Mon, Dec 02, 2019 - Page 8 News List

No money, no hope

South Korea’s ‘Dirt Spoons,’ those born to low-income families, turn against President Moon Jae-in, who came to power in 2017 on a platform of social and economic justice

By Hayoung Choi and Ju-min Park  /  Reuters, SEOUL

Hwang Hyeon-dong lives in a 6.6-square-meter cubicle near his university campus in Seoul, which comes with a shared bathroom and kitchen plus all the rice he can eat, that he rents for 350,000 won (US$302) a month.

Photo: Reuters

Hwang Hyeon-dong lives in a 6.6-square-metre cubicle near his university campus in Seoul, which comes with a shared bathroom and kitchen plus all the rice he can eat, that he rents for 350,000 won (US$302) a month.

The sparse rooms, in premises called goshiwon, were previously mostly used by less well-off students to temporarily cut off from the outside world while they studied for civil service job tests.

Now they are increasingly becoming permanent homes to young people like Hwang, who identifies himself among the “dirt spoons,” those born to low-income families who have all but given up on social mobility.

“If I try hard enough and get a good job, will I ever be able to afford a house?” said the 25-year-old, who lives in his small, cluttered room where clothes were piled on the bed. “Will I ever be able to narrow the gap that’s already so big?”

The concept of dirt spoons and gold spoons, as those from better-off families are known, have been around for many years but exploded onto the political scene in recent years, undercutting support for liberal President Moon Jae-in.

Moon came to power in 2017 on a platform of social and economic justice. Yet halfway through his five-year term, he has little progress to show the country’s youth who have borne the brunt of deepening inequality.

Income disparity has instead widened since Moon took office, with the top income bracket now earning 5.5 times the bottom one, compared with 4.9 times before his inauguration, official data shows.

Hwang, who is in his third year majoring in media studies, said a corruption scandal surrounding former Justice Minister Cho Kuk was a wakeup call for dirt spoons like himself who may have once believed that hard work will make a difference.

Cho and his college professor wife were accused of using their positions to help their daughter gain admission to medical school in 2015.

Cho acknowledged he was a gold spoon and a “Gangnam liberal” motivated by social justice, but the approach backfired and he stepped down in October after only a month in the post. His wife is facing trial on allegations of forgery and financial fraud.

CUP RICE MEALS

To many struggling youth, the scandal — which fuelled some of the largest protests of Moon’s term — showed how gold spoons get further ahead with the help of their parents’ status and wealth.

In a September poll of 3,289 people by recruiting service provider Saramin, three-quarters of respondents said parents’ background was key to children’s success.

“I can’t complain that we have different starting lines,” said Kim Jae-hoon, 26, who also lives in a goshiwon cubicle.

“But it makes me angry that there are people who are getting help improperly. It’s OK that someone was studying when I had to be working, but the fact that they are getting improper help makes me angry.”

Kim works as a part-time waiter at a bar near his school and gets by on 400,000 won a month for rent, food and allowances.

Most meals are “cup rice” he prepares in the shared kitchen, menial fare of rice and basic toppings — eggs, half an onion and sauce.

Young, low-income voters like Kim have deserted Moon in record numbers.

Support among voters aged 19 to 29 dropped from 90 percent in June 2017 to 44 percent by October, according to a poll by Gallup Korea, while support among those considered on low-incomes has fallen 44 percentage points fall since mid-2017.

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