No Country for Old People: South Korea’s Dire Problem of Elderly Poverty

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Living in South Korea, I find it hard not to notice the old. The subway is full of them at every time of the day, presumably because seniors over the age of 65 get to use the system for free. It is difficult to take a seat because soon enough someone frail and tired-looking will appear before me, and I feel bad about staying in my place.

The number of people over the age of 65 surpassed 12 percent of the population a year ago, and that figure is only expected to grow. It is not a comforting prediction; as far as I can see, being old in South Korea is a miserable existence. More old people means more miserable souls.

After moving to a relatively poor area of Seoul, I encountered South Korea’s most efficient recycling system: It takes less than five minutes for a bag of empty bottles and crumpled paper to disappear from the curbside.

My landlord’s son is not fazed by any of this. He says, “Oh, there are a lot of halmeoni who come by to pick them up all the time”.

It seems my neighbors see nothing untoward in the masses of halmeoni and harabeoji — grandmas and grandpas — who roam our streets, each pulling a cart laden with recyclables — everything from paper to bottles to bits of metal — and squinting at the surrounding for anything that could be sold at a recycling center for a meagre income.

According to a Seoul-based NGO Resource Recycling Alliance, there are some 1.75 million South Koreans, or 3.5% of the total population, who make a living this way. In my eyes, just about everyone who pulls a cart in the streets is old, sometimes terribly, depressingly so.

I should not be surprised. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that South Korea has the highest rate of elderly poverty among member states: 45 percent of South Korean households consisting of seniors over the age of 65 make less than half the median household disposable income. Among seniors who live by themselves, that figure jumps up to more than 76 percent. In comparison, the OECD average is 13.5 percent.

 

Source: OhMyNews
Source: OhMyNews

If I may put it crudely, half of all seniors in South Korea are poor. In this glittering, sparkling South Korea.

In spite of the country’s seeming wealth, the state support for the old is appallingly limited; South Korea spends the equivalent of 1.7 percent of its GDP on caring for the old, just one step above the stingiest OECD member: Mexico. Neighbouring Japan, on the other hand, is generous to its seniors, doling out an amount corresponding to 8.9 percent of its GDP on the archipelago’s vast grey-haired population.

Koreans are supposed to care about the old, what with the country’s longstanding respect for seniors and emphasis on filial piety. That is true, if we talk history or fairy tales. In far too many cases the older generation, having served as cogs in the engine of South Korean economy, is relegated to the sideline, picking up trash for money and receiving no one’s attention unless once in a while an OECD report comes out and reminds everyone how miserable life is for old South Koreans.

There is a welfare system in this country, but it does not always help the old. Having grown-up children can exclude you from basic benefits on the assumption that they will take care of you (whether they actually do or not). While free subway rides are nice, the pension system has a short history, and most seniors I know, unless they worked as public servants or professors or teachers, do not receive much from the state because they have not contributed enough during their productive years.

To my knowledge my father receives a pension: an astounding sum of 200 USD per month. It is not enough to cover the maintenance bill at his apartment. He is 74 and still working, thankfully because he is genuinely uninterested in retirement. But many others have no choice but to stay employed, not just out of personal preference but because of pure necessity.

President Park Geun-hye promised many things during her election campaign, and one of them was vast expansion of the country’s welfare system. Not much has happened to fulfill that pledge. And the old continue to suffer, sometimes even killing themselves after giving up on life in South Korea. The suicide rate among the elderly is formidable in a country already known for its sky-high suicide rate: 28.1 percent of all suicide victims in South Korea are over the age of 65. And about two thirds of the elderly suicide victims endure extreme poverty before deciding to end their lives.

Picking up recyclables is one of the few things the old without money can do to make ends meet. But it is no easy job. One Seoul National University student who followed a 90-year-old halmeoni writes:

“The reporter spent some five hours with the halmeoni. The distance she covered during that time was only 2.11 km, which an adult male can walk in approximately 30 minutes. But it is impossible for the halmeoni to walk at the speed of a young man, given her depleted strength, heavy cart, and perpetually bent back; she must rest five, six times in one day. […] Sometimes it takes only two to three minutes to pick up a box when a nearby store puts one out. But when she does not find anything, it can be more than an hour [until the next discovery]”.

For all that work, she will get paid 80 KRW — less than 8 cents — at today’s rate for each kilogramme of waste paper she collects. And even that work is shrinking. As more people become old and more old people join the ranks of the poor, competition is increasing in the allies of Seoul and other cities, in the shadows of new malls and condos and office towers that stand oblivious of the suffering just around the corner.

Brimming with seniors as it may be, South Korea is no country for old people.

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.