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South Korea: Keyboard Warriors Against Young Women

In the South Korean internet space, young women in their twenties have repeatedly been struck down by harsh virtual vigilantes who perceive them to be guilty of bad behavior. It has led to an online series of vicious attacks on individuals known as “rude girl”, “loser girl”, “dog shit girl” among others in the “-girl” series. The girls have usually not broken laws, but are instead judged and punished by angry netizens. Last week it was “cat murder girl”, who was targeted for killing a cat.

The cyber-vigilantism (or bullying) in Korea, is practiced mostly by men. More reasonable voices online have analyzed this phenomenon as modern witch hunting performed by belligerent netizens, in reaction to Korean women gaining more power while men struggle under heaping social and economic pressure. The ‘girls’ are everyday people who have been caught doing something annoying, mean or idiotic. But unfortunately, by ticking off vocal Korean netizens, it takes only a day for their lives to be mercilessly ruined.

The latest ‘Rude girl’ refers to a KyungHee University student who had a huge screaming match with an elderly cleaning lady and hurled curses at her.

The ‘Loser girl’ from 2009 is Lee Do-kyung, an Hongik University student who appeared in a famous talk show and said that every guy less than 180 centimeter (5 feet 11 inch) is ‘a loser’, turning a majority of Korean male population against her. It took less than a day for her personal information including her home address, cellphone number and photos be revealed and her Cyworld page (Korean version of Facebook) bombarded with curses. It even led to a lawsuit as one guy who is reportedly 162 centimeters high (5 feet 4 inch) filed a complaint to the Press Arbitration Commission against the KBS (Korea Broadcasting System) who broadcast the show, asking for financial compensation for the mental distress caused from the inappropriate ‘loser’ comment.

The history of internet vigilantism in Korea traces back to 2005's ‘Dog shit girl’ case. A college student girl whose dog excreted in a subway compartment left the scene without cleaning the ‘shit’. Photos of the scene taken by a commuter were posted over the web and angry netizen tracked her down and exposed her full name, email, Cyworld page and photos of her. This public humiliation made her quit her college.

In cases like ‘Toenjang girl’ (Toenjang is a soybean paste in Korean, the origin of the word unclear) it does not point out a single girl but stigmatizes a large group of Korean women fantasizing about and imitating the ‘Sex and the City’ New-yorker lifestyle. The term has been used as a scarlet letter to demean young females, who behave as worldly snobs, wrapped in designer clothes and handbags and who never pay a single penny on a date, and judge people solely based on their appearance and their financial status.

A blogger Iro777 commented even though he cannot agree with the loser girl's comment because he is a 169 cm (5 feet 6 inch) tall loser guy, the pubic shaming went too far.

매번 요런 일이 있을 때마다 되풀이되는데. 너무 지나친 곳까지 와버린 게 아닌가 싶다.. 어떤 일이 생기든간에 상대를 완전 만신창이를 만들어 놓고 나야 놔 주는… 승냥이 떼와도 같은 키보드 워리어들의 태도 역시도 루저녀의 잘못된 발언만큼이나.. 아니 그보다 더 역겹다…마치 루저녀는 대역죄인인 것처럼, 숨어서 온갖 모욕과 마녀사냥을 다 당하면서도 참아내야 하고, 키보드 워리어들은 마치 자기네들이 정의와 진리의 수호자인양 나내면서 그녀의 모든 것들을 물어뜯어대는 현재의 모습은 혐오스럽다.

These things are repeating itself and every time it goes too far. Those keyboard warriors, who just like hyenas never let go of prey till they are totally crushed and torn, are just sickening, more revolting than the inappropriate comments made by the loser girl. Those keyboard warriors are acting as if they are the guardians justice and truth and treat the girl as if she committed serious treason and deserves all the insults and witch hunting done to her and they keep biting her.

On the opposite side, stands the Keyboard Warriors, an aggressive group of net users hurling sarcastic, scathing but sometimes insightful comments on possibly every issue and the one judging these ‘girls’. Their victims scope wide from the government to young women and the quality of the comments are varied by each warrior's intelligence, while some are reasonable and witty (but still spiteful) and the others purely mean and hurtful.

keyboard warrior image

An image of a ‘keyboard warrior’ circulating on the internet. The three sentences below Moses of the Bible say, “I can split up the sea from the keyboard. I am tall and fit by the keyboard. Even the President, I don't envy by the keyboard.” (rough translation)

The term, Keyboard Warrior was made around 2004 by an open debate between a vocal netizen who used to harshly criticized the government and a former Grand National Party’ spokeswoman Chun Yeo-ok. In a debate the netizen challenged, he was beaten down helplessly by the spokeswoman and the witnesses from the scene started calling someone who acts like a defiant warrior in the web but stay subdued in real life, a keyboard warrior. A blogger Netpen elaborated more on this ironical species.

각종 사이트의 게시판에 올라오는 댓글들을 보면 그야말로 입에 담기조차 어려운 내용들이 매우 많다. 아무리 익명으로 쓰는 글이지만 정도가 너무 심해 도대체 어떤 사람이기에 그런 글들을 거침없이 쏟아 붓고 있는가 하고 궁금해진다. (하지만 이들은) 알고 보면 실제 생활에서는 성격이 소심해서 남에게 실례를 끼치거나 함부로 욕을 하지 않은 착한(?) 사람들이다. 현실세계에서는 겁이 나서 파리 한 마리조차 죽이지도 못하지만 사이버공간에서는 전쟁터에 나선 전사(戰士)처럼 용감하게 행동하는 사람들이 바로 이들이다. 네티즌들은 이런 사람들을 ‘키보드 워리어(Keyboard Warrior)’, 즉 ‘인터넷 전사(戰士)’라고 부른다.

Those comments posted on various site’s bulletin boards are really harsh, unspeakably harsh. The harshness of these anonymous comments made me curious who are cascading such comments. The people who are writing such turns out to be, quite unxpectedly, meek, shy and good(?) people who dont dare to cause inconvenience or throw a curse at other people in reality. These people are so faint-hearted that even killing a fly is difficult for them. But the moment they enter the cyberspace, they are acting bold as warriors on the arena. Netizens call them ‘Keyboard Warriors’, warriors (only) on the internet.

Women, especially Korean women have become a favorite target of these quarrelsome population as more women encroached into men's tuft.A female netizen commented that even though she admits some flaws Korean women have and the upper hands women took away from male, it is still the women who are being oppressed in Korea, if you have to name one.

솔직히 여자인 저도 인정하는건데 요즘 보면 개념없는 분들 참 많으시죠…자기 유리할 때를 골라 남녀평등, 레이디 퍼스트를 동시에 외치시는 여성 분들이 많으시니까요. 그러나 여성들이 사회 활동을 하고, 사회적 지위가 향상된 지 얼마 되지 않았기 때문에 이러한 이중적인 잣대들은 그저 과도기적 현상이라고 생각했는데… (아직까지는) 대한민국 남성분들은 역시 어느정도 가부장적인 가치관을 지니고 있고 사회 생활이라는 측면에서 여성보다 더 유리한 조건에 있는 경우가 많잖아요…제 생각보다 많은 분들이 남성VS 여성이라는 잣대로 편을 갈라 서로 쌈박질하는 걸 즐기시더라구요.

Even me, who is a woman, admit that there are so many people(women) who do not have social conscience…These young women took out the ‘gender equality’ and ‘ladies first’ cards in their convenience. I assume these behaviors that can be found only during the transition period since it has not been long since women started working and their social status boosted…There are men still quite patriarchal and have the upper hands over women…It seems there are so many people who enjoy opening a battle between men VS women than I thought of.

South Korea is changing from a men's exclusive territory to a women-friendly society in recent decade. Women have made into mainstream Korean society by passing bar exam and getting themselves into government posts and entering professional fields. This year's foreign service examination result shows 60 percent of the people passed the exam are women. This social shift occasionally created a weird scene like a charming lady with a lucrative job demands an expensive meal on a date to an unemployed man struggling to make ends meet or a situation of the responsibility and financial burden heaped on the husband for the sake of tradition even though the wife is earning more money. The anger from more of the financial stress and less of the privilege drove males into taking a violent actions. A blogger Nofta0907 commented that keyboard warriors are venting their angers to young women to release their stress and remorse.

젊은 여성은 언제나 이슈의 초점이 된다. 때로는 누군가의 의도된 상업화의 산물로, 때로는 분노의 대상으로, 때로는 누리꾼의 자발적 액션으로 세상에 드러난다. 그런데 왜 유독 젊은 여성에게만 인권해체를 강요할까. 하나, 젊은 여성에게는 이슈의 좋고 나쁨에 따라 상관없이 클릭수를 높일 수 있는 상업성이 있다. 둘, 현실에서 좌절된 욕망을 넷에서나마 풀어야 한다.셋. 만만하니까… 넷. 너의 부도덕성과 허영심을 한껏 꾸짖으면서 나에게 주어진 루저스런 삶을 잊고자 한다.

Young women always become a target issue. They become a subject of commercialization sometimes, a subject for anger ventilation the other times and get revealed (in public) by the netizen’s voluntary actions. But why it is non other the women's human rights that are forced to be dismantled? First, People will click more when a story has young women on it, regardless of the value of the issue. Second, they need to unleash their turned-down desire over the web… Third, young women are an easy target…Fourth, you can momentarily forget how pathetic your life is while upbraiding them for their immorality and extravagance.

A blogger Ooljiana commented that the huge discrepancy between women's expectation from the men and the male's actual ability to make money under the current economic crisis is the cause of the internet terror attack on young women.

그런데 왜 하필 ‘00녀’일까? 흉악범죄는 남성들이 훨씬 많이 저지른다. 권력을 쥐고 나라를 이 지경으로 만든 것도 남성들이다. 하지만 주기적으로 공분의 대상이 되는 건 젊은 여성들이다…무한경쟁 속에서 남성의 처지가 점점 궁하고 다급해지는데, 남성에게 원하는 것은 점점 많아지는 여성들에 대한 원망이다. (…한국여성들은 돈을 안 내고, 남자의 외모와 재산을 따지고, 자기만 안다는 내용이었다…) 김옥빈이 아직까지 비호감녀로 찍혀있는 것은 할인카드 발언 때문인데, 그것은 남성들의 경제력이라는 역린을 건드렸다. 남성들의 외모 콤플렉스를 건드린 루저녀도 역시 매장 대상으로 찍혔다…(물론 남성들에게 즐거움을 주지 못하는 ‘오크녀’도 씹어 돌리는 대상이다.)

But why it is always ‘a girl’? Statistically more heavy crimes are committed by men than women. Those people who dragged our country into this quagmire with the power they have are men. However, it is the young women who became a frequent subject of vented anger… Under current situation where the individuals face the competition to the infinity, men are drastically losing their high grounds and getting more desperate. However, women want more from men and that drew men's complaints. (…Korean women never pays, judge people by their looks and money and only care about themselves…) Kim Ok bin was stigmatized as the unaffable character because of her comment on men using a discount card (coupon) (on a date) which ticked off men. The ‘Loser girl’ poked men’s complex on their looks and also been stigmatized as something needs to be socially ostracized…(Of course, another victims are the ‘orc girl’ who cannot please the men)

What is aggravating the situation is the society's obsession with looks, a criteria that only used on women are now judging men. A blogger Hellobit who jokingly introduced himself as a tall, thereby a winner guy, commented that Korean society's distorted culture of discriminating people by their appearance are the one that should be criticized.

키 작은 사람을 루저로 만드는게 그녀만의 잘못인지 난 잘 모르겠음. (참고로 말하자면 난 키 183cm의 위너다) 정상적인 사회 생활하면서 상대방을 키 가지고 안갈궈 본사람 진짜 손들어보라고 말하고 싶다…그리고 ‘키'를 가지고 그런 유머를 사용하는 것도 정말 일/상/적 이다…정리하자면 루저녀의 루저 발언은 그냥 정말로 ‘식상한’ 개그코드를 매우 자극적이고 센세이셔널하게 조미료를 쳐서 TV 방송에 떡하니 띄운 것에 불과하다. 물론 이런 식의 개그가 ‘식상하고’ ‘일반적'이라고 해서 정치적으로 옳은 것은 아니다. 나도 그런 개그를 치면서 낄낄대면서 뭔가 아니다 싶다는 생각을 할때도 있었고, 이번 이야기를 들으면서 문제는 문제다라고 생각은 했다. 근데 그건 그 루저녀가 문제라는게 아니라, 1)사람의 선천적 외모가 사람을 평가하는 주요한 대상이되는 점 2)상대방을 깔아뭉개는 개그가 오늘날의 메인 개그코드인 점이 문제인 것이다.

I don’t think it is solely her fault of treating a short guy a loser. (fyi, I am 183 cm(6 feet) tall winner guy) Raise your hand if you haven’t made fun of anyone with their heights in your life… Making a joke with someone’s height is so commonly done in everyday life…(The loser girl's comment) is basically a cliché joke but it was made quite provocative and sensational by the broadcast's spicing up of it. Of course the joke being ‘cliché’ and ‘common’ do not politically justify it. Even though I may laugh at this joke, I cannot help but feel something is wrong with it and the inappropriateness remains as it is. But it is not the ‘loser girl’s’ fault. What to blame is 1) people’s appearance becoming a main criteria in evaluating a human being and 2) current’s joke pattern that draws laugh by harshly humiliating others.

The rapidly changing society poses both threats and the opportunity to both sexes. The keyboard warriors can take the high road of venting their anger by making reasonable criticisms on current issues or take a slippery slope of witch huntings that will shrink the remaining highground where they were standing on.

6 comments

  • ElenoreRae

    Has it not always been the case, that when men feel that their power is being threated the blame almost automatically falls on the woman. So they suppress us (women) in order to garner as false sense of masculinity.

    Perhaps the focus should be on their own self improvement and lifting up and supporting women, and vise versa that way they can move forward and strengthen their society as a whole.

  • […] is notorious for its increasing internet vigilantism, but until I read this report at Global Voices by Lee Yoo-eun, I’d completely overlooked the gender component to it; in […]

  • João Doe

    I agree that the nuisance of the Sex and the City Girls may be a gender issue. I think, however, that the kitten murderer issue was motivated more by the fact that a cat was murdered than the fact that the murderer was a girl.

  • Seri

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis and astute observations… Indeed, I think the Korean male is feeling threatened. Hopefully, this sentiment will dissipate after a generation or so.

  • […] her dog on the subway…was told to…ignored it…and somebody posted their images online. It went viral in Korea (and I actually read about it when I was living on Guam from several Korean friends) and […]

  • […] to hold both governments and technology companies accountable for internet freedom (Read more on “Dog Poop Girl”and South Korean online vigilantism). By Georgia Popplewell (CC-BY-NC-SA […]

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