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23 Jun 2024 3:25
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  •   Home > News > International

    In South Korea thousands of young people have become recluses, shutting themselves away from society

    Almost a quarter of a million South Koreans have withdrawn from the outside world. Meet two of them.

    Folded in tightly among the laundry, Wren Jun lived in his walk-in-wardrobe for three months.  

    Wren, who was 14 at the time, was living in confinement by choice. 

    "It was comforting," he told the ABC from his home in Gyeonggi, South Korea.  

    "I was away from the world. At that point, the world was too much for me, so I had to shut myself away." 

    Wren, now 22, is one of an estimated 240,000 South Koreans between the ages of 19 to 34 living in extreme social isolation, according to a recent government survey.  

    Although there's no formal name for the phenomenon in South Korea, in neighbouring Japan it is known as "hikikomori", translated to "shut-ins" in English. ? 

    Weary and withdrawn, South Korea's recluses do not engage with society; some don't leave their homes for months or even years.  

    For Wren, it all began in his early teenage years.  

    A thread of emotional insecurities and strict parenting left him feeling like he wasn't the son his father wanted.   

    "My mind and body shut down," he said.

    "I felt nothing. I was completely at my worst."  

    Faking stomach aches to avoid school, he gradually retreated into solitude, and only made it to grade six at school.

    Fast forward to today and Wren no longer lives in a wardrobe, but his reclusion still dominates his life — and he's still captive to the four walls of his house.  

    "I didn't feel the need to go out, and still don't now," he said.

    "It's my own decision." 

    'I felt like a bug' 

    Kim Cho-Rong has also lived in reclusion.  

    She spent eight years withdrawn from society during high school and college.    

    Cocooned in her bedroom, she spent her days sleeping, watching YouTube and avoiding social interactions.  

    "Sometimes I felt like a bug that slept all day," Cho-Rong said.  

    "If you touch a bug, it moves. And I was like that, I would react to touch.

    "But if nothing happened, I would just sleep all day long and wouldn't move at all."

    Now 31, Cho-Rong said her reclusion was a product of childhood poverty, domestic violence and depression.   

    "We didn't have enough money because we were running from debt collectors," she said.

    "My father went into a lot of debt during the Asian Financial Crisis. 

    "But the thing that influenced my reclusion most was depression from the domestic violence. It wasn't a very safe childhood." 

    A generational issue  

    Kim Seonga is an associate research fellow at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs and a co-researcher for the government survey exploring the issue.  

    Dr Kim, who has been researching the area since 2021, said many young people were struggling to transition into adulthood, making them vulnerable to social isolation.   

    "A lot of young adults are having trouble settling down as independent individuals all over the world," she said. 

    "But we do not know exactly how widespread reclusion is beyond the Asian region." 

    Describing reclusion as "context-specific", Dr Kim said the issue in her country was driven by a competitive job market, high cultural expectations and, in some instances, unresolved personal trauma.

    "The most important cause is the lack of a social role," she said.  

    "Even if reclusive youth submit hundreds of resumes, it is very difficult to get a decent and stable job.

    "Since they have nothing to do and nowhere to go, they stay at home and become isolated." 

    Associate Professor Jo Elfving-Hwang from the Korea Research and Engagement Centre of Western Australia agreed, citing economic pressures as a major stress factor for young people.   

    She said fixed-term contracts and low-paid jobs contributed to a sense of insecurity.  

    "Korea has got a very highly educated young labour force," Dr Elfving-Hwang said.  

    "[They] would like to find jobs that match their educational level, and there just aren't enough ongoing job opportunities." 

    Dr Elfving-Hwang said immense cultural pressure to succeed had created a competitive environment where it was "quite easy to fail". 

    "We do see that in Australia too, of course," she said.

    "But I think in Korea, a lot of young people feel more stressed about it because there is less acceptance of failure."  

    'The outside is so terrifying' 

    Wren has spent the past seven years trying to re-enter society.

    But despite trying different kinds of therapies and medications, he still struggles with the thought of interacting with other people.      

    "The outside world is so terrifying, and it is so unfamiliar," he said.  

    Wren thinks greater understanding about reclusion could help people like him leave the house and build social connections.  

    Awareness has gradually increased through the emergence of specialist support organisations.   

    One of those, Not Scary, is where Wren applied to live in a short-stay share house with other reclusive youth.  

    It was there he met Cho-Rong.

    Although Wren left the program early, he found comfort in knowing where to get help and hopes to one day re-enter society.  

    "Maybe when I'm ready, I can go do it." 

    Having recovered from reclusion, Cho-Rong now works at Not Scary.   

    Paid work was previously unimaginable to her. 

    She learned about her experience and built connections with like-minded people.

    "I found out that I was in reclusion, before then, I didn't even know that term."  

    Reclusive support programs have a role to play in addressing the issue, according to Dr Kim.  

    However, she said a broader social approach was needed to remove the stigma and support reclusive youth. 

    "The most important way to support them to recover and reintegrate into society is through social acceptance."  

    Dr Kim said reclusion should be understood as a temporary life stage rather than a deviant identity, the latter of which she said "stays and sticks".   

    "When we get a cold, we take medicine, when we become socially isolated, we need to recover and reconnect with others," she said.  

    "We shouldn't stigmatise these young adults as potential criminals or failures. 

    "We must be willing to understand and accept them as members of society." 

    Not a secret to be 'hidden' 

    Cho-Rong understands the challenges of recovery. 

    Having relapsed into reclusion during college, she's undergone the process twice.  

    She said getting help for her depression was a turning point in her recovery.  

    She believes specialist reclusion programs play a crucial role and is calling for long-term government funding.

    South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family told the ABC initiatives were underway to address the issue.

    Vice Minister Shin Young-Sook said these included out-of-school support programs, public awareness campaigns, and restaurant vouchers aimed at encouraging youth to go out.

    For Cho-Rong, reclusion, at its core, is about human connection and belonging.

    "We hope that more people will realise that their stories are not just a secret that should be hidden," she said. 

    "By doing so, I hope that the atmosphere of Korean society will ultimately change to a culture that does not find such stories difficult."  


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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