Photographers capture the rise of South Korea's 'loner' culture

In a striking image by Korean photographer Nina Ahn, a solitary figure stands by a window, street lights glimmering around her. Another shows a woman in her 20s sitting alone on a guardrail beside an empty highway in Seoul.

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Stella Ko (CNN)
(CNN) — In a striking image by Korean photographer Nina Ahn, a solitary figure stands by a window, street lights glimmering around her. Another shows a woman in her 20s sitting alone on a guardrail beside an empty highway in Seoul.

The photographs are intended to capture the loneliness of South Korea's youth -- specifically a subculture referred to as "honjok," a neologism combining the words "hon" (alone) and "jok" (tribe).

The term is often used to describe a generation that embraces solitude and independence, reflecting the country's growing number of single-person households and changing attitudes towards romance, marriage and family.

"It's a sense of giving up," Ahn said in a phone interview from Seoul. "We live in a generation where simply working hard for a bright future doesn't guarantee happiness, so why not invest in 'me' time?

"The fact that my photos carry a sentiment of dreariness means that (it) is the face of the current generation."

Photographer Hasisi Park also explores isolation among young South Koreans in her work. She often depicts her subjects as powerless beings in the great wilderness or society at large.

Park, who is also based in Seoul, attributes the rise of "honjok" to the social pressures of the modern age, namely limited opportunities to interact with others and a lack of time to dedicate to oneself.

"The society we live in can be very unstable, and I think young people don't want to be compromised anymore," she said in an email interview.

Redefining the family

There were over 5 million single-person households in South Korea as of 2016, accounting for almost 28% of the population, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service. For Michael Breen, author of the book "The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation," this development is at odds with the historical traditions of Korean society.

"I think it is a natural consequence of democracy and economic development," he said in a phone interview. "In a lot of Asian societies, individual interests and rights have been subordinated to those of family or group organizations. But the longer you exist with democracy the more their values would become individualistic over collective.

"When I first came to Korea in the '70s, every Korean I knew had five or six siblings, and they all came from large families," Breen added. "You would usually see a lot of relatives living in the same village."

But a growing middle class, coupled with government efforts to promote family planning, has contributed to a dramatic drop in the country's fertility rate -- from 6.1 births per woman in 1960 to just 1.2 in 2015, according to World Bank data. Women, in particular, are moving away from traditional notions of family and the perceived burden of raising children, Breen said.

"With the (prospect of) added pressure from the in-laws, a lot of women opt out from the idea of marriage," he said.

The growth of individualism can be a source of contentment, according to Jang Jae Young, manager of a website dedicated to the single lifestyle, honjok.me.

"Our parents' generation was busy putting bread on the table," he said in an email interview. "They had to sacrifice themselves to feed their families and contribute to the economy.

"But now there is a stronger desire for self-realization and happiness, even if that means being alone."

Changing priorities

Although Ahn's photographs portray a palpable loneliness, she believes that her contemporaries are more willing to enrich their lives through experiences like travel.

"In our parents' generation, people knew that after working hard and saving up for certain number of years, they would be able to buy a house for their family," she said.

"But we came to a realization that we'll never be able to own anything like that, even if we work for our entire lives.

"(My peers) know that there is no happily-ever-after, and they are responding to life in a wiser way. Our priorities in life have changed."

According to Park, who also produces intimate portraits of family life, the "honjok" generation is now an economic force in its own right. From one-person apartments to restaurants catering to unaccompanied diners, Korean society is increasingly geared toward young singles.

"(It) has gotten big enough to form a culture with consumer power," she said.

Korean furniture company Hansem now sells a foldable table that doubles up as a dining table and a drawer for the single-person household. Jang's "honjok" website, meanwhile, sells a mini tripod for smartphones with the description: "perfect for solo travelers to take selfies."

Yet Jang, who created the site after living alone in Seoul for over 10 years, sees growing individualism as a double-edged sword.

"I hope it grows into a self-supporting culture of happiness, but South Korea is suffering from low birth rate, becoming a super aged society," he said. "I wouldn't say it is only a positive phenomenon."

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