Jjokbangchon: Where South Korea’s Destitute Live

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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.

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Nov 2007: Poi-dong Village is the smaller of the two slums near Gangnam’s famous Tower Palace and other expensive apartment complexes for the rich. Guryong Village is bigger and farther away. (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

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.

Oct 2006: Youngdeungpo Jjokbangchon (Photo Credit: Jun Michael Park)
Oct 2006: The jjokbangchon in Yeongdeungpo District, near the Yeouido Financial district (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

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.

Jun 2016: Belongings of a Jjokbangchon resident (Photo Credit: Michael Rajapakse)
Jun 2016: A room of one resident at the jjokbangchon in Yeongdeungpo (Credit: James Rajapakse)

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.

Nov 2006: An old prostitute does kimjang, or preparing kimchi, in her small room under the overpass in Youngdeungpo Jjokbangchon.
Nov 2006: An old sex worker does gimjang – preparation of kimchi for winter – in her small room in the Yeongdeungpo jjokbangchon. (Credit: Jun Michael Park)

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.

1) Yeongdeungpo District (Yeongdeungpo-dong), 2) Yongsan District (Dongja-dong), 3) Junggu District (Namdaemun), 4) Jongno District (Donui-dong), and 5) Jongno District (Changsin-dong)
1) Yeongdeungpo District (Yeongdeungpo-dong), 2) Yongsan District (Dongja-dong), 3) Junggu District (Namdaemun), 4) Jongno District (Donui-dong), and 5) Jongno District (Changsin-dong)

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.

Jun Michael Park contributed photography and photo editing. Follow him on Instagram @junmichaelpark.

Comments

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34 Comments

  1. The article has some colorful and descriptive reporting but it is also full of moral posturing and sensationalism (“starving”).

    • have you been there?? because i have. and ‘starving’ is a very apt description of quite a lot of residents.

      • Suffering famine in North Korea with no hope of escape is starving. A 50 pound 17-year-old N. Korean child that looks like a skeleton is starving. Eating bark and grass to survive is starving.

        A 1 kg bag of rice costs about 5,000 won in South Korea. There are church-run and government run soup kitchens in South Korea.

        Yes, I’ve been “there” and many of the “starving” residents seem to have money for cigarettes and soju.

        I’m not trying to belittle the plight of the poor but the entire article is very moralistic and sensationalist in tone.

      • People in N Korea are starving. Somehow many ‘starving’ people in the jjokbangchong have money for soju and cigarettes.

      • No they don’t. You’ll see men dressed in old army uniforms while the children have nothing.

        Starving is having to eat tree bark and grass. Starving is weighing 75lbs as a full grown adult.
        Starving is millions dying from lack of food in the last famine. People aren’t ‘starving’ in South Korea.

      • your comment reveals your ignorance and betrays the mistaken belief that every poor person that sleeps hungry is a lazy sod, who remains on welfare out of sheer idleness but is happy to spend money on pleasures rather than neccesities.

        and no, i think we need to revise your understanding of the word ‘starving’, it has nothing to do with dictators, isnt confined to africa and can occur in rich countries.

      • Your comment reveals much about your assumptions. I looked over my previous comments and I haven’t said a single word saying or implying that “every poor person that sleeps hungry” is a lazy person on welfare.

        My point is that using the word ‘starving’ is a ridiculous hyperbole for the condition of the poor in an advanced economy like Korea when even the poor have enough extra cash and basic subsistence to spend on extras such as soju and cigarettes.

        Assume much?

      • People who are this poor–particularly when surrounded by much wealthier people; particularly when their society stresses conformity above all else and therefore any deviation from the dominant social image (i.e., wealth and success) is deemed failure–need some kind of anesthetic to make it through life. Especially in light of the neglect of mental health by South Korean society at large, it’s also extremely like that a lot of these people have some sort of issue that isn’t being treated properly. Never even mind things like depression or autism; a fair number of them probably have dementia.
        I’m sure you’re aware that suicide has reached epidemic proportions in South Korea, with an average rate of 25 suicides per 100,000 population in 2012. However, the suicide rate for the elderly is far higher than that, with about 100 suicides for females, and almost 200 suicides for males per 100,000 population. These people buy soju and cigarettes because to be fully sober to the reality of their lives would literally kill them.

      • “. . . .particularly when surrounded by much wealthier people”

        Let’s confiscate the money from the wealthy. Then everyone gets to be poor equally.

      • Please, point out to me where exactly I said we should “confiscate the money from the wealthy”, instead of putting words in my mouth. If that sentiment seems implied here, it’s because increasing social welfare spending in South Korea is an obvious aid to this problem. And social welfare spending in South Korea is the lowest in the OECD; there’s a lot of space between it and “Venezuela”. Get off the slippery slope.
        The point I was trying to make is that people naturally compare themselves to their neighbors to gauge their own success and self-worth–particularly in a society as collectivist as South Korea’s. Income inequality and the wealth gap in the country is large, and has commensurate negative effects on the perceived self-worth individuals has. Whether you think a good solution to those effects is necessary or implied is another issue, but you can’t deny the fact.

        Also, I love that your concern here is not for the people literally drinking, smoking, and jumping-off-bridges to death, but with the property rights of the wealthy, a class with whom your own interests probably don’t even and likely never will coincide.

      • Oh boo hoo, somebody’s feelings got hurt because other people in society make more money than them. Oh the tragedy!

      • That you’re putting property rights above other people’s lives says all that need be said about your personal beliefs. At least now I’ll know not to engage you in future discussions.

      • Enjoy putting words into my mouth? Where exactly did I say I value property rights over human lives? Get off your high horse and stop making retarded straw man arguments. You have the logical brains and debating skills of a third grader.

      • For the record, and your edification:

        1. You set up the first straw man (“…Venezuela”) in place of confronting the only piece of quantitative information in this debate so far–South Korea’s high elderly poverty and suicide rates.
        2. The only points of rebuttal that you’ve even offered have been to straw men you’ve set up–“…Venezuela” and “Oh boo hoo…”
        3. You’re the one who just used an ad hominem (“third grader”).
        Don’t like the taste of your own medicine? Please, serve up something different. I’m a person who’s eager to learn, and if you have something to teach me, I’d be glad to hear it. Otherwise, stop wasting your time making false, facile arguments with people who are trying harder.

      • Again man, we’re talking about South Korea problems, not Venezuela or its socialism.

        This problems happen in bigger countries like the US too, just look at Indiana, Detroit, etc. It happens when your country doesn’t have strong social programs to help the people, you don’t need to be Venezuela to see big shitty governments avoiding the people in help, like South Korea, who seems to do little to help these people

      • But we’re talking about South Korea man, I know North has also a ton of problems, but they’re now closed to help in general, at least others can help with this situation, and again, they only buy generally alcohol and cigarettes, because they can be pretty cheap, also, didn’t you read? These are old people, probably with mental health problems

  2. This was very eye opening. I feel really bad for these people, especially because they have lived to be old and have to suffer so much.

      • That was quite snarky of you. Are you actively helping? If so, offer some information about the organization you work with. If not, you should be quiet.

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