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Op-Ed Special
My Take on “Hell Joseon” Narrative
By Benson Kamary
Associate Editor & Writer
Prof. Benson Kamary (right) officiates a ceremony recently held in Seoul. At left is Kenyan Ambassador to Seoul Mohamed Gello.

About three years ago, I defended my thesis from conducting a comparative study of my country, Kenya, and South Korea in the context of New Media technology as a culture-shaping agent. From hilarity to complexity, I explained to the dissertation panel that I pegged on the similarities between Kenya and Korea as the reason for selecting my paper’s setting. As a way of subduing nervousness, I told the panel that if they were keen enough, they would discover that both Kenya and Korea begin with the letter “K.” Also, the names of both countries have five alphabetical letters, and apparently both countries have about the same GDP size, except that the last fact was only true approximately 60 years ago!

I remember adding one more element: That in February 1964, the then President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and the former President of Korea, Park Chung-Hee, established Kenya-Korea diplomatic relations. Fifty years later, the son of Jomo Kenyatta and the daughter of Park Chung-Hee are the presidents of their respective countries. That is what we call a coincidence, right? By this time of the thesis defense, some of the examiners began stroking their chins but that is a story for another day.

Let’s talk about ‘hell’. For about three months now, several media outlets have carried stories about “Hell Joseon,” a newly coined term referring to how tough life is in Korea. In fact, a survey cited in the articles showed that eight out of 10 Koreans wish to emigrate. A young school girl in a video interview trending on Facebook proclaimed that she would rather live in “any country beside Korea.” On her opinion I want to shout, “Chinja” (really)? I guess we can excuse her knowledge of global affairs and the reality that many people around the globe have more appetite than food or more sleep than a place to lay their heads on. If you ask me, there is a lot of struggling out there.

But let’s be fair. Korean young people’s concerns about rigid systems and related social pressures are genuine, yet not hellish – in my opinion. I have read about Korea in the 50s and 60s. I also have heard from people who ate one meal in three days after the Korea War. Globally, and this is unfortunate, conflicts, poverty, corruption and lack of economic opportunities are driving millions of people to devastation. Surely, the Korean youth deserve to be listened to, to be nurtured and to be empowered to respond to the actualities of the so called “Joseon Hell” open mindedly. I think this is everyone’s responsibility – the government and the citizens.

From an educator’s point of view, I may only comment on one aspect – Education. Having studied in Korea and now teaching here, I can echo what is already in the public domain: Korea’s education is riskily competitive. I argued here before that a worldview which outlines education’s purpose to be for making money, and living happily thereafter is not only misplaced but also fallacious. Such a view is tantamount to commodifying education and defining graduates only as pieces of economic cogs, rather than individuals trained, empowered and cultured to respond to the needs of the society in which they live.

As I concluded my research paper back then, I noted a number of ways on how Korea’s rapid development could be a model for my motherland if not the entire Sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, I cautioned that “if Kenya is to emulate Korea, it should be careful enough to study the social impact of some of the aspects of the rapid development including stressful working culture and competitive education system.

A few days ago, an article appeared on a local newspaper asserting that Korea's stressful life is a killer. According to the article, “Koreans remain among the unhappiest people in advanced economies with many of them suffering from depression, although in appearance cutting-edge technology, flashy buildings and wide streets dominate their environment.”

Indeed, Korea needs to have a conversation with herself. As I see it, such a conversation is a responsibility of all the stakeholders – parents, students, teachers, private sector and the government.

One of my gratifying moments on campus with my students is in Mentoring Program, a platform where a few students meet with a professor for guidance, questions, discussion and yes, talk about real life struggles. With my mentoring students, we talk, we laugh, we listen, we shout, we eat, and sometime go silent reflecting on what the society has made education to be and our role in it. If our education does not lead us into a reflective conversation about our bliss and struggles in the society, I wonder what will.



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Benson Kamary, professor of Tongmyong University in Pusan, serves as an Associate Editor & Writer for The Seoul Times. Based in Busan, South Korea, the Kenyan professor also serves as chairman of Kenya Community in Korea (KCK). He can be reached at bkamary@yahoo.com

 

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