The video fueling the most outrage on the Korean-language internet takes place at a McDonald’s drive-through. Filmed from the dashboard-camera of a waiting car, the video shows a McDonald’s worker pass a bag of food through the service window to the driver of a white SUV.
Several seconds later, the same bag is violently thrown back before the SUV speeds away. Police went on to track down the burger chucker, who was a 49-year-old man.
He explained that he had found something wrong with his order and that his outburst was work-related stress.
The 20something McDonald’s worker is now seeking treatment for emotional trauma, police said. She told them that the bag of hot food hit her in the face.
For South Koreans observers, it was the latest instance of what is described as gapjil – abusive or disrespectful behavior by someone in a position of power, aimed at someone they consider beneath them. Gapjil cases often involve bosses and their subordinates, professors and students, or staff of a major corporation bullying a smaller company.
This particular case was taken by many as evidence of a latent rage that smolders beneath the surface of South Korean society and is inflicted upon the country’s least-powerful members. But nowadays, with South Koreans carrying cameras in their pockets, and uploading instances of bad behavior for the whole world to see, you don’t have to be a chaebol titan to be accused of bullying.
A high-profile case also came to light in recent days, when South Korean female curlers held a press conference where they accused their managers of lording it over them, withholding prize money and trying to control their personal lives. The managers have denied this.
The five members of the team became international darlings over an unexpected run to a silver medal early this year at the Winter Olympics. The players are all long-time friends – two of them are sisters – and won the nation’s hearts with their dogged play and excellence in a sport that doesn’t have a long history in South Korea.
A petition has been submitted to the presidential office, asking that the organization responsible for managing the team be punished. The petition read: “The athletes were treated as the curling’s association’s property and have suffered serious psychological harm.”
That is not all. In early November, police detained Yang Jin-ho, the CEO of a tech company, after video leaked of him assaulting and berating an underling. Yang has been detained by police and also stands accused of killing chickens with a crossbow while on a company retreat and ordering employees to do the same.
But the most infamous case of gapjil occurred in 2015 when Cho Hyun-ah, a member of the family that owns Korean Air, berated the purser on a flight departing from New York for the way he served her macadamia nuts – in an unopened package instead of on a plate.
Cho reportedly made the purser kneel in self-reproach before she ordered the flight back to the gate so he could be forced off.
That incident, which led to Cho being convicted and sentenced to a year in jail for violating aviation law, sparked a national conversation on the callous behavior by South Korea’s elite.
That conversation has continued and evolved to include interactions involving people who may not be rich or powerful, but do take advantage of some kind of leverage to demean others.
Park Chang-jin, the man who was the victim of the gapjil case that sparked the mainstream conversation about power relations, has continued to speak out publicly about what he sees as widespread mistreatment of those who are low on the economic totem pole.
“Most Korean people have the same experience as me, because our society is divided by wealth,” Park said in an interview. “We are told just to endure and if we get attacked, just keep quiet.
“My father always told me to be diligent and follow the rules of the country and if I did that, the country would protect me, but I realized there is no system to support regular people like me,” he added.
Along with the shaming power of the internet, there is now a Gapjil 911 hotline that workers can call for consultation and support if they are being mistreated by their employers.
The hotline takes tips from workers and reports employers who are accused of using pressure or intimidation to deny workers benefits, such as paid breaks and overtime. Workers also leak cellphone video and audio clips of managers speaking harshly to low-paid workers.
A representative of the hotline told the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper that their busy season is approaching as South Korea’s university entrance exam was held last week,
That means an army of high school students are now looking for part-time jobs to help them save for the coming year’s tuition and living expenses. Such workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, as due to the narrow window of time they have to earn money, they are less likely to complain about mistreatment.
The possible silver lining to the recent rash of cases of mistreatment is that a national conversation is now ongoing.
“We can all be captivated by the feeling of power. The fact is that with even a small amount of power, consideration for others can lessen,” Kwak Keum-joo, a Seoul National University professor of psychology, wrote in a recent column for the Korea Economic Daily.
“We must be aware of the power we yield, and how that power can cause us to become arrogant without us knowing,” Kwak added.