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South Korea fears extremist pull on unhappy youths

TOKYO -- The South Korean public closely followed the crisis surrounding the abduction and murder of two Japanese nationals by the Islamic State group in the Middle East.

     The crisis proves that no nation is immune from the threat of the extremist group, warned JoongAng Ilbo, a major South Korean daily, in an editorial on Jan. 26. While the country has seen its own nationals abducted and killed in similar incidents over the years, the problem is now hitting even closer to home: More and more youths, looking to escape South Korea's pressure-cooker society, are being drawn toward Islamic State.

Running away

The extremist group gained much public attention in South Korea just before the recent hostage crisis made headlines. According to South Korean media, an 18-year-old South Korean man identified by authorities only as Kim traveled to Turkey and went missing near the Syrian border in mid-January.

     An analysis of his computer and other devices in his home revealed that Kim frequently accessed sites related to the Islamic State group, which now controls vast swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq. He is believed to have contacted people related to the militants through social media and asked about joining.

     After Kim's disappearance came to light, many other young South Koreans reportedly tried to contact the extremist group. This prompted the Korea Communications Standards Commission, the country's communications watchdog, to block access to online posts related to the group, such as those seeking to recruit fighters.

     Kim reportedly dropped out of middle school and was living in self-imposed seclusion at home before he left for Turkey. While still in South Korea, he is reported to have written on his Facebook page, "I want to live a new life away from this nation and my family."

     This prompted parents to voice concerns that their own children, now shutting themselves away in their rooms, might also be lured to the Middle East.

     Despite working hard from the time they are children, young people in South Korea often struggle to find success and happiness. Late-night cram schools and intense competition to get into the best schools are only the start. Even if they enter a prestigious university, a position at a prestigious company is far from guaranteed.

     Once employed, new anxieties arise. Workers at many large companies live in fear of being pushed into early retirement, a practice known as "honorable retirement," which often happens in their late 30s.

     To escape this stress, many young South Koreans spend hours playing video games or on social media. Cases of Internet addiction are on the rise, posing an array of new social problems for the nation. A recent column in Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, questioned whether the country has a "healthy society" in which people are able to reject radical ideas.

Risky business

For most South Koreans, however, it is employment, not extremism, that takes them abroad. According to a 2013 survey by the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were some 7.01 million South Korean nationals living overseas, a disproportionately high number given the country's population of approximately 50 million.

     Some 25,000 of them live in the Middle East, about four times more than the 6,400 in 2007. A major reason for this is the aggressive foreign direct investment by South Korean companies, which have been particularly active in infrastructure development, the petrochemical industry and other sectors in the Middle East.

     According to JoongAng Ilbo, a total of 65 South Korean nationals were abducted in the Middle East and parts of Africa from 2003 to February 2014.

     In one case in 2004, a man was killed by Islamic militants in Iraq. In 2007, 23 Christian volunteers were abducted and two of them killed in Afghanistan.

     Each of these incidents received extensive coverage in the South Korean media, leaving many in the nation concerned about the safety of their compatriots living abroad.

     A reporter working for a South Korean media organization said many people in the country feel they, too, are affected by the current hostage situation, given their country's recent experiences. The reporter added that the South Korean public is paying close attention to how the Japanese government is dealing with the fallout from the hostage crisis.

Masanori Yamakuchi is a former Nikkei Seoul bureau chief.

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