The day Kim Hye-min threw up on the job while working as a graphic designer at a small broadcasting firm in Seoul, she was so overwhelmed by stress that it made her sick to her stomach. When a senior co-worker shamed her for being just a few minutes late, it echoed what she had heard from older South Koreans all her life: she wasn’t good enough. At lunchtime, she made a run for the restroom stall.
“The criticisms kept building up,” she says, until she reached the point where she didn’t think she could take it anymore. For 26-year-old Hye-min, as for many young South Koreans, life choices feel forced and fixed — and not like actual choices at all. Many feel so beaten down by the rigid social and professional demands of their country that they refer to it as “Hell Joseon,” a play on Korea’s old dynastic name. The path is especially bleak for young women, who must contend with the nation’s deeply rooted misogyny. Deviation from the mainstream is widely viewed as disobedient and, sometimes, in the eyes of older generations, even unpatriotic.
“It’s something to do with Korean society,” Hye-min says. “There’s only one way to engage in relationships with others, or one type of person who’s considered acceptable. And for people like me, it’s really hard.”
Again and again, her parents would ask her, “Hye-min, why can’t you be like your classmates and study hard and do well? Hye-min, why can’t you be like your peers and hurry to finish university and get a job?”
Hye-min never understood why she should have to rush through a school system that did nothing but judge and rank her, only to find a lifelong position at a company that would do the same. She dropped out of university for a year before transferring, sought out counseling for her battered self-esteem, and quit her job, despite knowing that all of these choices would be looked upon as failures. Perhaps toughest of all, Hye-min knew that, even if she were to achieve “success,” it was unlikely she’d be compensated fairly for it: South Korea’s gender wage gap is the worst in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with men earning, on average, 32.5% more than women.
Her parents would ask, “Hye-min, why can’t you be like other women your age and find a nice man and get married?”
Hye-min, however, has no plans to get married. Nor does she expect to have children. After years of being told she must strive to be a good student, good employee, good wife, and good mother, she eventually decided she no longer wanted to partake in a system that ties her social currency and self-worth to such a punishing status quo. So Hye-min opted out. “Why do I have to continue on, going through these difficulties?” she says. “For what?”
In traditionally collectivist South Korea, individualist loners, or honjok, are becoming increasingly common. The term, which translates to “alone tribe,” shortens and combines 나홀로, meaning “by myself,” and 족, “tribe.” It’s used to describe a group of people who prefer, out of pleasure or practicality — and, often, utter exhaustion and sheer desperation — to live outside of conventional social structures and simply be alone.
What constitutes being “alone” can be fuzzy, but it ultimately comes down to the physical and psychological boundaries one draws around oneself. Honjok might partake in leisure activities alone, maintain a single-person household, avoid a workplace or office setting, limit social circles, abstain from sex or romantic relationships, or reject marriage or children. At its core, honjok culture is about resisting South Korea’s establishment society and putting individual needs and desires above loyalty to hierarchy and authority. But living independently doesn’t automatically make someone honjok, and identifying as honjok doesn’t preclude being part of a community — especially when that community is virtual.
Within South Korea’s hyperactive cyberculture of online forums, blogs, and social media, an entire taxonomy has sprung up to classify, in ever greater detail, various honjok identities and activities. Many honjok are honyeo, or solitary women, and some honyeo, like Hye-min, are bihon, meaning they reject marriage and often child-rearing. There are also 4Bs, who take the ethos even further by rejecting sex and romantic relationships. When honjok eat alone, it’s called honbap, and when they drink alone, it’s honsul. They can also play alone (honnol), which might include traveling alone (honhaeng), going to the movies alone (honyeong), or shopping alone (honsho).
All of this contributes to a booming honconomy. On average, South Korea’s rapidly growing single-household population has more disposable income than those with three to four people. By 2030, the Korean Institute of Industrial Economics and Trade estimates single-household expenditures will reach almost 200 trillion won (about $165 billion) in Korea.
Across the country, companies are cashing in on this lucrative market. Banks offer single-household credit cards. E-commerce platforms list honjok as a stand-alone shopping category, marketing items like tiny washing machines, multipurpose furniture, and one-person settings of dishware. Convenience stores, popular among honjok because of their ubiquitous locations and smaller quantities, put on special promotions and advertise single-serving meals and pouches of alcohol. Food delivery services promote takeout for one. Bars and restaurants promise solo patrons judgment-free service, and honjok-specific establishments set partitioned tables just for them. Specialized karaoke joints feature individual coin-operated booths. Cinemas install single-seat aisles. TV shows like “I Live Alone” and “Drinking Solo” portray honjok life, and news sites like 1conomy News exclusively cover single living.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the concept of honjok first appeared in South Korea, but a Daumsoft analysis shows that the use of terms such as honbap, honsul, and honnol exploded in the first half of the 2010s, going from only 44 total mentions at the beginning of the decade to more than 60,000 in 2016. Over this same period, the rate of smartphone ownership in South Korea rocketed from 14% to over 85%, and on-demand shopping emerged and blended with social media, laying the foundations for today’s cyber-mediated consumer culture. While personal tech adoption has done much to elevate honjok into a national phenomenon, it might also have revealed how many South Koreans were already seeking a way out.
While some honjok embrace the “hon” and truly go it alone, others turn to the “jok,” the tribe of people like them, for support and validation. In communities both online and off, members strive to normalize the honjok life as a sign of modern times — a decision that is sensible and convenient, and if not something to celebrate, then at the very least nothing to be embarrassed about.
That honjok would need or want to look to others while isolating themselves may seem like something of a paradox. Yet, for many young honjok, the appeal lies in partaking in “a sort of shared identity” while under pressure from a status-obsessed country, says Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociology professor at Korea University. “If you don’t meet mainstream standards, you feel ashamed. With honjok, there is a sense of being a member of a group,” which, in some instances, can be as much about safety in numbers as about true solidarity.
Honjok Dot Com, which operates through a website and a Facebook group, is a honjok resource that describes itself as “the best gift for you alone.” Launched by 31-year-old Jang Jae-young, Honjok Dot Com recommends establishments, from barbecue restaurants to tennis courts, that cater to solo patrons, as well as various on-demand services for managing a single household. Writing over email in January, because he could not (or maybe would not) meet in person, Jae-young observed some positive changes in how South Koreans perceive honjok. “Before, this word generally implied a socially awkward person,” he noted, adding that people understand better now that it refers to those “who confidently choose to remain alone and stay happy.” Jae-young is an example of the latter: he has been single and living alone since 2015.
On King of Honjok, a community app with an accompanying website, solitaries post photos of their daily lives, shop the marketplace for honjok wares, and peruse articles like “The trend these days is ‘I live alone!’” and other content created specifically for them. They occasionally meet in person at King of Honjok events. Thirty-four-year-old co-founder Oh Jung-hee, who has been honyeo for the past decade and sees her friends in person two to three times a year, says that, in a society oriented toward families and couples, she started King of Honjok to help voluntary outsiders like her lead better lives. Whether they use it to be “independent alone” or “independent together” is up to them.
But, as one might imagine of a platform for people who prefer to keep their distance from others, there isn’t much interaction on King of Honjok that points to the making of deep relationships. Posts are fun and lighthearted, and comments are fairly generic, offering an occasional Wow! or Cool! or the Korean way of lol-ing, ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ. Jung-hee estimates that, of the community’s roughly 8,000 members, mostly millennial women in Seoul, about half never interact at all.
That’s absolutely fine, she says, because the purpose is simply to be a presence for an often-marginalized population. That sentiment is echoed by 34-year-old YouTuber Kim Min-jung, who runs the channel “1 Person 2 Cats.” Min-jung says her vlogs about her bihon life are meant to encourage women who want to pursue a similar lifestyle but don’t know how. “Society doesn’t view bihon as a type of lifestyle,” she says. “It views it as an unfinished lifestyle.” Other bihon have even showcased their solo marriage ceremonies on social media, in order to inspire women who want to stay single — but still get the wedding gifts.
EMIF, an abbreviation that stands for “Elite without Marriage I am going Forward,” is a network with the aim of telling bihon women that it’s okay for them to choose themselves, including their own careers and goals, over husbands and children. “Korean society thinks that women should sacrifice,” says 31-year-old Kang Han-byeol, a co-director of EMIF. She shared stories of members who were cyberbullied over their decision to be bihon and interrogated at job interviews about whether they planned to have children. In one case, a woman was asked by her hairdresser if she had her boyfriend’s permission to get a haircut. As Han-byeol puts it, “Society tells women, ‘How dare you try to live on your own and be selfish!’” Through its in-person meetings and social media channels, EMIF interacts with existing members and recruits new ones, assuring them that the hostility they encounter is not their fault.
While Hye-min’s parents had always told her that she was the only person who felt the way she did, she suspected that wasn’t true. Surely, there were others like her searching for alternatives. In 2017, around the time she quit her job at the broadcasting company, she started channeling her thoughts into drawings and designs and created a cartoon documenting her struggles. After months of deliberating over whether to post them, she finally decided to do it.
In 2018, Hye-min launched her Instagram account with the handle @nicetoneet and the pseudonym nuguna, meaning “anyone” in Korean. Her first drawing was of a girl curled up in a near-fetal position. There were no captions or hashtags. She hit share and waited for people’s reactions.
“When I finally uploaded, it was a release of all the feelings and thoughts I had inside,” she reflected. “It felt like I was being a whistleblower, like I was telling everyone the truth.” Over time, Hye-min grew more outspoken, with her cartoons addressing society’s incessant questioning about graduation, employment, and marriage. At every step, her protagonist tried to find her own way in the world and not simply do what was expected of her. One post depicted her stopping at a convenience store to buy alcohol to drink at home by herself. Another pictured a battery pack with the words: “The world was quiet and calm when I was alone in my own room. Like an old battery, I spent my energy quickly and charged slowly. I stayed until I was charged, and nobody judged my life. I loved this space and time.”
At first, so many commenters accused Hye-min of being lazy, weak, selfish, and a bad role model that she almost gave up on the project. She also felt a little guilty about it. “I still wasn’t sure if it was okay to live as my own identity,” she says. But within three months, she’d amassed about 20,000 followers, which proved to her that it was.
In 2019, after many months of saving, Hye-min moved out of her parents’ home and got her own studio apartment on a quiet street in a popular student area. The idea of leading a life on her own terms, with her own routines and rituals, came as a relief. Hye-min’s compact 180-square-foot walk-up is on the top floor of an old building, whose best feature is its rooftop. Using the honjok section of an app called Today House, she bought a twin-sized bed that folds up against the wall, a mini microwave, and an air fryer the perfect size for making a meal for one. She painted the walls slate gray, then hung a heart-shaped mirror and cloud-shaped neon light.
Most days, Hye-min fills her time drawing. She now has close to 40,000 followers and has published her webtoons in a two-volume book. When her working day is done, she’ll watch one of her favorite shows, such as “I Live Alone,” or whatever YouTube suggests — usually beauty tutorials and daily vlogs. When Hye-min craves the spark of human energy, she’ll go to a cafe or the cinema or coin karaoke by herself, or will head up to her roof to look out at the surrounding thrum of the city.
That honjok are often relegated to the margins, forced to stand apart from South Korean society, can make it hard to tell whether they are in a position of empowerment or alienation. The economy may welcome loners with open arms, but the public at large still does not. For many honjok, instead of fighting to change society, it’s easier, in the interest of self-preservation, to simply give up on it.
Today, it’s estimated that 1.2 million of 15-to-29-year-olds in South Korea are NEETs — “not in education, employment, or training” — and an increasing number of them, including Hye-min, are adopting the identity voluntarily. More young people than ever before are resigning from jobs after the first year, or leaving the market altogether. In one survey by the National Youth Policy Institute, about 38% of NEETs said they remained unemployed because they were happier that way; in another, roughly as many said it was because they lacked confidence. Regardless, as of March, over 400,000 young people didn’t have work and weren’t looking for it. Even before the pandemic, South Korea’s proportion of unemployed 25-to-29-year-olds topped that of all other OECD countries.
Tech use has been cited as both a cause of and a solution to growing social seclusion: a driver of loneliness and a way for lonely people to seek out community. The reality, of course, is that both can be true. While tech can facilitate interaction, research suggests it shouldn’t become a substitute for socializing, or an excuse to avoid it. For some honjok, however, it can be difficult to prevent this from happening. “If there’s one negative aspect of this whole honjok culture, it’s, if you spend too much time on your own, you become too absorbed in that,” says Kim, the sociologist. He believes that young South Koreans already have some of the worst social skills on the planet and that the more time they spend by themselves, the more their social skills could degrade. Studies indicate that the longer loneliness lasts, the harder it is to escape not only isolation but the correlated risk of fundamental alterations to the brain.
At the same time, critics note that the rise of the honjok phenomenon has coincided with several worrying health and demographic trends. Since 2014, the number of young people in South Korea receiving treatment for depression has nearly doubled. In addition to increasing youth unemployment, the marriage rate and birth rate are at all-time lows. If nothing changes, according to government projections in 2014, South Korea will undergo natural extinction by 2750.
The irony, however, is that South Korea’s economy is now shifting toward the kinds of technologies that support a honjok lifestyle.
Even before the country became the epicenter of Covid-19 outside of China, businesses had been developing a robust digital infrastructure for contactless interactions. This nascent “untact” industry (a combination of “un” and “contact”) enables customers to do things like order food, schedule taxis, make payments, and send gifts, without any human interaction at all. As the pandemic spread earlier this year, South Korea’s untact market soared. Coupang, the country’s version of Amazon, brought in 1.63 trillion won (about $1.4 billion) in February — 190 billion more than the month before. The country’s two major food delivery services, Yogiyo (Here Please) and Baedal Minjok (Delivery Nation), also reported significant increases in orders. More and more restaurants and cafes have replaced flesh-and-blood waitstaff with self-service kiosks and robots.
On a national scale, the government is staking the country’s economic reform and job creation on untact. In May, the president announced the “South Korean New Deal”: a 76-trillion-won (about $67 billion) program focused on investing in technologies that power contactless interactions, including remote work systems, high-speed internet and 5G, and self-driving cars, drones, robots, and other AI initiatives. Such developments underscore the government’s public campaign of “everyday life quarantine” — its vision for a socially distanced future where regulations will be relaxed, but people will still be reminded that they should not go back to their pre-Covid-19 ways. As Kim, the sociologist, puts it: “The government constantly says, ‘You need to practice social distancing.’ They are indirectly saying, ‘Practice the honjok lifestyle.’”
It seems that honjok, even if accidentally, anticipated the kind of contactless society that may soon be the norm. Indeed, for Hye-min, the reality ahead doesn’t look wildly different from life before the pandemic, at least in the day-to-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute sense.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Well, there’s nothing much I can do’ and headed home, watched YouTube videos, read books, and went on my smartphone, as I would normally do,” she says. Many other people were doing the same: after Covid-19 struck, Honjok Dot Com says its site traffic doubled from January to May. It wasn’t until later, when she was talking to a friend on the phone, that Hye-min realized how disruptive Covid-19 has been for those who don’t identify with honjok.
Of course, things have changed for Hye-min too. She worries about community transmission and her parents’ health. She wears masks and sanitizes her hands. At some point, she put a stop to her already infrequent visits to cafes, cinemas, and other crowded public spaces. Yet while the social restrictions were hard for many South Koreans, following them came naturally to Hye-min. She already thought of her space as a sanctuary. And for the foreseeable future, she thinks she’ll be happy staying at home by herself.
Like our stories? Follow Rest of World on Facebook, Twitter (@RestofWorld), and Instagram, and let us know how we’re doing.