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On Seoul’s fringes, poor eke out lives in gosiwon

Crippling debt, low wages and tiny rooms define their fates

Dec 01,2018
Survivors and families of victims stand in front of the Jongro gosiwon that burned down on Nov. 9, which killed seven people. Gosiwon are well-known for being the last refuge for people suffering from extreme poverty. The average rent for a room without windows in a gosiwon is 200,000 won per month. [CHANG SE-JEONG]
In busy neighborhoods across Seoul, gosiwon, or cheap lodging houses, house the working poor. Inside these often ramshackle dwellings, people sleep each night in cramped, windowless rooms separated by paper-thin plywood walls.

One Nov. 9, a fire swept through a gosiwon mostly used by day laborers in Jongno District, central Seoul, killing seven people and injuring 11 others. The fire shed light on the poor living conditions of low-income workers.

Gosiwon are no longer just home to people who are preparing for the gosi, the civil service examination, like their name would suggest.

After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, people in their 50s and 60s who fell into intense poverty turned to gosiwon to put a roof over their heads.

Nowadays, more people in their 20s and 30s with low incomes are settling into the narrow halls of gosiwon, which usually rent for slightly over 200,000 won ($177) a month.

W Gosiwon, located in Gangseo District, western Seoul, is an average gosiwon with 43 small rooms. The smallest room is 3.3-square-meters (35.5-square-feet) and the biggest room is 5-square-meters. A 3.3-square-meter room with no windows costs 200,000 won per month, while a 5-square-meter room with a window costs 280,000 won per month.

A total of 32 residents, three of whom are female, live in W Gosiwon. Half of them are day laborers who earn 60,000 to 70,000 won per day. Those with a steady job don’t make much more than 2 million won. One woman in the gosiwon works in the adult entertainment industry. For some time now, gosiwon has been used as a synonym for poverty. The people who live there are trying their best to escape from its cruel clutches.

Amid low growth, warnings for a future economic crisis have spread through society. In the events of an economic disaster, the poor will suffer immensely. I met with gosiwon residents who, regardless of their skills and capabilities, couldn’t reach success because of social and financial problems beyond their reach. Here are the stories of three of the residents of W Gosiwon.



Kim (34)

I live in a small 3.3-square-meter one-room apartment without a window. A small part of the wall where the window should be instead has three shirts hanging lifelessly on the wall. Without a window, the whole room feels suffocating. On more than one occasion, I wanted to escape [this life], but I was never successful.

During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, my father, who was working at a privatized company, passed away. After his death, our family’s financial situation started to crumble. I was studying abroad in an English speaking country when he passed away. Afterwards, I hurried to graduate from university and went straight to enlist in the army. When I came to Seoul from Busan in 2012, I dreamt that if I played my cards right and worked hard, then life would reward me with a house of my own.

However, those dreams were crushed miserably once I came to Seoul. There was no place for me to stay [within my budget]. One time, I was so hungry that I donated my blood just to earn two hamburgers. I have been living this life for seven years, travelling from gosiwon to gosiwon. Once, I saw a resident down on his knees, begging the owner not to evict him. A notoriously heavy smoker, who used to live in the gosiwon I live in, was recently evicted for his smoking habits out of fear that he might cause a fire.

I work three jobs: my first job pays 2 million won per month. [Since the money isn’t enough], I also teach Korean to English-speaking foreigners online as a part-time job, and work at court houses as a translator. The two part-time jobs I have do not offer a secure paycheck. Since I have to send 700,000 won to my mother who lives alone in Busan, I can’t even dream about saving up money for myself.

I wake up at four in the morning every day. If I’m even a bit late, then people from the other rooms start to crowd in the halls to use the bathroom. At six in the morning, the halls are crowded with residents who scramble to use the only two bathrooms and three showers the place has to offer. With just a blink of the eye, a long line forms in front of the bathroom.

Every day I take the first train to work at 5:30 a.m. Sometimes, even though I know I’m not supposed to, I sit down on the pink seats that are reserved for pregnant woman. I can’t help myself since I’m so sleepy. When you’re too fatigued, you are not in a state of mind to think about manners.

I have come to realize how hard it is for the younger generation in Korea to live without any help from their parents. Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to succeed with just one’s ability and determination. The gap between the rich and the poor is severe. Poor people like me are crowding in gosiwons that don’t even have sufficient heating systems in the winter.

I feel a sense of shame for being so poor. I have been living in a gosiwon for seven years, and I poured my heart and soul out to my job. I was never late, never got into a fight or gave anyone any type of inconvenience. I lived by the law and never once did something illegal, but look at me now. I now understand why so many Koreans are pointing out that life in Korea is hard and unfair. Shouldn’t there at least be a ladder between the different classes, so that people like me can venture upwards with just enough time and effort? I can’t even dare to dream about dating or marriage, nor do I think that tomorrow is going to be better than today. Sometimes, I think that dying is better than living like this.



Park (59), a survivor of the Jongno gosiwon fire

In 1997, right before the financial crisis, I owned a fishery in Busan. When the financial crisis hit, the company I owned went under, and I lost four boats and 130 employees. The financial crisis hit small business owners like me hard. Seafood consumption dwindled, as did the amount of cash in the business. In order to come back from such a financial setback, I started a company with Chinese partners that focused on distributing squid and dried corvina to both countries. However, that business only lasted for five years. I still have 1.5 billion won in debt that I’m repaying even to this day. Because of my enormous debt, I have a terrible credit status and can’t even use banks.

Disappointed at myself and the situation around me, I returned back to my hometown in North Gyeongsang. There, I sold crops for a living. I was able to save enough money to return back to Seoul early this year. I am currently working as a distributor for health products and earn 1.5 million to 2 million won each month. Nowadays, after the gosiwon fire, I’m not even earning that. Thinking back, the only reason I was able to survive [the fire] was because I paid an extra 50,000 won to have a room with a window. I escaped through the window and climbed down the gas pipe.

The fire, which ironically started on Nov. 9 on National Firefighter Day, was the day I decided to live my second life. However, soon afterwards, I heard that another financial crisis might come next year. For me, news about a possible financial crisis is scarier than being in an actual fire. I wonder how many people in the Blue House work as hard as I do. Politicians, who live off our taxes, are proving to be not much of a help. I can only hope that the government officials will not take this prediction lightly and do their best to stop it from turning into reality.



Lee (63)

I graduated from a commercial high school in Seoul and in 1974 started working at a famous bank in Seoul. Never once did I think that a bank could go bankrupt. I worked in the banking industry for 24 years, 12 of which I spent working in famous banking districts like Yeouido, western Seoul. I was competent in what I did. I was even scouted by newly established banks with the promise of a salary that was triple what I normally received. However, problems started to arise after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The bank I worked for as a manager merged with another in 1998. In the process, I was forced into retirement. They didn’t even give me the benefits that come with being laid off. Instead, I was blamed for all the investments that the bank made in small businesses during my time as a manager there. This was ridiculous because before the crisis, I was even rewarded by the bank for investing in the same small businesses.

Back then, my family and I lived in a well-known apartment in Jamsil, southern Seoul, as a happy middle-class family. However, after my retirement, we had to sell the apartment and all the property we owned. We moved to a small neighborhood out in Gangbuk District, northern Seoul. It was hard to adapt to our sudden change in lifestyle, especially for my wife, who had grown used to the upper-middle class life.

After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, I opened my own architecture firm. The firm was my chance to come back from the financial setback that I experienced. To make matters worse, during the 2008 global banking crisis, a colleague of mine stole a 60 million safety deposit the firm had received in exchange for constructing a parking lot. Since I was the owner, I was responsible for the 60 million won lost. I took out loan after loan, damaging my credit status, just to pay back debt that wasn’t even mine. Dark thoughts would come to me, urging me to do take my life. I left my family in 2009 because I couldn’t bear to see the disappointment in their faces.

I’ve worked part-time in convenience stores, as a street vendor selling roasted chestnuts and even as a real estate agent. By 2013, I had overworked and collapsed from fatigue. Afterwards, in order to cleanse my mind and soul, I went hiking on Mount Bukhan. During my hike, I had a revelation that I shouldn’t just give into the troubles, but continue to preserve. In my darkest times, it was Mount Bukhan that saved me, not the government. The government did not even give me a chance to redeem myself.

My daughters encourage me to work harder whenever I feel down, especially my youngest daughter, who often sends me texts reminding me that she loves me very much. I always wanted to be the dad who could provide for her, which is why I’m so determined to help pay her college tuition. No matter how tough things get, I always manage to send her 1.5 million won each month. I miss her terribly, but I can’t bring myself to see her face. Not with such a guilty conscious. This is why I haven’t seen her for seven years, since 2009.

I have been living in a gosiwon for seven years. Nowadays I work as a custodian for the gosiwon I live in. In return, I get a room that is 4.7 square-meters wide, which is bigger than the other rooms. Ever since the Jongno gosiwon fire, I am anxious that the same thing might happen to me. The walls [of the gosiwon I currently live in] are made of plywood, which is a flammable material. Since all the rooms are so neatly pushed against each other, it would be catastrophic if a fire were to break out. This is why everyone here agrees that we will all die if it does happen. It’s such a shame really, because the dangers could easily be elevated if the Seoul city government gave us enough subsidies to build two or three emergency ropes mechanisms that we could use to escape if a fire does break out.

I work two to three jobs, one as the custodian for the gosiwon I live in right now. I earn a total of 3 million won per month. Thinking back, it’s sad how I invested my whole youth in trying to pay off the debt that I accumulated during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Even now, I have 1 billion won in debt from the time I set up my own architecture firm. On the bright side, I am 90 percent cleared from all my debts.

I participated in the candlelight protest and rooted for President Moon Jae-in. Now, after seeing the financial policies that he’s been administrating, like the increase to the minimum wage and allowing corporations to increase the work hours to more than 52 hours a week, I can’t help but notice the severe populism that has seeped deep into his administration. I firmly believe that another financial crisis could come if something is not done. The problem is that he’s too fixated in patching up ties with North Korea that he isn’t focused on helping the people who voted for him. Internal affairs and our economy should be of the uttermost importance [to him.]

BY CHANG SE-JEONG [jeong.juwon@joongang.co.kr]


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