religious or linguistic ones, Han added.
In the history of politics, Honam has been a progressive stronghold while Yeongnam voters have traditionally backed conservatives.
Studies have shown, however, that the regionalism and the hatred that stems from it has waned in recent years.
A study published by the 21st Century Political Science Association in 2018 showed that voters did not show negative feelings toward candidates from other regions.
According to the researchers’ analysis, voters in Yeongnam and Honam expressed favoritism toward candidates from their own regions, but did not rule out others from different regions. The study concluded that regional emotions are more about favoritism for one’s own group rather than excluding other regions.
"Regionalism will not go away easily. Because it is old and has become a complex conflict in terms of economy, culture and social structure. But is it something that has to be removed?" said Lee Jun-han, a professor of political science and international studies at Incheon National University.
"In the past, there was a saying that if a stick ran for an election on behalf of a certain party, some regions would cast votes for that stick. But such extreme choices are becoming weaker. It will be hard to expect Korea’s regionalism to change much from that because taking out the concept of region altogether is difficult."
The Science and Technology Policy Institute wrote in a social conflict analysis that people often manipulate media, especially in the run-up to an election to drum up support.
"In particular, the conflict between Yeongnam and Honam seems the most severe. This indicates that candidates are using provocative news reports to further instigate regional enmity so they can receive more votes," it said.
"We must break away from the chronic disease of regional enmity. It’s time to come up with ways to create a society where politicians, media and citizens can grow together to make politics, media and Korea more developed."Seoul vs. the rest
There is a saying here that goes, "South Korea is the Republic of Seoul." It takes a shot at the reality that everything in the country is focused on the capital. Data shows how lopsided the situation is.
According to Statistics Korea, half of the country’s population live in the Greater Seoul area of Gyeonggi Province, Incheon and Seoul, while the region accounts for half of the country’s gross domestic product.
"We were talking about meeting up in front of the Daegu train station for our project. A graduate student asked me how I was going to get there. I said I will take the subway. She asked me if Daegu has its own subway," Kim Jeong-hyun, a 27-year-old graduate student, told The Korea Herald.
The graduate student who had questioned Kim is in her 30s and was born in Seoul.
Another interviewee who wished to remain unnamed said his boss was surprised that he came from Chungju, North Chungcheong Province. Chungju has a population of over 200,000.
"He said he didn't expect me to have come from a region other than Seoul because I looked 'stylish,' which was very offensive and thoughtless," he said.
According to a survey conducted by the Hope Institute, a private policy studies think tank in Seoul, 92 percent of 450 respondents said they have experienced discriminatory language or expressions based on region.
"Despite the growing social perception that people should not discriminate, regional discrimination and discriminatory language have existed deeply throughout Korean society and have existed in different forms according to the trend of the times," said Yoo Da-in, a campaign planner at the Hope Institute.
"Language is said to reflect society. Of course, there may be complex reasons, but social conflicts have happened due to the regional gap called 'the Republic of Seoul' and some of them have been reflected in regional discriminatory language."
The Hope Institute categorized the respondents’ experiences based on the characteristics of the discriminatory language used. Expressions of regional prejudice and stereotypes took up the largest portion, followed by comments that were based on the premise that everything is centered around Seoul.
Yoo said such terms constitute "microaggressions," trivial and subtle interactions or behaviors -- sometimes unintentional -- that express a bias toward a group.
Some examples of microaggression she mentioned include “Do you have Starbucks (in your hometown)?" "Don’t fix your dialect. It’s cute," and "You are from Chungcheong province, but your action or speaking is not slow?"
In order to uproot microaggression, awareness and sensitivity needs to be raised in order to create an atmosphere of respect and understanding of others, she added.
On why regionally discriminatory language does not seem to be emphasized as much as other types of discrimination, Yoo pointed to the perception that people think it is fading away.
Discriminatory expressions used before the 1990s are not being used anymore, but the problem is that new discriminatory expressions are continuously created, she said.
"Discriminatory expressions come from conflicts and disputes between people. But once they are created, they are used as tools to further incite conflicts and disputes," Lee Jeong-bok, professor of Korean Language and Literature at Daegu University, wrote in a journal published by the National Institute of Korean Language in 2017.
"Speakers often do not realize such expressions are discriminatory and some people think it is not a problem to use them figuratively. In fact, this is where the education for acknowledging discriminatory expressions is important."----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The concept of “us” is a strong force in Korean culture, and to be counted as “one of us” in any group comes with privileges big and small within its boundaries. However, for those who fall outside the boundaries of “normal,” life in Korea is riddled with hurdles and sometimes open hatred. In a series of articles, we take a closer look at the biases that exist in Korea, and the lives of those branded as “them” by mainstream society. -- Ed.
By Kan Hyeong-woo (email@example.com