In South Korea, fried chicken (colloquially shortened to just “chicken”) is a staple food of the Korean middle class. A 2017 survey found that a majority of respondents ordered yashik (late-night meals) twice or more per week, with chicken, at 78%, the overwhelming favorite choice. In 2015 there were 36,000 chicken restaurants across the country, exceeding the number of McDonald’s restaurants globally.
In popular culture, chicken is worshipped as chineunim, a portmanteau of chicken and haneunim (meaning God). The proliferation of the chineunim meme has spawned various derivations, such as a Ten Commandments of Chineunim, a semi-ironic Church of Chicken, and grotesque images of rooster-heads photoshopped onto icons of Christ. But this image of Chicken Pantocrator is the friendly face concealing a darker story of neoliberalisation and colonisation. In many ways, the story of chicken reveals the story of those left behind by the rapid economic growth often dubbed the “Miracle of the Han River.”
Unlike Western Europe, where the consumption of meat skyrocketed beginning in the late Middle Ages, meat consumption in Korea has traditionally been limited. A lingering culture of Buddhist vegetarianism played a role; Korea is also an overwhelmingly mountainous country, in which arable land accounts for less than a quarter of the total land mass. In the absence of the extravagant resources required for meat production, cattle were used mainly as draught animals. Studies of Korean foodways reflect this, with meat other than fish being rare in traditional cuisine, except among the rich; pork, seafood, and game were more common, though still more often than not reserved for special occasions. To this day raw beef tends to be more expensive in Korea than in other developed nations, and is seen as somewhat of a luxury. It should be noted that Korea’s middle class emerged only recently, largely owing to the state capitalism of dictator Park Chung-hee and the neoliberalisation of dictator Chun Doo-hwan.
It was precisely during this period of neoliberalisation in the 80s, during which Korea opened up for foreign trade and domestic democratic movements were brutally suppressed, that the first chicken franchises began to spring up across the country.
In considering the period of global neoliberalisation in the 80s the soft imperialism of the American food industry is too often ignored, for it was during this time that some of the world’s cheapest and most fattening food products (such as corn syrup) were exported en masse by the US through a combination of free trade agreements and corporate lobbying. The WTO and NAFTA were both weaponised to open up Samoa to turkey tail meat and Mexico to fast food, respectively; today, obesity-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are the leading causes of death in both countries.
Trade agreements have likewise proved a battleground for Korean agriculture and labour. One of the four key preconditions demanded by the US, when it came to renegotiating the 2007 United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, was to reopen Korea to American beef exports following a 2003 ban over fears of mad cow disease. The controversy over American beef ultimately led to one of the largest popular movements of the decade—the 2008 US beef protest—with around 100,000 protestors at its height.
The increased consumption of meat in Korea is thus intricately linked to American neoliberalism and the general Americanisation of Korean culture. Even the proliferation of chicken, though mostly comprised of South Korean chicken franchises today, was initially spearheaded by KFC. Introduced in Korea in 1984, KFC’s spread soon became the first major fried chicken fad in Korea, symbolic of the tastes of the newly-Westernised middle-class youth of Generation X and the so-called “Generation 386” (named after the popular Intel processor, introduced in 1985). Born in the 1960s and 70s, they were the first Koreans to have grown up in the “Miracle of the Han River”, and the first to have been born beyond the Korean War and into a majority urban middle-class society.
Though chicken (and meat generally) represented an aspirational vision of modern economic prosperity until the 80s, it has since come to symbolise the economic condition of the majority middle class. This sentiment is best captured in the mantra popularised by the hit 2019 Korean action comedy Extreme Job—“Chicken is commoners’ food”. The translation is deliberate, for the Korean term used in the film—seomin—describes an ordinary person without any class privileges, and also describes the majority of the populace, including the working and middle classes.
The expansion of the definition of seomin reflects a larger historical trend in Korean class structures since the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis—another pivotal moment in Korean neoliberalism. During the crisis, the South Korean government was granted an IMF bailout on the condition that it undertake major fiscal reforms dictated by the IMF, and so this crisis is now dubbed the IMF Crisis, or, more dramatically, the Day of National Bankruptcy. The IMF instituted a wide array of its characteristic neoliberal reforms, such as austerity, privatisation, deregulation, and union suppression. If the 1980s marked the beginning of South Korea’s neoliberalisation, 1997 marked its completion.
Since then, the Korean middle class has been steadily shrinking, with an increasing portion of the population living in economic insecurity in a country increasingly dominated by the ultra-rich—the infamous chaebol families. Thus, the expansion of seomin marked not the enrichment of the working classes, but the transformation of the middle class into a new class of precariats. The crucial trend is not so much that the middle class has shrunk (though it has), but rather that all but the very rich have become more precarious.
Retirees are synonymous with chicken restaurant owners, according to a popular joke in Korea. In a society with inadequate pension schemes, weak labour laws, and companies that prefer to hire people in their 20s, workers—both white- and blue-collar—often end up without a steady source of income, seeking re-employment as taxi drivers, janitors, or chicken restaurant owners. In 2014 alone, around 9,700 new chicken restaurants, which are widely seen as being relatively cheap to open and in high demand, opened across the nation. The darker reality is that since 2015, more chicken restaurants have closed than opened each year, unable to compete with the brand recognition and price-gouging of mega-franchise operations owned by or connected to larger chaebol corporations. Kyochon, the largest franchise, is currently chaired by a family member of the chairman of Lotte, the fifth largest Korean chaebol, after the former chairman and his family were embroiled a scandal because of their routine physical assaults on employees. BHC, the second largest chicken franchise, is likewise headed by a former manager of Samsung Electronics, part of the foremost chaebol in Korea, whose combined profits add up to more than a quarter of the total Korean GDP.
Despite the allure of chicken as a last resort for struggling middle-class retirees and the unemployed, tragic stories, such as the retiree in his 40s opening another chicken restaurant after his first was forced to close, are becoming ever more common. If chicken in the early neoliberal days of the 80s symbolised the aspirational economic stability of the middle class, today it symbolises a new precarity, demonstrating how even those living in relative comfort now may one day quickly sink into poverty.
Things become more desperate lower down the generations and chains of labour. While retirees are less likely these days to pour their meager severance pay into ill-fated chicken restaurants, younger people in their 20s and 30s have started opening chicken restaurants, now that youth unemployment now exceeds 25%.
Even these would-be entrepreneurs are relatively privileged people with capital, and below them are the majority of those in their 20s who eke out employment as part-time workers—in the case of chicken restaurants, deliverymen. Especially in the almost complete absence of labour unions and bargaining rights, deliverymen are paid minimum wage to deliver chicken and other types of takeout food on motorcycles, and can be fired without reason—for late deliveries, say, or customer dissatisfaction.
Though the tragic ballad of the gig worker is by now ubiquitous in Western capitalist societies, in Korea, this type of labour has long-established, insidious roots in the so-called system of “irregular workers.” A labour designation unique to Korea, irregular work comprises indirect employment, day labour, temporary employment, and gig work. The category, created by the conservative government in 1996, and further solidified, again, by the IMF Crisis of 1997, today comprises 36% of all employment.
As in the West, the rapid adoption of digital delivery services during the 2010s transformed many of these part-time employees into “self-employed” gig workers, managed by faceless AIs that routinely order them to deliver goods in less time than the minimum required by the AIs’ own satellite navigation systems. Adding insult to injury, compensation for accidents and injuries is all but unattainable for gig workers. And motorcycle deliveries are notoriously dangerous, with almost half of all recorded youth workplace deaths being attributed to delivery accidents.
The history of the farmers and meat plant workers producing your delicious late-night chicken is no less disturbing. The aforementioned US-Korea FTA of 2007 marked a significant moment in the history of labour in Korea. An anti-FTA struggle led by unions and farmers took place alongside the more popular US beef protest. At its zenith, the struggle even led to the self-immolation of a union labourer, Heo Se-uk. Despite opposition, however, US beef imports were resumed in 2008, and the renegotiated FTA was signed in 2010.
Both the liberal Roh Mu-hyun administration and the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration that followed were complicit in suppressing union protests and pushing for the FTA. Despite the historical revisionism of the current president Moon Jae-in (a protégé of Roh), it was in fact the liberal government that engaged in the most brutal union suppression, and oversaw a spike in irregular employment.
The impact of the FTA on Korean agricultural labourers was immediate. Unable to compete with cheaper grain and meat from abroad, by 2018 domestic livestock farming had dropped to around a third of 2000 levels, in tandem with the depopulation and effective extinction of rural communities. Though government policy has pretended to address this problem—largely by encouraging younger unemployed workers to become farmers—little has been done to address the systemic issues behind the phenomenon of “provincial extinction.”
Independent agriculture has given way to a large-scale transfer of wealth and land into the hands of conglomerates and corporations, with traditional chaebol companies such as Hyundai and Dongwon as well as newly-consolidated meat conglomerates such as Harim carving up the remaining meat market in Korea. The poultry industry has especially been subject to intense vertical integration, with indebted small farmers essentially forced into sharecropping—large meat conglomerates supply farms with chicks and feed in exchange for the farmers’ labour. More than 90% of Korean meat production has already been consolidated, with the predictable results of unfair and exploitative labour practices, as well as a general decline in hygiene and sanitation standards in farms for the sake of increased efficiency.
Nowadays, chicken takes me back to my childhood in Seoul, and memories of having it with my family on Children’s Day. However, it also reminds me of the things I now find increasingly uncomfortable about Korea—the spectacle of celebrity in the advertising industry; the displacement of Korean culture by Americanisation; the short-lived hopes of a new middle class; monopoly power consolidating in agriculture and in society as a whole; the weak state of unions, and state-sponsored strikebreaking; the plight of precarious wage labourers; youth unemployment; the growing wealth disparity. In a deeply tragic way, chicken is indeed commoners’ food—food for a middle class that emerged during a time of Westernisation and neoliberalisation, and almost immediately subjected to exploitation at the hands of vast conglomerates, all behind an allure of aspirational prosperity.
But then it’s 10pm in Seoul, that awkward time between dinner and sleep. I feel a lingering hunger, and in the harsh glow of the television screen I catch a glimpse of the lead actor from the latest hit k-drama, beaming, holding up a drumstick in its crisp, golden glory—a common sight on Korean television. I pick up the phone, call the restaurant, and utter a prayer. It’s raining outside, and briefly, I fear my deliverance may never arrive. But half an hour later, the doorbell rings. In childlike excitement, I open the door to find the delivery man, motorcycle-helmet-clad and soaked in rain, handing me a warm box of fried chicken (pickled radish and soft drink complimentary).