Life in Half a Square Meter

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Life in Half a Square Meter

Lee Yueng-hui, the doyen of intellectual circles and a professor at Hanyang University, wrote a short essay in 1970 entitled, "Life in Half a Square Meter."

The piece describes Mr. Lee reading a newspaper article about a fire in a shantytown in Changsin-dong, Seoul. "After glancing at the article, I muttered to myself that I had seen too many fire stories in the newspaper. I moved my eyes to the next article in the newspaper, but some numbers in that fire story caught my attention." Mr. Lee was struck that 129 houses were burned down in the fire, but that the total area destroyed was only 792 square meters. "Although I cheerfully detest mathematics, I could easily calculate that one house each occupied less than seven square meters, if 129 houses occupied 792 square meters of land."

Mr. Lee, then who was at the time preoccupied with his consciousness of the problems of society and power under the military regime, went on to calculate further. "The total number of families who were driven out of those 129 houses destroyed by the fire was 347, which meant that three families were living in each house. While there are uncountable numbers of houses in Seoul, three families were living in only one house, occupying only 6.3 square meters of land based on this simple calculation.

"The article went on to say that 1,381 people were made homeless by the fire. Because 1,381 people lived on 792 square meters of land, each person was living in a space of about half a square meter. Half a square meter! How is it possible that such a small space could support a dignified human life?"

At that time, police estimated the total damage to be 3 million won ($9,700 at 1970''s exchange rates). Citing that number, Mr. Lee deplored the fact that "each person among those 1,381 victims owned an average of only 2,100 won of material wealth."

The point Mr. Lee was making was about the desperate lives of the poor, who lived in the shadow of high economic growth at the time. His words suggested the gap between the rich and the poor as well as the contradictions in our society. Thirty years has passed since he wrote that article, and evidence of utter destitution has almost disappeared from our society. But we can easily find year 2000 versions of those spaces as small as half a square meter in every corner of our society if we apply a relative standard to measure values in the current era.

If we look closely, we can see needy neighbors who maintain their lives only with difficulty, including those supported by various social welfare institutions. We only have less than 10 days left before greeting the new year. We all should do our best to warm up the "half a square meter" of our poor and unfortunate neighbors before greeting the new year.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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