The South Korean government takes poverty seriously. The country has made tireless efforts to bury the image of a war-torn nation it once was. Stories it promotes are the rags-to-riches tale of success, of the “Miracle of the Han River” variety, the Korean Wave, the democratization. Poverty is something this nation takes pains to ascribe to other parts of the world, and of course, to North Korea.
But dire poverty of the real variety goes on. The living conditions among the poor are so dehumanizing, it is difficult to process the contrast between them and the life normally associated with modern-day South Korea.
Soon after the Gangnam Style craze, foreign media attention briefly turned to Gangnam’s Guryong Village, and numerous images laid bare how some of the capital’s poorest fare in one of its richest districts. Guryong, however, is far from the only slum in Seoul. Favela-esque hotspots are scattered across Seoul, where residents live a subhuman existence.
Tucked away from sight, many districts including Jongno, Yongsan, Yeongdeungpo, and even the neighbouring city of Incheon all host what are called jjokbangchon, or ‘cubicle villages,’ named so because that is how small most dwellings are. Some jjokbangchon simply look poor, but others have the appearance of full-blown shanty towns.
I was recently taken by a volunteer group to one of these clusters, near the glittering Yeouido financial district, and was shocked by the squalid living the mostly elderly population endure.
On our way to the settlement, a number of people were lying on pavement like corpses. One man had a loose bandage on his head, stained with dry blood and his face flat on the road. Another, in a wheelchair, was clutching a bottle of makkoli – very cheap rice-based alcohol. And one woman, whose face was disfigured and blackened by what appeared to be a skin condition, walked aimlessly and kept tumbling over, exhibiting signs of intoxication.
On the outside the buildings looked like run down houses, constructed out of metal scraps. But from the inside, it was obvious that each building consisted of a series of rooms and was occupied by not one person but dozens. Each room was a windowless cubicle, no larger than 3 to 4 square meters in size and barely big enough for an adult to stretch out fully when sleeping.
Some of these dwellings lacked even the most basic of amenities: gas, running water, toilets and showers. Electricity was the only utility installed.
In one building, the corridor held a coal briquette burner like those found at Korean barbecue restaurants, used in lieu of heating during long subarctic Korean winters. Not only does it produce a toxic fume, it is also a major fire hazard. It’s not uncommon to hear about fires consuming a whole district because of one mistake.
The residents kept their possessions in piles on the floor or stashed them in boxes. I glanced into one cubicle: There was a box containing a torch light, a child’s toy, packs of face masks for moisturizing, unused socks and brand new saucepans. These were not belongings; these were goods collected from the streets or from garbage bins and stocked in the hope that they might prove useful one day.
Another cubicle had an unconnected refrigerator. I was curious as to what could possibly be inside, and opened the door. A putrid odour escaped, making the already stuffy room even more unbearable. The fridge was stocked with food, most of it rotting away. Hiding behind the fridge were cockroaches.
The only comfort each resident seemed to own was an old television.
We were there to help with a clean-up. As we took a snack break outside, an elderly woman came hurling abusive words at us for the temporary nature of our ‘good deeds.’ A limping grandfather with eyes sinking deep into his sockets approached, hissing at us for food and revealing that his mouth was missing most of its teeth. My party, consisting of young men and women from well-to-do families, was happy we’d soon be leaving this place, taking pictures to commemorate their public service on social networking sites, and joking that this was a zombie town scattered with crazy old alcoholics.
Their words were inexcusable, but they had a point: Most residents seemed to be physically disabled seniors. And many of them seemed to suffer from some form of mental illness or alcoholism.
I do not know the personal stories of the jjokbangchon residents. What I do know is that this is dire poverty, surprising even the South Koreans I was with. One NGO volunteer told us that many of the buildings once served as brothels and some residents used to work at the nearby red-light district in their younger days. Scores of people arrived after the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s because they had gone bankrupt and lost everything, including family. While the buildings might have addresses, the cubicles within were illegal in the eyes of bureaucrats. The volunteer expressed his frustration at the ongoing battle with the authorities who want to evict the residents and make room for luxury high-rise apartments.
As it turns out, the state does provide subsidized housing for the displaced, but mostly in areas far away from Seoul, away from any means of making a meager income. People who leave, forcibly or voluntarily, still end up coming back here because this place, however terrible, has become home for them, the only place they know and feel a sense of community.
A recent survey identified five main areas in Seoul as having jjokbangchon, housing a total of 3,157 residents. 85.7% of them were from socially vulnerable groups, including the elderly and the disabled. The same survey also found that the most populous area was in Dongjadong, Yongsan District, right next to the Seoul Train Station, with 868 people.
This is definitely not the side of South Korea the government wants you to see. This is not Korea Sparkling.
The irony of it all is that the South Korean government has spent tens of millions of American dollars on promoting Korean cuisine abroad, and yet literally has starving people on its doorstep. (Even the editor of this site, along with many foreign bloggers, was invited last month by a government-funded agency to a luncheon for promoting Korean food; he declined the invitation.) Promoting Korean pop culture entails a different budget. President Park Geun-hye recently flew to Africa to promote South Korea’s “New Village” model of development, yet has little to say about the slum that exists in the same district – Jongno – as her presidential palace.
The jjokbangchon represents an unnerving reality in South Korean society: Once you fall behind, no one will be there to pick you up. That’s why everyone is on a quest for self-betterment, a regular topic of best-selling books. Everyone is a busy bee at work, getting treated like dirt by superiors, colleagues, the system, but continuing to hope for promotion and survival. From education fever to office slavery, everyone is yeolshimhi, “giving their all.” No one wants to fall behind and end up in a place like here.
The young South Koreans who accompanied me during this visit laughed at the residents, treating the poor like aliens and zombies. I understand now why, and it was not because they thought this could never happen to them. It was precisely because they thought it could happen to them that they laughed, pretending it had nothing to do with them. It was a sign of fear. Fear of the weak, of being weak, and of being forgotten and neglected by a society that shows no mercy.