Inside “Ilbe”: What Exactly Is This Korean Website And Why Has It Become So Problematic?
The website “Ilbe“ (or Ilbe Storehouse/Ilbe Garage in full) stands for “ilgan best” meaning daily best. And it is now considered one of the most problematic online community websites to exist in South Korea. Constantly involved in scandals across political, educational, and even entertainment industries, the Ilbe community has been identified by Koreans as “far-right, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBT.”
Has it always been problematic, though? No, not really. The original ilbe.com started off merely as what the name suggests: A storehouse. So here’s how, in the span of a decade, Ilbe has “risen to prominence in the backdrop of South Korea’s turbulent recent history” and fallen.
Ilbe came from another community website called DC Inside. Dcinside.com started off as a forum for photography enthusiasts (DC being short for Digital Camera). It offered a virtual gallery space where users could post their works and exchange information regarding their artistic interests. By the early 2000s, the said gallery boomed—leading the website to open up more galleries for other communities like sports, games, and comedy enthusiasts. All of these galleries thrived, especially with the advancement of South Korean internet service, pushing DC Inside to become the largest community website in the nation.
Around 2005, DC Inside began offering a section called “ilgan best posts” (or, at the time, more often referred to as “ilbe posts”), which showcased the galleries’ top posts on the daily. Similar to how the present-day Twitter Trending works, each gallery maintained its own list of ilbe posts, updated regularly to reflect content with the highest engagement.
While most galleries and their ilbe posts had been harmless, the same could not be said about the “Comedy Program Gallery” (or Co-Gal, for short). By 2007, the Co-Gal had grown noticeably vulgar, with trolls circulating the most scandalous and harmful content online—like NSFW memes, photoshopped celebrity pictures, and unverified rumors.
Hence, any posts coming from the Co-Gal risked getting flagged and deleted almost immediately after landing a spot on the list of ilbe posts. To save these posts elsewhere before the originals disappeared, one user from the Co-Gal by the username of “moemyeongsu” launched the “Ilbe Storehouse,” the very first version of www.ilbe.com, founded in July 2009.
Any DC Inside users who found entertainment in such quickly-deleted posts gradually migrated to Ilbe Storehouse. In addition, the political turbulence in the country at the time unexpectedly played a crucial role in the migration of users.
In 2008, following the nationwide protest against the South Korean government’s lift of the ban on importing American beef (which had been in effect since 2003 when the US reported its first case of BSE [mad cow disease] in Washington state, Korea began to see a slight shift in internet culture. Prior to the protest, “right-wing supporters were mostly disregarded or criticized because most South Korean websites were dominated by left-wing websites and users.” After the protest, however, these right-wing supporters started to express their opinions online. Ilbe Storehouse quickly became a “safe haven” where the users could “get a laugh out of poking fun at the left-wing.”
Still, while the content forwarded to Ilbe Storehouse may have been controversial (and/or politically incorrect), the website itself—as an archive—had not been considered extremely problematic.
In April 2010, moemyeongsu shut down Ilbe Storehouse. Another DC Inside user, by the username of “SAD,” then created a second version of the archive website called the “Ilbe Garage.”Under what is basically the same name, Ilbe Garage also served as an archiving website for DC Inside posts; though this version of the website does mark the beginnings of www.ilbe.com as Koreans see it today.
By November 2010, SAD stepped down from the administrator role and appointed two of the website’s most active users to take over running Ilbe Garage. In 2011, after one of the two appointed users enlisted in the military and became unavailable, the remaining user “saechimbukkeu” became the head of Ilbe Garage.
It is saechimbukkeu who dawned a new era on Ilbe Garage by cutting ties with DC Inside and putting a stop to archiving the ilgan best posts. As the new sole administrator, saechimbukkeu hired monitoring, technical support, and customer service staff to streamline the operation of Ilbe Garage and eventually established it as its own independent community website.
At this point, Ilbe Garage officially began using the now-notorious URL at www.ilbe.com. On February 15, 2011, a person named Michael Park (whose identity is completely veiled to this day) obtained the domain from its previous corporate owner in New Jersey, US. After having been inactive from August 2000 to January 2011, www.ilbe.com finally became home to Ilbe Garage.
And it is around this time when the most aggressive users congregated in ilbe.com. As mentioned, the community had already consisted of heavily right-wing users but its re-establishment as an independent “anonymous, 4chan-esque web forum where they can rant without social repercussions” really fueled the growth.
Note that the South Korean government had been particularly troubled in the early 2010s. In 2010 alone, South Korea faced intense confrontations with North Korea after surviving two military attacks: One on the ROKS Cheonan warship (sunk by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 men) and the other on the residential Yeonpyeong Island (bombarded by North Korean artillery shells and rockets killing both military and civilian occupants). A vast number of South Korean right-wingers blamed these provocations on the former liberal presidents’ unnecessarily generous peacemaking campaigns with the North.
Under the reign of saechimbukkeu, these users began proudly displaying their “far-right” political stance—in addition to their “deep-seated misogyny [as well as] a hatred of immigrants, sexual minorities, and the political left.” As an independent community where users could now directly upload content, Ilbe became “a place where culturally and morally marginal people [could] talk about their opinions.”
[Ilbe is] a complex social phenomenon with many causes. The Ilbe [community] 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.
— Professor Lee Won Jae, KAIST Graduate School of Culture and Technology
By 2012, Ilbe was budding with popularity with over one million registered users. With “a majority-male user base, 35% of all between the age of 21 and 25,” Ilbe proved to be the new frontier for South Korean men on the political far-right.
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 an 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.
— Journalist Kelly Kasulis, MIC 2017
Together, these young men spewed hatred on “women’s rights, the LGBT community, immigrants and anyone they can consider “pro-North Korea,” along with the alleged failures of the former liberal presidents.
Ironically though, during the South Korean presidential election on December 19, 2012, these men used their not-so-subtle presence online to basically carry the right-wing candidate into the presidency. Reportedly, the Ilbe community participated in a smear campaign, manipulating the online sentiment toward the two running candidates by upvoting all positive articles on the conservative party’s Park Geun Hye and downvoting and/or reporting the ones about the opposing party’s Moon Jae In.
People conventionally thought that conservatives can’t be young people. Many politicians think that all young, educated people should be liberal. So it was kind of shocking in 2012 when young guys were mocking the liberal presidential candidate and supporting Park Geun Hye.
— Data Analyst Kim Hak Joon via MIC
After “ultimately [electing] a right-wing candidate at a time when many thought the country would swing left,“ the Ilbe community reached peak chauvinism—or “the unreasonable belief in the superiority of the group who are seen as strong and virtuous, while others are considered weak, unworthy, or inferior, as a form of extreme patriotism and nationalism.”
According to the Korea Times, 30.7 million people voted with a turnout of 75.8%. Park Geun Hye of the Saenuri (conservative) party was elected the first female South Korean president with 51.6% of the vote… Park’s share of the vote was the highest won by any candidate since the beginning of free and fair direct elections in 1987.
Well into the mid-2010s, Ilbe grew explosively in size. In 2015, the community saw over two million registered users. By September 2016, Ilbe had “over 20,000 viewers at peak hours. Even in the mornings, when the number of viewers was minimal, the concurrent views exceeded 10,000”—and, apparently, these numbers didn’t even include mobile users.
And having become that sizable, Ilbe “went mainstream” by vocalizing their unfiltered hatred even more openly as “representatives of the political fringes of South Korean society.” The users began redacting official logos of big name universities, government organizations, and conglomerates to hint the idea that “Ilbe [ideal] is everywhere.” Seeing the scandalous direction the community had taken, DC Inside completely removed the ilgan best post feature by 2015, in an obvious attempt to become unassociated with Ilbe.
Ilbe [users] think they have fulfilled their duties and responsibilities ‘fiercely and quietly.’ This leads them to think of women and minorities―who receive benefits from the country―as freeloaders or second-rate citizens who are given more than they deserve.
They create their unique ‘nothing special’ narrative. They claim the suffering (of minorities and women) are ‘nothing special’ and nullify it. They regard anyone who complains of it as inferior, which places them as the victor, or the elite.
— Data Analyst Kim Hak Joon via The Korea Herald
One of the most frequent targets of their fierce mockery includes the late Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea’s 16th liberal president, who took his own life after a bribery accusation led to some high-profile investigations that attracted national attention. Ilbe users have been ridiculing this former president’s suicide death with disrespectful verbiage and memes—even to this day.
The “No-Che,” or the particular language of ending sentences in “-no” (-노, using the Korean pronunciation of the late Roh Moo Hyun’s last name) is one of the most prominent and widely-known forms of mockery. While ending sentences in “-no” is actually quite common among the spoken dialects from the cities of the southeast province of Gyeongsangdo, the Ilbe “-no” has become rampant among the online posts from the community. That being said, this way of speaking’s association with Ilbe and its newly politicized meaning have made Gyeongsang Province residents hyperaware of their dialects.
The Ilbe community also targets those affected by the 2014 Sinking of the Sewol Ferry—a disaster which killed 304 passengers, most of them being Danwon High School students. When the disaster sparked a “widespread social and political reaction within South Korea” calling out former president Park Geun Hye and her administration’s failure to respond adequately, Ilbe users retaliated by mocking the victims and families and demanding proper investigations into what happened and reparations from the responsible government. The community’s first “offline event” took place at the public hunger strike held by the parents of the victims. Over a hundred Ilbe users showed up to “binge eat” in front of the protesters.
In January 2015, via a post titled “I Have Eaten My Friends,” an Ilbe user in his 20s uploaded a picture of himself in the Danwon High School uniform, eating eomuk (fish cakes) and holding up the Ilbe hand sign. The post, implying that “the eomuk had been made out of the fish which fed off the lost bodies of the two students that the families have not been able to retrieve since the disaster,” was quickly disseminated on social media. After inciting a public outcry over the abominable post, the user got arrested on contempt and defamation charges.
As a result of their ceaseless disrespect and harassment toward women and minorities, “publicly endorsing [Ilbe] in any way sparked extreme social backlash.” The community itself, however, took pride in being a part of the commotion. In a vicious circle of trolling, getting attention, feeling superior, and falling deeper into the “elite minority” point of view, Ilbe users became completely deranged and started to circulate more violent, aggressive, and hateful content.
Ilbe.com became a breeding ground for all kinds of problematic posts, including but not limited to hate speech, racism, sexual harassment and/or assault, circulation of nudes taken without consent, hacking attacks, and even death threats. By 2017, the website’s existence became well-recognized as a social evil.
The primary motivation behind Ilbe is trolling. 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.
— Professor Lee Won Jae, KAIST Graduate School of Culture and Technology
Ilbe started falling apart around 2017, with the impeachment of former president Park Geun Hye. After being found guilty of abuse of power and coercion, Park Geun Hye was sentenced to 22 years and a fine of ₩21.5 billion KRW (about $18.1 million USD). At this point, the conservative right-wing in Korea completely lost ground. Subsequently, the amount of enthusiasm and influence that the right-wing supporters used to wield became greatly diminished.
The enthusiasm among Ilbe users dipped too, with the website daily views going from 700,000 in September to 520,000 in December. Concurrent views at peak hours dropped back to 10,000 views.
Attempts to shut down the website have been made. By 2018, the Moon Jae In administration responded to a Blue House Petition with over 235K signatures demanding the community be wiped off the internet. In a video response, the Blue House Legal Secretary Kim Hyung Yeon shared that “according to the Information and Communications Network Act, it is possible to shut down entire websites should they be illegal in nature (with 70% or more posts being against the rules laid out by the Korea Communications Commission).”
However, the actual process of shutting down a website does not happen overnight and needs fair and thorough review, no matter how controversial.
There is a shut down process for any websites used in illegal online activities. The Korea Communications Commissions (KCC) can delete any posts that are deemed illegal in nature, such as pornographic and gambling-related posts. Criminal lawsuits can be filed against the original posters, too. The KCC has a zero tolerance policy on illegal posts and websites.
That being said, www.ilbe.com has received the most sanctions for illegal posts in the past five years. This particular website has seen the highest number of individual posts removed for their violation(s) of the Information and Communications Network Act every single year since 2013 except in 2016…
While this nation guarantees freedom of media, press, and speech for all citizens by constitution, it also has laws in place to protect its citizens from illegal communications, false information, and hate and discrimination.
— Blue House Legal Secretary Kim Hyung Yeon
In recent years, the Ilbe community has somewhat disintegrated and the website, though still standing, barely remains as “a hoard of disenchanted trolls.”
[They’re] so disgusting, but their coming together doesn’t last as a group. Ilbe members generally think that gathering as a political organization or even as friends is stupid. Their main mentality is just extreme individualism.
— Data Analyst Kim Hak Joon via MIC
The waning of www.ilbe.com does not necessarily mean, however, the end of the war on trolls for South Korea. Since 2020, YouTube has rapidly taken over as an alternative platform for the scattered you right-wing men, both Ilbe and non-Ilbe. And these readily accessible videos have been spreading some “extremely conservative outlooks,” including the biased views against women.
YouTube is open to anyone, and if you watch one, you are automatically exposed to more and more of such videos via the YouTube algorithm. It’s easy to come across them because these YouTubers aggressively link every trending news topic with their content in real time.
— Secretary General Kim Aeon Kyung at Citizens’ Coalition for Democratic Media via The Korea Times
Hundreds of thousands of young Korean male viewers, including teenagers whose social media usage revolve more heavily around video content, already access content that is inevitably Ilbe-like and “spiked with deliberate disinformation and misleading analogies.” And as bigger, smarter, and faster space, YouTube is turning out to be a “much more potent tool than Ilbe.”
This makes the internet a key tool in contributing to rising conservatism among young, technologically literate men in South Korea, nurturing their views in the absence of consequence or alternative discourse.
— Stella Finlay and Dr. Jay Song at the University of Melbourne
What does the future hold, then? While the conflict deepens, experts in political studies believe only the upcoming South Korean presidential election in 2022 will determine “what development towards gender equality will look like and whether this conservative leaning will continue in future generations of the country’s young men.”
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