Inside Ilbe: How South Korea’s angry young men formed a powerful new alt-right movement

Kelly Kasulis/Dean Drobot

Ilbe users are the kind of people who refer to Korean women as “kimchi bitches.” They call Chinese people “cockroaches” and homosexual men “gay bastards.” They’re the trolls who binge-ate pizza to taunt a father on a hunger strike after he lost his child in a ferry accident that killed 325 high school students and teachers — or the ones who defaced memorial posters for the victims.

They’re known for a “deep-seated misogyny” and a hatred of immigrants and sexual minorities, and they’re waging an online war on the political left — a group they call, simply, “commies.”

But this isn’t the white supremacist “alt-right” of the U.S. — it’s a loose group of mostly digitally savvy, ultra-right-wing South Korean men. They congregate in an anonymous, 4chan-esque web forum where they can rant without social repercussions. And like in the U.S., their influence has grown rapidly in just a few short years.

Welcome to the site Ilbe Storehouse, better known as just Ilbe, the hub for South Korea’s new far-right movement. It has risen to prominence in the backdrop of South Korea’s turbulent recent history — deep political divides, a youth unemployment crisis and backlash against liberal social values.

Sound familiar?

For Ilbe’s angry young men, “misogyny is their biggest stance”

“[Ilbe is] a complex social phenomenon with many causes,” Wonjae Lee, a professor at the KAIST Graduate School of Culture and Technology in Seoul, said by phone. “Ilbe is culturally marginal but also morally marginal. They couldn’t find their place in Korean society, but the internet is a place where culturally and morally marginal people can talk about their opinions.”

Those opinions are fairly cut and dry: They hate the political left, women’s rights, the LGBT community, immigrants and anyone they can consider “pro-North Korea.”

An post on Ilbe called “terrible fucking gay bastards” received 456 upvotes. Kelly Kasulis/Mic.com

Ilbe translates to “daily best.” It started around 2009 as a storehouse for abusive content that might’ve gotten deleted on other sites. Ilbe’s base community was already hanging out in an online baseball subgroup on a popular Korean comedy forum called DC Inside, according to Hakjoon Kim, a data analyst in Seoul. Kim has interviewed several Ilbe members and analyzed at least 330,000 of their posts. “They talked about everything — politics, misogynistic things,” he said through a translator. “That’s the origin of Ilbe.”

They hate the political left, women’s rights, the LGBT community, immigrants and anyone they can consider “pro-North Korea.”

Experts know very little about UBH Corp., the mysterious registered owner of Ilbe. Neither do they know how much revenue the site’s ads, many of which feature anime porn, bring in. But today, Ilbe has a sizable audience: In August, it had nearly 30.8 million visits and was the 24th most popular website in all of South Korea, according to SimilarWeb. But Ilbe still represents the political fringes of South Korean society. Publicly endorsing the forum in any way has resulted in extreme social backlash.

This is partly because Ilbe members are known for hate speech against women, which makes up the majority of the site’s content, Kim said.

The popular phrase “kimchi bitch” stereotypes Korean women as vain gold-diggers who cry inequality when it doesn’t exist — like right-wing caricatures of “snowflake” feminist college students in the U.S.

Take this post, which advises others to drink nothing but coffee on a first date. “Let’s not waste money because we don’t know whether she’s a kimchi or not,” it reads.

“They can’t meet girls in reality so they express their anger online. Even love is not easy in Korea,” Kim said, noting that many Ilbe members loathe the idea of paying for women on dates but probably don’t have the money for it, either.

Kim said the Ilbe members he spoke with “deny misogyny” and “say they like women.” What they really mean, he clarified, “is that they like to have sex with them. Misogyny is their biggest stance. That is clear.”

Another post, titled “How to find out if a woman is marriage material,” includes a photo of a man holding a baseball bat. Translated, it roughly reads, “Say whatever to your girlfriend and if she talks back to you in a way you don’t like, then beat her knowing you may wind up in the police station. But if you beat her and she still comes back to you, then I think she’s the right person to marry — if she goes to the police, then she’s not.”

“Historically, this was the solution,” the cartoon on the Ilbe post writes, implying that men should beat women. Mic/Ilbe

Women aren’t the only target. Ilbe users put the political left, immigrants, members of the LGBT community and people with disabilities in their crosshairs.

On Ilbe, “there [are] many comments derogatory to certain countries like Vietnam,” reads a 2013 article in Kyunghyang Shinmun. “They wrote about a plan to rape a 6-year-old ethnic Korean from China and shared their knowledge on how to legally rape a girl along with their experience molesting disabled children.” Users have also reportedly harassed a K-pop star for supporting “sexual minorities.”

“If you beat her and she still comes back to you, then I think she’s the right person to marry — if she goes to the police, then she’s not.”

Like 4chan, Ilbe loves to provoke and get a reaction. Generally, the community revels in political incorrectness: They often call themselves “retards,” just like how people who hang out on 4chan’s “random” /b/ forum call themselves “/b/tards.”

“The primary motivation behind Ilbe is trolling,” Lee said. “And the kind of people who like being a troll, it is likely that they are very lonely people who struggle to connect with people in the offline world. They enjoy that kind of [negative] attention.”

What drives the Korean far-right

Korean journalists have called the alt-right an “American Ilbe.” Yet as analogous as the two seem, Ilbe’s roots are embedded in a unique political history. The site’s rise in popularity is complicated and so is the bigger picture of South Korean politics.

Ilbe is thought to have a majority-male user base, and 35% of all users are between the age of 21 and 25, according to a 2013 internet poll posted on the site. In some ways, that’s how they garnered intrigue from mass media: They were a group of young men who held extreme right-wing views — a space that’s generally occupied by South Korea’s conservative, older generation.

“They’re very different from traditional conservatives,” Kim said. “They are young and highly educated.”

1. There are high rates of joblessness, especially among young people

Rising youth unemployment and economic hardship could be part of Ilbe’s rise. Unemployment rates have been increasing since at least 2012, reaching as high as 11.2% among 15- to 24-year-olds in April.

“[Ilbe users] want power, but they’re weak,” Hakjoon Kim, the data analyst, said. “Most men don’t feel they can have a nice life like their fathers’. A lot of Ilbe members feel economically stuck.”

This translates into rage against Korea’s political left, much of which comprises what’s called the “386 generation.” These people were in their 30s in the 1990s, went to college in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s — hence 3-8-6. They’re known for driving the democracy movement in the 1980s, which railed against oppressive dictatorial presidents who slaughtered protesters, censored the media and tortured college students. Therefore “they are mostly against the central government,” Lee said.

Anti-government protesters from the 386 generation scatter as police hurl gas grenades during a protest on June 14, 1987. Itsuo Inouye/AP
Students of the 386 generation are driven back by tear gas just outside the gate to Yonsei University in Seoul on July 5, 1987. Thousands rallied at the campus after a tear gas canister killed Lee Han-yeol, a fellow student. Bei Yeon-Hong/AP
A young woman — now considered to be part of the 386 generation — stands in a bus window and shows signs for victory in a gesture of support for anti-government demonstrators in Seoul on June 26, 1987. Itsuo Inouye/AP

“The thing is, after their college graduation, it was very easy for them to get a high-salary job,” Lee said. “The 386 were politically the most dissatisfied and the most politically difficult generation, but at the same time, they were the most economically blessed. … So the younger generation views 386 as their enemy in the labor market.”

“[Ilbe users] want power, but they’re weak. Most men don’t feel they can have a nice life like their fathers.” — Hakjoon Kim

2. Right-wing voters elected a corrupt president

Ilbe’s name went mainstream around 2012 during the South Korean presidential race, which ultimately elected a right-wing candidate at a time when many people thought the country would swing left.

Ilbe users expressed “vocal support” for 2012 election’s winner, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of conservative former President Park Chung-hee, a beloved figure among South Korea’s political right. He was a controversial military dictator who brutally cracked down on political opposition and yet helped turn South Korea into a leading world economy. He was assassinated in 1979.

“People conventionally thought that conservatives can’t be young people. Many politicians think that all young, educated people should be liberal,” Kim said. “So it was kind of shocking in 2012 when young guys were mocking the liberal presidential candidate and supporting Park Geun-hye.”

“People conventionally thought that conservatives can’t be young people. Many politicians think that all young, educated people should be liberal.” — Kim

But Park Geun-hye was impeached in March after a high-profile money-laundering scandal. South Korea voted in left-wing president Moon Jae-in as her replacement, which drove an older wave of far-right Park supporters to also join Ilbe, Kim said. Since they no longer have their party in the Blue House, some of them find solace in the bitter threads of Ilbe.

Protesters stage a rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul on Nov. 26. Ahn Young-joon/AP
Protesters rally against impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye near the presidential house in Seoul in December. The signs read, “Arrest Park Geun-hye.” Ahn Young-joon/AP

There are a few important things to understand about Ilbe’s rise and why these two elections matter. One is that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service — which is sort of like the United States’ CIA — illegally influenced the 2012 presidential election by creating an online “smear campaign” with thousands of messages against Park’s political opponent, now-president Moon Jae-in. That campaign is thought to include posts on Ilbe.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service illegally influenced the 2012 presidential election by creating an online “smear campaign” — thought to include posts on Ilbe.

“In a way, Ilbe was established over the last few years, but then people began to organize themselves around Ilbe. And at the same time, political powers supported them secretly,” Lee said.

The other point is that Moon’s election is a very big deal for the political left and the angry political right, which includes Ilbe users on the fringes. Moon is not just any left-wing politician. He was a close friend to former left-wing president and human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun, who is often revered for defending college students tortured by the government under charges of possessing illegal literature in the 1980s. Roh died by suicide in 2009 while under investigation for corruption by right-wing President Lee Myung-bak. Many considered the investigation to be a matter of political revenge, so the event triggered pushback against the political right for years — including the presidential race of 2012 that surprisingly produced a Park Geun-hye victory.

3. Xenophobia runs rampant in South Korea

Immigration is a major talking point on Ilbe, where economic struggle, xenophobia and Korea’s political history are often muddled together into polemic. On Sept. 9, a user created a post called “Park Chung-hee is great,” which included a chart that shows the number of immigrants from various countries increasing in South Korea between 2005 and 2010.

Translated, it roughly reads: “If you leave this breed [the Korean people] alone, then we will be living worse than the Philippines. ... Now, it’s just a matter of time before we go back to that.” In other words, the poster believes that Korean government is ruining the country by allowing immigrants in.

This anti-immigrant post on Ilbe shows the top 12 incoming nationalities in 2005 and 2010. Kelly Kasulis/Ilbe.com

In another post with 252 upvotes, an Ilbe member shared a picture he took showing Chinese travelers lugging their suitcases outside of Incheon International Airport. “Six cockroaches just came out of passenger terminal two and are going to take the bus,” the user wrote. Another responded with, “Get out of Korea, you bastards. Because of [your] human trafficking, drugs, violence, etc., [our] crime rate goes up, you fucking bastards.”

On the left of the post mocking six Chinese travelers, an ad for electronic cigarettes featuring Pepe the Frog appeared on the left. The username is “ilbape,” a combination of the words “ilbe” and “vape.” Kelly Kasulis/Ilbe.com

4. U.S. intervention is controversial

Ilbe is also exploiting longstanding political friction between the U.S., South Korea and North Korea.

Within South Korea, the tension mostly stems from split opinions between the left and the right on how to deal with North Korea: Should South Korea always agree with America’s tactics (the right-wing stance) or “sit in the driver’s seat” (the left-wing stance)?

“Get out of Korea, you bastards. Because of [your] human trafficking, drugs, violence, etc., [our] crime rate goes up, you fucking bastards.”

The tension over North Korea can be taken to violent extremes. In late 2014, an 18-year-old Ilbe user with anti-North Korea views alluded to plans to attack a Korean-American journalist known for her several books on North Korea (because she was supposedly “pro-North”). He later detonated a homemade bomb at the journalist’s talk, injuring three people. Some internet groups set up a fundraising campaign for the attacker, raising at least 13 million won (about $11,500).

On the opposite side, a leftist protester slashed U.S. Ambassador Mark Lippert in the face and arm in 2015, claiming, “South and North Korea should be reunified” and effectively blaming the U.S. for the ongoing division.

South Korean Christian women pray for the speedy recovery of U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert outside the U.S. embassy in Seoul in March 2015. Ahn Young-joon/AP

What does the future hold?

Even though Ilbe and the alt-right have different political pretexts, there are some common denominators. Both are home to majority-male extremist communities and have dominated national headlines. And both groups, despite largely being made up of restless, hate-spewing meme experts, are unlikely to politically organize as a united front (rallies like Unite the Right notwithstanding).

These restless, hate-spewing meme experts are unlikely to politically organize as a united front, experts say.

“The [alt-right] movement is still predominantly internet-based. Yes, we’ve seen — most noticeably in Charlottesville, Virginia — the increased real-world footprint, but the internet is still their main platform,” George Hawley, author of Making Sense of the Alt-Right and an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, said by phone. “Most of the people who consume this material and support these ideas are still anonymous and online, as opposed to joining political organizations.”

As it stands now, Ilbe, too, remains a hoard of disenchanted trolls, exploiting some of the deepest divisions in South Korean society.

“It’s so disgusting, but their coming together doesn’t last as a group,” Kim said. “Ilbe members generally think that gathering as a political organization or even as friends is stupid,” Kim said. “Their main mentality is just extreme individualism.”