Safety booth in Seoul

Phone-Cum-Safety Booths Prove a Bust

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The idea was simple: convert old public pay phone boxes into state-of-the-art ‘safety booths’ in which citizens can lock themselves and contact emergency services if they feel in danger. But two years after their introduction, the safety booths have proven unpopular, with at least one local government looking to hang up on the project all together.

Safety booth in Seoul
A safety booth in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok village. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

The safety booths were first installed in Gwangju in June 2015. At the time, the city said that they were for the purpose of establishing safe zones and preventing crimes against women, such as sexual assault.

In Gwangju’s case, each booth has four CCTV cameras providing total monitoring coverage of their surrounding areas. According to the city, the exterior walls are made of Lexan resin, which is a polycarbonate material said to be 20 times stronger than tempered glass. The built-in lock system is designed to withstand a force of 400 kg or more, thus impossible to open by potential assailants.

Within two years, the initiative spread across South Korea including to Seoul. But a recent SBS report found that some of the safety booths are not able to connect to emergency services or are not actually placed in high crime areas.

SBS also reported that residents of Suwon, in Gyeonggi Province, “did not seem to want them” and had no plans to install more. Online media SkyeDaily criticized the initiative, saying that some residents didn’t even know of their existence. Apparently, some confused them for ATM machines.

Safety booth in Seoul
“This is a safe space for citizens to escape to in times of danger. You can also use Olleh’s Giga WiFi services for free,” reads a sign on a safety booth. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

In total, Seoul City installed 15 of these panic room-style boxes in collaboration with KT Linkus. It is unclear whether these booths have prevented crime at all. An official at Seoul’s international press team told Korea Exposé that the government “does not track crime prevention or performance,” but admitted that there seems to be “no significant effectiveness as a place of refuge” and that the scheme “had not generated any specific results.”

Asked about expansion plans, the spokesperson said Seoul City will not install any more booths. On the contrary, it is looking to pull the plug on the initiative, scheduled to remove “most” safety booths without specifying a number.

What do you think? Was the Safety Booth project too ambitious? Let us know your thoughts below.


Cover image: Safety booth in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.