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

in Voices by

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.

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Inside Higher Ed among other publications.

21 Comments

  1. “The reporter spent some five hours with the halmeoni” and all they managed to report is how many inputs of labor+time were required to make 8 cents? Wow. Did the reporter even speak to this “soulless person”, or did they just study them from across the street, taking measurements of labour vs profit in their little notebook. What about “no country for old people” in places where your only function is to drink tea, watch television and have your ass wiped? Places where old people have no function at all. That sounds pretty soulless too, no?

    • One word got you ticked off and you missed the entire point of the article. As someone who has actually lived and experienced life in Korea and the United States, I can tell you that being poor in Korea is infinitely worse. There is not just the state of poverty, which is difficult for anyone, but a system of shame that ostracizes the elderly person picking trash. Making matters worse, Korea is a hybrid between a collective society and that of an individual society. The elderly slave all their savings onto their children, imagining that in the future that their children will take care of them. Over the years, however, these adults form more nuclear families and leave their elderly parents on their own.

      Before making statements like “projects a kind of happiness that has been with her all her life”, look beyond what made that individual happy? You’re talking about a women who probably lives with her family or has a strong connection to them. The ones in Korea don’t have that luxury. I’ve actually talked to the elderly who’ve lived next to my grandparents one day, and “dissapeared the next”. There are sob stories about how the elderly give all their savings to their kids, including key money. There are stories of the elderly who work picking up food on the side of a river, facing ridicule and jokes from kids. You spend a day in those shoes, and you can’t tell me that a spirit of happiness supersedes a terrible lot you’ve been given.

      • Thanks. Those are the kinds of arguments I found missing in this piece. I reacted not only to that word, but to the assessment of the situation through a very specific economic argument that was missing the human reality of the situation. Cheers.

      • Hey you bla and blahs, great discussion and respect for opinions. You both are right, in one sense or another. The sad situation for some elderly in poverty in Korea needs attention and is a lesson that all cultures should heed, but also, that there is some hope that there are families like the one in Toronto that holds onto their family duties to take care and cherish their elderly and that elderly holds onto self worth and continues to be active in the best way they can. Great comments by both. Thank you.

  2. I have always thought this to be a sad and unessary practice for the old. There needs to be a better system in place to help these people. Taxes should be higher for the wealthy so there is more support off the poor, especially those of a certain age. As in most societies around the world the system is set up for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.

  3. A typical Seoul-centric opinion with little consideration of anywhere else in Korea. Try venturing from the capital to see how the majority of elderly koreans live.

    • I hate to nitpick here, but 48% of the country lives in Seoul. I *guess* 52% outside of Seoul could be considered the “majority” (barely), but by 2020 the majority of people in Korea will be living within the big city. I think “Seoul-centric” describes Korea nicely.

    • I live in Busan. It’s no different. Neither is Daegu or Daejeon. The NPS and it’s limitations apply to all of the ROK anyways. Get your head out of your ass.

    • I live in a smaller Korean town and the situation is much the same. Old people walk the streets, dragging their carts behind them, searching for trash to sift through. Others live a life of destitution on tiny, profitless farms. If they have no family to support them, life for the old in the country is just as bad, if not worse, than in Seoul.

  4. It is not surprising that the older generation are seen as throwaways just as babies who are born out of the “socially acceptable” norm in Koea are throwaways. Korea is my birthland but I have found it to be an intolerant and racist and agist society…Koreans strive to be perfectly socially acceptable..there is a social strata structure where lower speech is used for clerical and maintainance staff..They do double lid surgery do look more beautiful and ironically more western..western, where they sent many of their throwaway babies who may end up looking more like them now that their surgeries are done. Heartbreaking…it is all just heartbreaking and hard to reconcile.

  5. It’s a shame in any case! They are everywhere in Asia even in ultra-rich Singapore! Makes me think the West is more caring of their old ones, never mind this ‘filial piety’ sham in the East. Perhaps, some things are better off leaving it to the state to take care of! Or is it that democracy in the West ‘really’ means everything belongs to everyone and should be and are shared around? This is being eroded everywhere off course, with all these greedy Wall Street bankers and capitalists types grabbing everything for themselves. Perhaps, Eastern governments and capitalist are going this way sooner!

  6. South korea the highest suicide rate of elderly among the world.
    source : Channelnewsasia. the tremendous financial tension straining the elderly, some have went into prostitution in order to survive their twilight years. the first time i read about, it just hit hard on me. i am a chinese, and korea share many similar value each other, but modernization have erode all traditional value, love your parent, respect the elder etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*