Online community shocks Korea with attacks on minorities, women

Online community shocks Korea with attacks on minorities, women

The website started off as a simple community, a cyber-playground to share humorous postings. But it soon turned into something bigger, with its members revealing their true colors in ways that shocked Korean society.

The website, called Ilgan Best or "Ilbe," is now a symbol of Korea's ideological division. It is also an online gathering of self-proclaimed young neo-conservatives who freely express their animosity toward minorities, liberals and women.

Due to the tendency of its members to actively voice online opinions on most contentious subjects, Ilbe itself has become a hot-button issue.

Most recently, Ilbe touched off a string of disputes after posting defamatory comments about victims of the deadly ferry sinking in April, which left over 300 dead or missing. A local court on Monday handed a suspended prison term of six months to a 21-year-old college student for defamation, after he posted sexual comments about female survivors on the website. Four months earlier, another Ilbe member received a one-year prison term on similar charges.

The online community also made headlines earlier this month when an 18-year-old Ilbe member threw a homemade firecracker at an event held by a writer labelled "pro-North Korea" by the members of the website.

But is this a group of disgruntled youths badmouthing anyone they don't like, or a coterie of politically active youngsters to be reckoned with?

What is Ilbe?

"It is an enormous male-oriented Internet community that shows the extremities of Korean cyberculture," said Kim Hak-jun, a 31-year-old officer worker who wrote his master's dissertation on Ilbe at Seoul National University. "I would define Ilbe members as people who regularly feel the anxiety and pain felt by most Koreans, but chose to 'actively comply' with the conventional social system."

In the course of studying Ilbe, Kim held interviewed 10 of its members and analysed some 330,000 postings. While he says he is not a member himself, the extensive research he did offers a sneak peak of an insider's view of Ilbe.

Due to its open support for male dominance in Korean society, Ilbe members might appear to be extreme conservative activists. But its members rarely take any action in the real world, which is partly because they are fragmented.

"Just as (Ilbe members) do not help anybody, they don't expect anyone else to help them either. The only thing they can count upon (in the fragmented society) is themselves," said Kim.

This concept of self-reliance sheds light on why Ilbe members have very little faith in the welfare system. This attitude contributes to their antipathy toward minorities or anyone who is subject to social discrimination, such as women and foreign workers. The subject of their discontent also extends to liberals and people from Jeolla Province, who are relative minorities in Korean politics.

"Those who claim to be minorities blame society for what should be their responsibility and demand compensation for their pain. Democracy has given in to their irresponsible and irrational demands, forcing the rest of the people (in the society) to make sacrifices (for the minority) in the name of protection," said an avid user of the website who declined to be named.

Most members are, or at least claim to be, male. The members even have a pet name they for each other; "Ilgay," a combination of "Ilbe" and "gay."

According to Kim's article, the word "gay" has several meanings: It could mean sense of equality and camaraderie among the members, or reference to men in general since it originally was a simple typo of "guy."

But "gay" could also refer to a true alpha males as gays are "conquerors of men," hinting at a negative view of women and homosexuals.

Contradictory nature of Ilbe

Such discord in rhetoric and action appears to be common in Ilbe. Despite constantly saying that dating is futile and unfair to young men, they appear to put extensive amount of effort to show they are participating in it.

In heated online feuds members are accused of being lonely, pathetic losers who cannot find a date, to which the retort is always: "Yes, I do have a girlfriend."

Another word they use for themselves is "byeongsin." It means physically challenged, but Koreans often use it to mean "loser."

But Ilbe members react fiercely when outsiders call them one.

This was apparent in a recent "certification rush," where Ilbe members showed their credentials to prove that they were not just sore losers, but students or faculty at prestigious colleges or employees of leading corporations.

They call themselves "gay," but are homophobic; they belittle dating, but boast about their dating life; they call themselves losers, but are desperate to prove that they are elites. Contradiction appears to be a defining trait of Ilbe's membership.

Their sense of elitism is key to understanding why Ilbe members speak so poorly of minorities and women suffering from discrimination, according to Kim Hak-jun.

"Ilbe members think they have fulfilled their duties and responsibilities 'fiercely and quietly.' This leads them to think of women and minorities ― who receive benefits from the country ― as freeloaders or second-rate citizens who are given more than they deserve.

"They create their unique 'nothing special' narrative. The claim the suffering (of minorities and women) are 'nothing special,' and nullify it. They regard anyone who complains of it as inferior, which places them as the victor, or the elite," he said.

This leads Ilbe members to believe themselves to be "elite minorities" ― the backbone of Korean society. In their minds, the self-proclaimed "elite" are allowed to call each other names but the "weak" are not.

Fact, a friend or foe?

One of Ilbe's main criticisms of women and liberals is that they are easily swayed by emotion and become victims of demagogy, leading them to disregard facts.

They point to nationwide candlelight vigils, like the one that followed claims that Korea's National Intelligence Service was interfering in the 2012 presidential election.

A September court ruling found that some NIS officials did illicitly post political comments on Internet portals and the then-NIS chief had been informed of their actions.

Ilbe members claim they are less susceptible to demagogy because they are rational, armed with facts, and can manage their emotions.

But whether they are actually more rational, remains to be seen. When confronted with the fact that Ilbe postings bent the truth about the May Democratization Movement of 1980, an Ilbe member merely said, "I don't know what to think."

"Reality is a lot different from what I've learned in history classes, and this is why I was so enthusiastic about Ilbe" he said. Rather than acknowledge Ilbe's faults, he just said "the truth is a lot different from what I've been told."

"What are the facts?" is commonly asked on Ilbe when a claim incompatible with their beliefs pops up. But often, details that support the claim are glossed over.

Their reactions in the face of inconvenient facts and their failed attempts at impartiality raises the question: Is truth really what they are seeking?

"(To Ilbe) fact is merely a rhetoric, a formality. It's a code (used in Ilbe) and does not necessarily refer to the substantial truth," Kim said. "It's something they mention in order to consider themselves rational beings."

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