"The people are no more than dogs and pigs,” utters a character from the movie Inside Men (2015), a line which is repeated by the former policy planning officer of the Ministry of Education Na Hyang Ook. This statement is so potent because it summarizes the reality of Korean society. The hierarchy of the Chosun Dynasty, which was thought to have disappeared after the Gabo Reform1 of 1894, has subtly survived and thrives among the upper class. With light being shed on the mistreatment of official residence soldiers, this chronic problem in our country has grabbed our attention once again. Now the public has one last chance to restore the true meaning of democracy.
The recent news that General Park Chan Joo and his wife mistreated their official residence soldiers has sent Korean citizens flying into a rage. After the transgression was revealed to the public on July 31, the Center for Military Human Rights Korea (CMHRK) has continued to peel back the many layers of the case to show how cruel the two really were. General Park is accused of forcing his soldiers to wear electronic anklets to ensure that they obeyed his summons and sending them to General Outposts (GOP) near the front line as punishment. General Park immediately requested to be discharged from military service to avoid investigation by army prosecutors, but the army has rejected his request.
▲ General Park Chan Joo. PROVIDED BY NEWS1
According to the investigation by the Ministry of National Defense (MND), Park’s wife, Jeon, was even crueler than he was. Along with threatening the soldiers by banging a knife on a chopping board, she also locked a soldier on a balcony. There were many other cases of poor treatment but her excuse—she treated them as such because she purportedly “thought of them as sons”—was the final straw. The public was infuriated by the flimsy excuse, noting how she made the soldiers work as personal slaves for her actual son. Unlike her husband, Jeon is being investigated under criminal law due to her civilian status.
The case has attracted much attention from the media and other outlets. Television programs like Sseoljeon2 , in tandem with the press, have fervently discussed the incident, which proved to be quite difficult to solve. Jeon can be punished for her threats, the confinement of the soldiers, and physical abuse, but prosecutors find the charges against General Park himself—harsh treatment and abuse of authority—harder to substantiate. News1reported that, based on Military Criminal Law and precedents from the Supreme Court, it is unlikely that he will be found guilty. Rather, he is expected to be merely charged as his wife’s accomplice.
Song Young Moo, the Minister of National Defense, offered an official apology and ordered a complete investigation to unearth further violations against official residence soldiers within the army. It has been reported that the results would be reflected in the next round of personnel evaluations, and that new regulations for official residence soldiers would be released at the same time. However, abuse of power is not only a problem for official residence soldiers or the army; the scandal surrounding General Park is only the tip of the iceberg, highlighting a problem that pervades Korean society-commonly known as gapjil.
Power, the Strongest Drug
Gapjil refers to a person in a superior position mistreating his or her subordinates, like verbally abusing them, based on their imbalanced power relationship. It was coined by combining the word gap , which in Korea commonly indicates the superior in a contract, with the suffix jil, which refers to an action. The word itself is a neologism, but the phenomenon has commonly appeared throughout history, originating from the social hierarchy that was first established in the Bronze Age. The increase in productivity since then has only led to greater inequality, which peaked under the influence of Confucianism during the Chosun Dynasty.
There is much evidence, especially from literature, that shows how gapjil ran rampant in Chosun-era Korea. Park Ji Won’s Yang Ban Jun, for example, is a bitter satire of the ruling class, or the yangban, during the later periods of the Chosun Dynasty. Park depicted the yangban as nothing more than thieves who contributed nothing to the country and treated normal peasants like slaves. After Korea opened its ports to imperialist countries in the late 19th century, the legitimacy of the class system that sanctioned discrimination between the yangban and ordinary farmers started to lose legitimacy. While the inimical system was finally abolished during the Gabo Reform of 1894, cases like that of General Park’s demonstrate its lingering influence.
To understand why vestiges of this archaic system still remain, it is necessary to first touch upon the psychology behind gapjil. It has recently become a popular topic among psychologists, with many holding different views on the matter. Professor Kim Hak Jin (Depa rtment of Psychology) suggested in an interview with Hankyung Business that the excessive desire for social recognition is the problem. Professor Jeong Sook Ja (Department of Education, KyungSung University) focuses on the overly competitive education system, which teaches students to fear being outstripped by those perceived as inferior.
However, according to Kim Tae Heung, the chief of Emotional Labor Laboratory, both arguments fail to fully elucidate the psychological drive behind gapjil. “To truly understand gapjil, one needs to accept that people instinctively desire to attain a higher rank, which in turn is rooted in their need to procreate,” Kim said. The whole process, like most animals, is simply controlled by the actions of organic chemicals and hormones. People with higher ranks show higher levels of dopamine—a chemical that makes one power-hungry—and testosterone—a male hormone that increases aggression.
▲ Kim Tae Heung, Chief of Emotional Labor Laboratory. PHOTOGRAPHED BY PARK TAE IN.
Such hormones increase one’s propensity to violence and cripple their ability to sympathize, which is the fundamental cause of gapjil. Meanwhile, people in lower ranks report high levels of cortisol—a stress hormone responsible for most diseases known to mankind. Kim says this condition exacerbates as the relationship between superior and subordinate inches closer to absolute hierarchy, in which the former can determine whether the latter lives or dies. He claims that the preponderance of neo-liberalism, an ideology that endorses a free and unregulated economy, in Korea has fomented endless, merciless competition and transformed our society into something resembling absolute hierarchy.
Gapjil Within the Army
In the army, where the distinction between superiors and inferiors is most readily observed, gapjil is particularly prevalent. General Park was the main target of media criticism due to his injurious actions, but the investigation by the MND revealed that he was not the only one to blame. On August 14, the Ministry announced that instances of unreasonable orders being issued to official residence soldiers and their basic rights being violated were discovered in four military troops. There were no electronic anklets found this time, but many were forced to accompany their superior to private events, and some had to breed livestock for them.
These tasks have no relation to the original purpose of official residence soldiers, yet this is not just a problem for this particular group. Yoo Shi Min, the former Minister of Health and Welfare, mentioned that soldiers often assist high-ranking officials when they go fishing. According to Yoo, there is even a description of these fishing soldiers within CheongNamDae—the former summer house for presidents. As can be observed from these examples , the claim that the privatization of soldiers is a common practice among the top brass in the army is well supported.
Naturally, the vicious cycle of gapjil has even affected normal soldiers in regular army units. Senior officers, who have inherited the violence and authoritarianism from their superiors, issue absurd requests to their subordinates. Baik Jong Hyuk (’16, Statistics), who served as a normal soldier three years ago, recalled, “The seniors were the main source of mistreatment. All day I had to go on errands like gathering laundry or reciting the menu for them.” Baik admitted that this might not be true for all troops, but the simple errands he had to do were common examples of the gapjil that could be found at the time.
▲ Private Yoon Incident. PROVIDED BY ASIAECONOMY.
Kyunghyang Shinmun conducted a survey that corroborates Baik’s claim. For three days from August 3 to August 6, they collected reports from men who served in the military. Shocking stories flooded their Facebook page, ranging from tales about being forced to eat goose meat to being physically abused and serving as relief drivers. The young men of Korea—who are generally conscripted to the army—are the ones suffering from the situation. An extreme example of this was seen in 2014, when Private Yoon died at the age of 21 after enduring physical and sexual abuse.
Gapjil in Politics and the Economy
The abuse of power is also an issue in sectors of society where one’s hierarchy is not shown on a badge of one’s uniform. Politicians and corporate executives have also been loath to give up on authoritarianism. In particular, the tactless words of politicians illustrate their view on their social status. They promise every election to act as a servant of the people, but in reality, some see themselves as modern-day aristocrats. Former policy planning officer in the Ministry of Education Na Hyang Ook confirmed this by admitting in a room filled with reporters that he hopes for the revival of the class system.
Another politician known for her blunt remarks is Lee Un Ju, Vice Floor Leader of the People’s Party. To lunch ladies who were on strike demanding permanent positions, Lee scoffed, “Frankly speaking, the cooks are nothing. They are merely old ladies. Why should we give them a permanent position?” Along with the former ruling party president Kim Moo Sung’s “No-Look Pass” incident—Kim throwing his luggage to his entourage without even a sideways glance at them—and presidential candidate Hong Joon Pyo’s countless insulting remarks, outrageous scenes of gapjil in the political arena are not uncommon.
Cho Hyeon Ah. PROVIDED BY YONHAP NEWS.
In the business world, the owners of chaebols, or Korean conglomerates, and their families often abuse their excessive power. Several nationwide scandals, such as the so-called “Bread President” incident and the “Nut Return” episode, have angered people in Korea over the past few years. In the former case, the President of Prime Bakery quarreled in a hotel parking lot with a doorman who was simply trying to enforce parking rules.
During the dispute, the president hit the employee in the face with his wallet. In 2014, Cho Hyunah, the Vicepresident of Korean Air and daughter of its president, received severe backlash when she was dissatisfied with in-flight service and made the flight return to the airport, after which she fired the head steward.
Such actions incurred serious socioeconomic consequences; in the case of Prime Bakery, consumers boycotted the firm’s products and its contractor Korail refused to honor their contract, which led to losses worth billions of won. Cho Hyunah was sentenced to a year in prison for arbitrarily changing the plane schedule, and Korean Air suffered a blow to its reputation not just in Korea but in other countries as well. Unfortunately, numerous gapjil incidents are still being spotlighted in 2017.
▲ Bongsoo Kim, Chairman of Carremont Co-op. PROVIDED BY KIM.
Things are especially bad in subcontract relationships. In 2013, an incident widely known as “Gangster Milk” shocked Koreans. It rose to infamy when a video depicting a salesperson from Namyang Dairy Product berating a franchiser was released. In the video, the salesman was insulting the owner, ultimately forcing him to purchase more products from his headquarters. The issue fizzled out after Namyang published a written apology and fired the employee in question, but this evinces that chronic maltreatment is pervasive in various franchise chains. When the owner of a franchise branch decides to quit, they sometimes suffer from retaliatory marketing from franchise headquarters, resulting in consequences as serious as suicide.
The Namyang Dairy Product incident clearly shows that gapjil exists in franchises. “Gap-eul relationships in franchises happen because of the imbalance of information and money between major corporations and small shop owners,” explained Bongsoo Kim, the Chairman of Carremont Co-op. “For example, major corporations force its branch owners to purchase products from headquarters, which are usually much more expensive than when bought directly from the market,” added Kim. Because of the current system, branch owners suffer, while headquarters enjoy a stable influx of revenue by selling its products with lucrative margins.
Current Perceptions and Attempts to Change
With a series of gapjil incidents going viral and causing massive outrage, Koreans have now started to perceive this as a serious problem, which might otherwise have been overlooked. A survey conducted by the Korea Press Foundation with 1,000 respondents in 2015 indicates as such. According to the survey, 95 percent answered that gapjil was more serious in Korea than in other parts of the world. Moreover, 77 percent of the respondents pointed out that gapjil is problematic across all classes of society, from chaebols and politicians to employers and superiors at work.
Another survey about gapjil in the workplace conducted by Saramin in 2017 revealed that gapjil leads to increased dissatisfaction within firms, decreased motivation to work, and higher levels of stress. The survey revealed that stress causes actual physical illnesses, such as chronic fatigue and headaches. To tackle the chronic gapjil problems, a few major enterprises and government ministries so far have introduced a “360-degree feedback.” In the past, a worker was evaluated only by their higher-ups, which did not take into account others’ opinions; in the new system, workers are comprehensively evaluated by their bosses, peers, juniors, and clients. This new form of evaluation is expected to gradually mitigate instances where power is abused.
As the two surveys suggest, gapjil is a major issue in Korean society. Various institutions have come up with different measures to tackle this malady. After the tragic incident involving Private Yoon, the Korean army came up with plans to eradicate gapjil culture from the military by introducing policies such as “peer barracks.” The policy was initially established to prevent junior soldiers from being physically abused by their superiors; rather than having a whole squad share the barracks, the policy saw only soldiers who are of the same rank sharing living quarters. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised that even when soldiers of the same rank share rooms, a new power relationship would arise among them, resulting in the strong abusing the weak.
“Military Culture Improvement Measures” in 2014 also encouraged the army to utilize Social Networking Services (SNS). Specifically, it demanded that companies use Naver Band and battalions use Naver Cafés as channels through which parents could communicate with soldiers. “Since soldiers are not permitted to use cell phones in the army, parents do not know how soldiers are doing in the barracks. With this system, soldiers’ parents are informed about their children,” Counsel Support Team Manager of CMHRK Kim Hyung Nam (’09, Political Science and International Relations) explained.
▲ Kim Hyung Nam, Counsel Support Team Manager at CMHRK. PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHO EUN BYUL.
In some cases, those who have been suffering from gapjil can initiate change by themselves. When gapjil becomes serious, some euls, which in Korean language refers to people who are placed under the power of another, refuse to further withstand the cruelty and seek the help of the media or institutes such as CMHRK. In particular, CMHRK has played a key role in divulging gapjil problems within the army; the recent official residence soldier gapjil incident was only revealed thanks to a number of residing soldiers and chefs who were brave enough to report it to the CMHRK. Afterward, a flood of follow-up reports quickly surfaced, leading to six subsequent press announcements by the CMHRK.
Past experiences show that whistleblowing can effectively uproot social ills by drawing public attention. For example, Park Jin Seok, a former staff member at the Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA), saved five billion won of taxpayer money by rejecting bid corruption and reporting it to the Board of Audit and Inspection. Additionally, the “Peanut Return” incident came to light only because of purser Park Chang Jin blew the whistle. Hopefully, whistle-blowing can become a promising solution that eliminates gapjil altogether.
A Utopia without Gapjil
Rather than keeping silence, Euls should speak up about the unfair treatment they are suffering from. The injustice of various hierarchies was exposed owing to a number of reports, and people are gradually looking to right the wrongs through efforts made by coura geous whistle-blowers. Unfortunately, the treatment whistleblowers receive as a response to their actions is less than ideal. The aforementioned Park Jin Seok was let go from his job and faced lawsuits that lasted five years, costing him 20 million won, while Park Chang Jin suffered through retaliatory relocation and excessive workloads.
An environment in which whistleblowers can report brutalities without having to look over their shoulder is imperative. President Moon Jae-In’s new policy for whistle-blowers is of note in this respect. According to this policy, whistle blowers will not be held as responsible for corruption as the people they turn in. What is more, the definition of whistle-blowing will be clarified and broadened, and whistleblowers will be monitored to protect them from further recrimination.
Kim Hyung Nam provides some additional insight in the case of gapjil in the army. According to him, cruel treatment in the army occurs because assailants do not fear being legally prosecuted and punished. “In any kind of group, conflict between members is inevitable; the difference between the army and other forms of society is that senior officers believe that they are immune from the law. Common sense is lost in that place. Reforming the military court could be the starting point,” stated Kim.
As for gapjil in franchise companies, Bongsoo Kim voiced his take on the issue. “It is not enough for the government to simply enforce corporate regulations. A paradigm shift at major corporations is sorely needed; that is, the franchise owners should coexist and cooperate with the branch owners.” When asked about the current standing of cooperative societies in Korea, he added that the media needs to let the public know about cooperation structures and their merits. According to Kim, beyond franchise gapjil problems, a form of humanism that prioritizes people over profits is required to bring an end to the chronic gapjil problems in Korea.
As Kim said, a change in perception is of the utmost importance not only in the army, but also in the society as a whole. A survey by JOBKOREA yielded astounding results; only 33.3 percent of workers admitted that they had committed gapjil, which is a far cry from the percentage of workers who claimed that they have been on the receiving end of gapjil. The disparity clearly shows that people become insensitive about the issue when they step into the shoes of the predators. Individuals must reflect on whether their behavior could be seen as a form of gapjil. In fact, there exists a vicious cycle where gaps mistreat euls, and euls do the same to byungs, who are even lower down on the social ladder. “People have the habit of doing the same thing that they have experienced from others,” Kim said. It is time to consider whether we are inadvertently committing gapjil in our daily lives.
▲ Survey conducted by JOBKOREA.
1 Gabo Reform was a series of reforms suggested between 1894 and 1896. Wikipedia
2 Sseoljeon is a Korean TV program by the Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company (JTBC) that comments on social issues within the country.