His entire life, Sung-june Park said, he’d been a “good boy.” He’d borne the grinding pressures of school and university without complaint and landed a prestigious job at one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates. Then, it hit him: he was facing 30 more years of the same thing. Condescending boss after boss, being shuffled into retirement at 50 — perhaps into elder poverty and precarious casual work. His future loomed, predictable and unappealing. 

“I was just doing exactly what I was told to do. There was no chance to take any initiatives and express myself,” Park told Rest of World. 

So Park quit, and eventually allowed a childhood friend to lure him into joining the software-as-a-service (SaaS) startup Business Canvas. The company’s casual, collegial office culture prides itself on its horizontal structure. Park jokes that, at 32, he’s the old guy in the room.

Many Koreans consider Park’s experience at the conglomerate — the long hours, suffocating hierarchy, and monotonous tasks — as part and parcel of a professional career. Gapjil, the Korean word for authoritarian, toxic relationship dynamics, is embedded in the culture of the country’s industrial giants: Samsung, LG, Hyundai. Even the newer South Korean giants, sprawling internet companies like Naver and Kakao, claim they have to maintain a harsh work culture in order to keep pace with Silicon Valley rivals. But in the past two years, a new group of young tech workers and founders, typically with international experience, has been trying to upend gapjil culture. 

“Together with all the kinds of [discriminatory] frustrations that already existed in Korean society, nobody liked the hierarchical gapjil culture; nobody wanted to be a part of that,” Gloria Lee, board member of nonprofit Girls in Tech Korea and head of partnerships at online recruitment platform Wanted Lab, told Rest of World. “It was just what has always been.”

For decades, Korean corporate culture has been based on asymmetric relations known as gapeul, in which a gap, or superior, oversees an eul, a subordinate, who must generally yield to the gap. That dynamic has given birth to a notorious culture of abuse and harassment. One of its most infamous public displays was the “nut rage” incident of 2014, when the then-vice president of Korean Air abused and assaulted a flight attendant for the way they served nuts and demanded the plane return to the gate.

Gapjil is destructive enough to have its critics in South Korea, yet deep-rooted enough that even a pandemic couldn’t shake its hold. A survey from 2021 showed that over 80% of respondents deemed gapjil to be a serious social problem, while another poll saw 95% of office-employee respondents express relief, during Covid-19 restrictions, at not having to attend mandatory, alcohol-soaked meal gatherings — a staple of traditional working life in Korea, often presided over by department or company heads.

“Nobody liked the hierarchical gapjil culture. … It was just what has always been.”

Internet giants Naver (frequently referred to as South Korea’s Google) and Kakao (which offers everything from fintech to messaging) have been dogged for years by scandals around authoritarian management and excessive workloads. Last year, a Naver programmer died by suicide, leaving a note that pointed to overwork and workplace abuse; the company’s union said that the programmer’s two-year-long attempt to combat unfair treatment and bullying went unheeded. 

Roughly a decade back, some South Korean tech companies tried to fix workplace dynamics by misguidedly grafting on Silicon Valley practices like open offices, Jonathan Moore, a Seoul-based entrepreneur and advisor to government and startups, told Rest of World.

“It didn’t really change much of the toxicity that existed in the workplace. It was all for looks. I guess these bosses assumed that by just making a small change, it was going to fix things — which it didn’t,” said Moore, who has been working with government agencies and accelerators to develop the Korean startup scene for the better part of the last decade.

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In recent years, though, more young Koreans are moving into entrepreneurship, which is becoming better regarded as a career choice and not a second-class path to lifetime company employment. And a number of new tech startups like Business Canvas, which typically have younger founders, some of whom have studied or worked abroad, are attempting to challenge those workplace dynamics. 

One is Woowa Brothers, the company behind popular delivery app Baedal Minjok. Helmed by founder Kim Bong-jin, who himself was frustrated with the ill-treatment he experienced at a conglomerate company, Woowa preaches “vertical execution, horizontal culture” and says that workers should not be shamed for taking time off. (That’s not always in workers’ favor, as some have complained that fewer working hours entails lower pay.) AI startup Coconut Silo has taken a stand against compulsory company dinners and overtime work as well, according to anonymised entries on the recruitment platform Saramin.

Ji-young Park, the 48-year-old founder of Murepa, a broadcasting equipment R&D startup, took inspiration from American business culture after living in the U.S. for 20 years. Murepa has a four-day work week, says it encourages the ideas of younger staff, and believes in a horizontal culture for fostering creativity. 

Park, whose background is in academia, was first inspired by the collegial relationship between students and faculty as a graduate student at the University of Southern California — a stark contrast to the gapeul culture of Korean faculty. He says that adopting an equal and tolerant office culture isn’t just about the welfare of employees, but a matter of business survival. 

“The firms don’t know about global attitudes, such as how to adapt to climate change or ESG [environmental, social, and governance] issues,” Park said. “They just do the traditional way of business management, but they will eventually fail, if they don’t accept the horizontal way and new ideas.”

At Business Canvas, managers hire employees who are new to the workforce, and are often educated outside South Korea. Their lack of baggage, says company leadership, is crucial in helping develop a genuinely open office culture, in contrast to importing workplace initiatives devised in the U.S. The company offers stock options, and raised all salaries by 10% or more last year. 

“All of these kinds of words, back in the day — they didn’t even really exist, because people didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.”

The open office at Business Canvas is bright, and the walls are covered in posters with quirky, collaborative maxims like, “My time is gold. My teammates’ time is diamond.” 

“I don’t really find [prestige] important,” Joo-heon Lee, a marketer at Business Canvas, told Rest of World. “It’s about being rewarded and satisfied with your own work, rather than just doing what people tell you to do on a repetitive basis. That’s really boring. I completely despise that. My dream job would be for Business Canvas to become like Google.”

The comparison might ring hollow to watchers of the U.S. tech giants. The guiding example for South Korea’s progressive startups remains the likes of Google and Facebook, even though Silicon Valley companies have struggled with their own culture issues in recent years. Clint Yoo, the Business Canvas co-founder and head of business, cites Netflix as an inspiration.

Still, South Korean founders may find it preferable to the gapjil hierarchy. Some longtime observers suggest that dismantling gapjil culture isn’t just about launching alternative startups but instituting change from the top.

Professor Gyu-chang Yu, who has researched changes in Korean business culture at the business school of Hanyang University for more than a decade, argues that large conglomerates must lead by example and that change has to permeate South Korean culture more broadly. Startups might live in a progressive office bubble, he said, but, at the end of the day, they walk out of the door and face a persistently conservative Korean culture.

“[Korean] people respect Fortune 500 companies. [They think:] If they do it, then they must be doing something right. If a startup leads, people are going to be like, Well, who are you? You’re just a startup,” Jonathan Moore said. 

There are glimmers of change at the top. A number of larger companies have recently abandoned hierarchical titles between employees. Traditionally, junior staff call their boss by their title; for example, “CEO” or “Manager,” rather than their name. But even big companies like Samsung and SK are increasingly adopting neutral honorifics that aren’t hierarchy based, or just using English names. 

“People are thinking about things like gender, hierarchy, kkondaejil [condescending behavior by an older person],” said Gloria Lee of Wanted Lab. “All of these kinds of words, back in the day — they didn’t even really exist, because people didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.”

As South Korea’s pandemic restrictions ease and workers return to their office lives, workplace harassment has reportedly increased, according to a Yonhap newswire report. Walking around Seoul, one can see gapjil awareness stickers and banners, urging students and workers to take a stand when faced with abuse from those in power. “Stop the abuse of power and protect the rights of students!” declares one banner. 

Still, Yoo, the Business Canvas co-founder, believes the company is part of a wider zeitgeist. “I don’t think we are that unique. I think there are tons of other organizations within Korea that are, you know, sort of adapting to these new styles of working wholeheartedly,” he said. “And I would say the current generation are the ones that are probably responsible for making that change actually stick.”