Only two generations ago Korean people were so poor that starvation was a frequent and widespread experience. Today, Koreans have reached the same level of wealth and consumption of the most advanced countries in the West. The minimum wage is 4.800 won per hour, more or less 3.5 Euros, and the majority of workers manage to cash around 1500 Euros per month. Teachers are paid better than in Italy or England, around 2000 Euros per month.
But for the youngest generation the prospects are not as rosy. Renting a house has become impossible for the majority of young people, who cannot afford to pay advances of fifty thousand dollars.
More and more youngsters take debts with the banks if they want to marry and have a house. More and more take debt to pay their studies.
In the past, the Korean workers movement used to be strong, while it is much less so now. Social resistance has become scattered, individualized. The rare cases of resistance are moral display of outrage and symbolic actions.
Aerial protests are a distinctive kind of demonstration that can be seen only in Korea. In other countries, members of environment organizations occasionally climb trees in protest, but hardly anywhere else workers climb up transmission towers for indefinite sit-ins.
“Workers today have no way to cope with their sense of injustice, so they use these protests to share their dilemma with others” says Bae Gyu-shik, a sociologist.
“Listen to the city” is the name of an art-architectural activist group that engages in the production of low price tent structures, especially conceived for sheltering and housing the aerial protesters who squat in high places like cranes and electricity pillars.
In a self-produced brochure, the activists of the group published a map of the main sit-in aerial demonstrations, listing twelve which adopted the shelter produced by the architects and carpenters of the activist group.
“The main function of this tent is to amplify the voice of the protestors, and to bring it to the citizens, politicians and other demonstrators. Regardless of weather, even in -25 degrees, people stay up there protesting day and night. Protestors are facing extreme living condition and this shows their sincerity.” (Sit-in demonstration architectures, Seoul, 2011).
I read from the brochure some stories of aerial protesters.
“On the top of the underpass is an eight lane highway: below it is a four-lane road. The bridge is always jittery from the cargo trucks that constantly roar by above and below. Tied by rope to the bridge railing is a plywood platform that measure 2m long and 1m wide. This is the site of Hong Jong-in’s aerial protest. Hong, 39, is leader of the YPR Ansan chapter of the Korean Metal Workers’ Union.”
Evictions are common place in the territory of the metropolis. Every day the police are evicting people from houses, shops, small markets, to make room for corporate building investments, and fashionable new buildings.
Hundreds of people were evicted for a project by Daniel Libeskind, which eventually was cancelled for financial problems.
The artist collectiveListen to the cityis the author of the film Yongsan (2010, 74min), narrating the Youngsan Tragedy which took place in Seoul 2009.
Youngsan is one of the main areas in Seoul. In 2009 the government and developers announced that the area was going to be turned into Youngsan international business district and hired the architect Daniel Libeskind.
The developers rushed to evict the people living in the area, but most of them weren’t even aware that the project was scheduled to start, and therefore not ready to move. Evicted people tried to resist to the police and the thugs sent by the new contractors. During the resistance six people died. Among fires and cries of despair, women and children and men were evicted.
Youngsan international business district was recently cancelled for financial problems.
People receive the communication that their homes or their shops will be demolished only three months before the actual eviction. Just a short span of time is left to prepare for dislodgment, look for a new house, whose advance payment is so high that many cannot afford it.
Introduction to the hell
In the perfectly recombinant city the subway is protected from suicidal events. Walls of transparent material run all along the rails. The train stops and doors open in the crystal tunnel. In London people who intend to commit suicide in the subway are invited to go to do what they want elsewhere, so busy citizens do not waste their time waiting for dismembered corpses to be evacuated. British humor.
Koreans are less humorous, but suicide is widespread.
has the highest suicide
rate in the world. Korea leads the gloomy contest with 28,4 per 100.000. Second comes Hungary with 17, then Finland and Japan.
Suicide is the most common cause of death for those under 40 in South Korea.
More than two thirds of the suicides are committed by males (in 2003, the ratio was about 2:1).
Two most common methods of suicide are poisoning and hanging, accounting for about 2/3 of all suicides.
Interestingly, the toll of suicides in South Korea has doubled during the last decade.
From 6.8 per 100,000 people in 1982, to 28.4 in 2011.
Here probably lies the explanation of the extraordinary propensity of Koreans (both young and middle aged) to commit suicide: in the space of two generation their condition has certainly improved by the point of view of revenue, nutrition, freedom and possibility of travelling abroad.
But the price of this improvement has been the desertification of daily life, the hyper-acceleration of rhythms, the extreme individualization of biographies, and work precariousness which also means unbridled competition.
They come out from such a situation of underdevelopment and misery that seems impossible to complain for the new reality. High tech capitalism naturally implies ever increasing productivity and ceaseless intensification of the rhythms of work, but it is also the condition that has made possible an impressive improvement in life standards, nourishing and consumption.
Koreans look back to the condition of their grandparents and they cannot question the present alienation. But the present alienation is a different sort of hell. The intensification of the rhythm of work, the desertification of the landscape and the virtualization of the emotional life are converging to create a level of loneliness and despair that is difficult to consciously refuse and oppose. The compatibilised recombinant organism is perfectly efficient in the sphere of techno-production, but it is tremendously frail. Isolation, competition, sense of meaninglessness, compulsion and failure: 28 persons out of 100.000 every year succeed in their attempt to escape and many more unsuccessfully try.
As suicide can be considered the ultimate mark of the anthropological mutation linked to the digital transformation and precarization: not surprisingly South Korea is number one in the world when it comes to the suicide rate.
Lecturing at Suyonomo N
The reason why I went to Seoul was to hold a workshop with the group of art-activists named Suyonomo N, and to talk at a meeting at the local university, organized by my publisher together with a group of students and researchers.
One of the reasons of my hesitation to go to Seoul was a moral consideration. Have I the right to export my present pessimism into a place that I don’t know, to people who have the kindness of paying for listening to me? Have I the right to meet activists, philosophers and artists whose present activity I do not know, and tell them that in my vision I consider suicide as the most significant political act?
My guests puzzled and floored me, disorienting my expectations and changing the very terms of my philosophical proposal.
The Sujonomo N participants in the seminary were around forty five coming from different professional and cultural backgrounds. Professors and researchers of various Universities of the city, some artists and architects, a well-known philosopher who was jailed in the years of the dictatorship and has published various books on his political experience, a charming old woman who after teaching literature has retired in the countryside to grow plants and food, the owner of a gasoline station of the suburbs, an expert in Russian literature. Some very young students, a catholic clergyman, an anarchist, a buddhist.
Asked about their activity some of them declared to be independent researchers, and to consider Sujonomo N the place where their research could be developed and made public.
The neoliberal privatization of the University in South Korea, as in many countries around the world, is making studying and researching much harder for a growing number of people. Thus, more and more young Koreans are dropping out of University – which, as it becomes more expensive, also proves itself to be increasingly less useful in terms of giving access to regular jobs – and are creating spaces of self-formation and independent research.
The members of Sujonomo N meet regularly in two spaces in a popular area of Seoul. One is the place for living and sharing food, the other is the place for cultural activity and meetings. They have dinner together in the evening, do yoga and listen to music, and take part in seminars on various subjects.
In the same week of my workshop other groups were studying a book on sexuality by Michel Foucault, the thought of Walter Benjamin, and a workshop was dedicated to mathematical problems in computing science.
They are not the kind of naïf activists who want to be confirmed in their certainty that the multitude is winning, and the Empire will be defeated. Some of them have taken part in the workers struggles of the last decades, some are presently acting against the projects of devastation of what is left of the natural landscape, some are active in the denunciation of the daily evictions – but at the same time they seem totally aware of the dissolution of the old political ideologies and expectations.
Frankly speaking, in Seoul I had the clear perception of reaching the end of line of the contemporary hell, but meeting the Sujonomo people also made me understand that we are not bound to submit to the surrounding violence and to conform to the surrounding sadness.
Although they live under the permanent threat of nuclear bombing by a crazy tyrant who lives just a few miles away in the city of Pyongyang, although they are similarly threatened of final desertification by the tyrants of financial capitalism, my Sujonomo friends seem conscious of the fact that only their sense of friendship and the pursuit of a project of common research can give us autonomy and force.
My lectures at Sujonomo have been a sort of meditation on the contemporary paradox: richness is producing misery, knowledge is producing ignorance and violence, and the tendency towards the full development of the general intellect is entangled and perverted by financial capitalism, which is leading us towards the annihilation of what has been created by the past civilization.