The Korea Herald


"I am..." meme latest to go viral in bizarre saga surrounding fencing star

Olympic medalist’s ex-fiance con artist’s non-sensical Konglish phrase becomes meme among Koreans

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Nov. 3, 2023 - 16:35

    • Link copied

Jeon Cheon-jo (Yonhap) Jeon Cheon-jo (Yonhap)

The bizarre saga surrounding former fencing champion Nam Hyun-hee’s brief engagement to a con artist is sizing up to be a collective loss, ranging from money lost to fraudulent investments to public shaming of the former sports star. But from the ashes of Nam’s obliterated reputation came an internet meme based on one of her former fiance’s text messages mixing English and Korean.

In the message to a potential extortion target, Jeon Cheong-jo -- whom police reported has a woman's national ID number but who formerly swindled money as both a man and woman -- pretends to be lacking in Korean vocabulary as someone born in New York. “I am,” Jeon writes in English, followed by the Korean word for trust or belief, “sillae,” possibly to mean, “I trust you.”

Jeon’s non-sensical mixture of English and Korean, which was consistent throughout the conversation, blossomed into a meme that went viral here.

E-commerce company WeMakePrice launched a promotional event with the phrase “I am 'teukga (special price),'" while brokerage firm Korea Investment & Securities used the phrase, “I am sillae” in its online reports for top stock market picks. “I am ‘mayak hyeomui (drug allegations)'” was the headline for a Sports DongA news article about “Parasite” actor Lee Sun-kyun and K-pop star G-Dragon facing allegations of illegal drug use.

Internet users are calling the type of phrasing, “Cheong-jo-speak,” after the name of the con artist, and wondering when its parody will make an appearance on the comedy program, Saturday Night Live Korea. Popular SBS variety show “Running Man” already used the phrase in its latest episode.

This is not the first time a serious social issue has transformed into a meme.

Cho Seung-yeon, formerly known as Korean Air Vice President Cho Hyun-A, made headlines in 2014 for illegally ordering her company’s plane to return to the gate at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, claiming that the flight attendance’s service of macadamia nuts was substandard.

What came to be dubbed Cho's “nut rage” sparked a nationwide furor as a prime case of the type of Korean workplace abuse called “gapjil,” referring to when a person of superior social status uses their authority to abuse or take advantage of those with relatively inferior status. Cho, the daughter of the then-airline chief and grandson of the company’s founder, was widely condemned and subsequently resigned from her post while receiving suspended jail sentence for abusing the flight attendants.

Kim Jun-ho, a professor emeritus of sociology at Korea University, analyzed the public’s reactions as coming from their disdain of gapjil. According to Kim, the Korean public tends to feel sympathy toward people who are insulted by superiors, and to question validity the power structure in such situations.

As Cho’s reputation as a young executive went up in flames, her unsought notoriety as an internet celebrity emerged. “Nut return” became a meme widely adopted by e-commerce companies and internet users here, from promotional phrases such as G-Market’s “Yes, this is that very nut," to the slogan for Liam Neeson’s 2014 film, “Non-Step,” channel U+: “We don’t have ‘nut return’! The worst hijacking occurs!”

A similar kind of meme was born during popular female volleyball player Lee Da-yeong’s 2021 public feud with her much more accomplished teammate, Kim Yeon-kyoung, in which Lee wrote on her social media account that “This will soon blow up! I’ll blow it all up!” hinting at a shocking revelation about Kim. While it was never revealed what the alleged secret was, Lee’s rant became a meme that was parodied by sports fans.

Parodies of crimes, however, have sparked debate about whether making jokes about them is disrespectful to the victims.

Comedian Eom Ji-yun on Monday posted a photo of herself being surrounded by bodyguards with the phrase, “I AM Eom Cheong-jo,” poking fun at a similar photo Jeon used while pretending to be a wealthy man. But she took the photo down just hours later after being bombarded by criticism that she was being inconsiderate toward Jeon’s victims.

Cultural critic and journalist We Geun-woo recently raised concerns about the Jeon Cheong-jo meme. “Perhaps the companies should refrain from using it for their marketing, since it was something a con artist said to fool the victims. It may not just be the sloppy crook that is being mocked, but also the people who were fooled by such sloppy deception,” he wrote on his Instagram account.