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Korean Boss, A Leader or A Tyrant?

Recently, Korean society is heating up over the issue of “being bossy”, as known as “gap-jil” in Korean. “Gap-jil” refers to an unfair behavior of a person (‘gap’ from the term upper person) abusing their superior position over others. Attitudes of being bossy were quite common in Korean society from the past, but people who were accustomed to the atmosphere could not recognize the seriousness of this problem. However, through recent incidents that caught the public’s attention, society is now tries to face the situation.

The biggest incident was the breach of aviation safety regulations by Cho Hyun-ah, the vice president of Korean Air, also known as “nut rage” incident. On December 5th, Cho, who got on a plane from New York to Seoul, called the in-flight service into question when she received a pack of macadamia nuts unopened. Outraged Cho assembled the cabin crew, and insulted them by offensive words and behavior. Cho even forced them to kneel in front of her, using the fact that she is the vice president of the airline. This “nut rage” incident was the spark that ignited the “gap-jil” controversy in the society.
However, this was not the first time to see leaders being tyrannical. One big controversial incident that demonstrated bossy behavior was the ‘Namyang Situation’. In May of 2013, the incident was brought to the surface by an accusation and a tape recording released to the public about Namyang Corporation’s illegal high-pressure sales tactics towards local agents for long periods of time. Even worse, the recording included a part where a young-employee from Namyang Corporation used abusive language to the owner of the agency, who sounded much older than him. The public grew angry on hearing the news, and some civic groups even urged a boycott of Namyang products. The most recent big issue was the ‘Bucheon Hyundai Department’ incident. On December 27th, 2014, a mother and daughter assaulted a part-timer, and forced him to kneel down in front of them. This incident boosted the discussion on the “gap-jil” issue and people finally started to take this problem very seriously.

These series of issues reflects the current position of Korean leaders. A big factor that harms the society is a prevalent sequence culture. From the past, Korea has emphasized the concept of ‘elders first’. The idea can be viewed Korea as a courteous group, but meanwhile, people began to have wrong rights consciousness that people who are put in a bossy situation are allowed to abuse the position.
The idea that ‘the customer is king’ can be viewed as one example derived from wrong rights consciousness of people. Part-time jobs including helpline services are well known as ‘extreme’ jobs among people, due to people who are being abusive to workers. A lot of university students work part time nowadays, and some customer’s abusive behavior has become a nightmare. Kim Eun-ji, majoring in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism said, “Looking back on last year, I have worked part time jobs on a lot of occasions, such as at a convenience store, cafe, movie theater, racecourse, and an internet cafe.” Kim said that her worst memory of working part time was inarguably the rude customers. “Some customers think that I am their servant. They throw credit cards in front of me and tell me to find one that has the most discount rates,” she added, “ I know that it is the part timers’ duty to be kind to the customers, but I cannot tolerate excessive attitudes”.
The static and vertical structure of companies is also another problem. The atmosphere stresses the junior-senior relationship, and employees and bosses are put in a very vertical and rigid position. A recently ended Korean television drama ‘Miseng’ received a lot of positive responses from audiences for showing reality of a Korean company and its culture and atmosphere. The drama shows the situation where a boss uses abusive language to employees, or evens stealing employees’ work.

While Korea is struggling with the “gap-jil” dilemma, groups that have exemplary atmosphere drew public attention. Mirai Industry Corporation is widely known as a unique way of promoting employees. The president puts a stack of paper with employees’ names on in front of a fan, and one that flies the farthest gets a promotion. Employees who actually received promotions say that it is very burdensome, but as a lot of people are watching, this makes them work harder. Mirai Corporation, with about 700 employees, has never been in deficit since its establishment and records outstanding sales.
Wegmans Food Market is another rising company in Korean society. This company motto is, “employees first, customers second”. This concept is based on the belief that when employees feel cared for, they will in turn show concern for the customers they serve. Wegmans also invest generously to employees’ education and self-improvement, which raises employees’ pride and responsibility of working.

After several shocking issues, attitudes Korean society has begun to show some movement recently. The public now recognize the seriousness of the vertical structure of society and its following problems, and has begun to raise its voice to change the atmosphere. The first change was the improvement in how people think. In the past, people stressed that the customer is king, but as the result of a lot of issues and incidents, they started to reflect on this belief. According to a survey made by Korea Press Foundation, 95 percent of 1000 people answered ‘yes’ to a question that asks, ‘do you think Korea has a serious problem of being bossy compared to other countries?’. This survey reflects that people are taking this issue seriously.
Furthermore, companies have improved customer response manuals. Helpline service is known as one of the most stressful jobs; where one out of four suffer from depression. Baek Soo-kyung, majoring in Department of English Language and Literature at Soongsil University said, “I have tried working at a helpline service part-time once, and I gave it up on my first day.” Baek, who had no idea about the helpline service, was shocked from abusive languages from customers. “I feel very bad for the helpline service workers”, she added, “I strongly think that there should be a solution such as strong confrontation to those evil calls. It is very tiring to be seated all the time, but what is more tiring and painful is my mental health. I have experienced all sorts of harassments including sexual harassment in just one day”. Recently, companies started to solve this problem. Two years ago, Hyundai Card directed workers to hang up malicious complaint calls and organized a special team that responds to evil calls. As a result, the turnover rate of helpline advisors dropped about 33 percent.  

The bossy culture in Korean society is so deeply embedded, and cannot be easily pulled out in a short amount of time. Nevertheless, recent big issues and incidents indicate that wounds from the ‘gap-jil’ have gotten too deep, and should no longer be neglected. Rather than requiring sacrifice one party (like the term, ‘the customer is a king’), both parties should recognize the fact that people are all equal, and that using one’s superior material or social  position is not to be accepted. Some people also claim that there should be a standard about to what extent should people approve ‘gap-jil’’. Seol Dong-hoon, professor at Department of Sociology at Chonbuk National University said, “Services that need emotional labor are obliged to experience ‘gap-jil’ continuously, but there has to be a clear settlement or education about to what extent people should bear the ‘gap-jil’. Although some changes have made in the society, it is just a very small part of all, and Korea has a long way to go. Materialism and vertical social structure need to be put away, and aim for mutual respect in order to grow into more mature and healthy Korean society.  


Choi Young-eun  ye_1277@dongguk.edu

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