Hierarchism Hierarchy Matters Hierarchy is not a concept unique to Korea. In fact, it would be difficult to find a society without some sort of hierarchy. Nonetheless, there are some unique qualities that set Korea’s hierarchical culture and its top-down communication apart from others. With a society firmly rooted in Confucian ideals and a pervasive military culture, Korea’s hierarchical roots run deep. However, that is not to say that all those living in Korea, whether native Korean or from abroad, are unified in their view of this power relationship-driven society. The following video from the TV variety show “Non-Summit Meeting” specifically addresses foreigners’ thoughts on hierarchical culture, which interestingly skew towards the positive. On the other hand, this article from Job Korea provides some central arguments used by supporters and opponents of rigid hierarchy. Korea’s Age Culture In Korean society, distinctions based on age are extremely important, to the point that they are ingrained in the language. An age gap of even one year can completely alter the way two people interact with and speak to one another. The following videos—in particular the first one, which concerns a social experiment studying age culture—deal with some fascinating aspects of this age-centric culture. Age-Centric Activities In this experiment, boys aged 5 to 7 were allowed to play freely amongst themselves to see how age influenced their interactions. The results revealed firm age-based classifications even in children, including: only asking each other’s’ ages and not names, self-segregating by age, and scolding younger boys for using informal language to their elders. Foreigners’ Responses to Korean Age The video above, made by two Americans living in Korea, discusses confusing and unique elements of Korea’s age culture, including the rigid hierarchy and unique mode of counting age. Foreigners’ Koreanized hierarchy This video is from the Korean TV variety show “Hello, Strangers.” In the clip, you can see how some foreigners living in Korea get used to the Korean style of age-based hierarchies. New Coined Words Describing Hierarchy Deriving from a basketball technique, “no look pass” is a term exemplifying the dark side of Korea’s hierarchies. It came into popular usage after a camera captured a politician tossing his luggage at an airline worker without even looking in his direction. This incident and others like it exemplify the ways in which privilege can exempt individuals from basic norms of decency in an overly-hierarchical system. Young Koreans have created a host of new words besides this to describe Korea’s hierarchies. Three prime examples are: “gapjil,” “kkondae,” and “young kkondae.” Each one deals with a slightly different negative aspect of hierarchical culture. Gapjil “Gapjil” refers to powerful individuals’ abuse of their position to mistreat those below them, whether it be a boss demanding that employees work on weekends or a customer verbally abusing an employee. It is a play on contractual language used in Korea, where “gap” and “eul” are terms that denote the higher and lower status individuals in an agreement, respectively. A quick Google search will reveal many salient examples of prominent individuals exhibiting “gapjil,” including the infamous “nut rage incident” of 2014 involving Korean Air’s vice president. Kkondae “Kkondae” originally came about as a term to describe older men who offer unsolicited advice to younger people in a condescending fashion. Such people often emphasize the degradation of current society and may say things like “back in my day….” Now, the term can refer to any such officious individual, regardless of age or gender. Variety shows and other programs capitalizing on such new vocabulary have grown in popularity lately. The video above centers around young people’s thoughts and experiences regarding “gapjil” culture and how to address it. Young Kkondae Recently, “young kkondae” has also come into vogue to describe younger individuals who exhibit kkondae-like behavior. A TV show called “Accidentally an Adult” explains the psychological basis of the “kkondae” mindset, as well as ways to avoid becoming a “kkondae” through self-reflection and actively interacting with people of different ages. Online, one can find numerous newspaper articles and personal blog posts similarly dealing with “kkondae” culture, often with titles like: “How not to be a kkondae,” “the Kkondae Test,” etc. . A Healthier Conception of Gapjil Culture In spite of the negative forms it takes today, Korea’s hierarchical culture has the potential to improve human interactions. The following resources implore viewers to alter their views on gapjil culture and thus create a more equitable society. Public Service Announcement The public service announcement above highlights the harm caused by gapjil culture and emphasizes that respect must be a two-way street; if those in higher positions want to receive respect from those below them, they must show it in return. HOT line for Employees The Gapjil Hotline provides workers who have experienced gapjil with a simple and confidential means of seeking legal support. The service emphasizes ease of use and offers special options for workers in particularly at risk industries like cinema and nursing. SBS News Article This article from SBS News describes the self-reinforcing loop of gapjil culture and the surprising negative effects it can have not just on employees’ happiness, but also on a company’s productivity. Mandatory after-work drinking and the breakdown of communication are just a few ways in which gapjil can impinge on workplace efficiency. In Korea, there is a saying that “no person is higher than another and no person is lower than another (사람 위에 사람 없고 사람 밑에 사람 없다).” Hierarchies exist to maintain order in society, to ensure that everyone knows what their roles and responsibilities are. However, such divisions often extend beyond this purpose and are inappropriately used to determine a person’s worth. This attitude gives rise to the notions of superiority that form the basis of insidious gapjil culture. To preserve the beauty of Korea’s traditional reverence of elders and prevent it from being twisted into gapjil, we must be vigilant, reminding ourselves to always respect others regardless of their position.