Invisible Men

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Invisible Men

Lee Hak-gyu, 66, is a security guard at the Yuwon apartment complex in the Gyeonggi province city of Goyang. He says he has lived a hard life, and ended up a guard two years ago.

"I had to retire from my old job at the Seoul City Gas Company when I turned 56," Mr. Lee says.

Security guards, or suwi or gyeongbi, can be found at nearly every apartment complex. But they often look too old and frail to be guards. Who are these tired-looking men?

They are older men, in their late 50s or 60s, wearing navy suits. They sit in a shack at the entrance of the building, sometimes watching your every move, sometimes nodding off.

Mr. Lee is sitting in his small booth, a brick and cement protrusion to the right of the entrance to apartment building 304. The room is crammed with stuff, its furniture old and shabby.

He is sitting in a car seat, which he got from a junkyard. "This is more comfortable than an ordinary chair; you can lean back if you want to sleep," he says.

Born the oldest son of a poor peasant in the North Chungcheong province town of Jecheon, Mr. Lee had to support his mother and three siblings from his middle school years, after his father passed away.

Mr. Lee went to a commercial high school before he worked as a farmer for several years. "It was right after the Korean War," he says. "The school buildings were just shy of being rubble. It was miserable. I couldn't even think about college. We couldn't afford it."

A mail carrier approaches, interrupting the interview; Mr. Lee signs a document, and she leaves.

"After working as a farmer, I came to Seoul and started to do small businesses, but life was never easy," he says. He sold seaweed, dried fishes and bags, then was unemployed for two years.

When he was 37, his friend got him a job at Gimpo Airport managing export cargo. But Mr. Lee was tired of being "at the bottom." So he moved on to a tourist company, a subsidiary of Daebung Corp., but it went out of business in 1979 in the turmoil following the assassination of Park Chung Hee. After three more years of joblessness, he was hired as a carpenter's assistant at the gas company, where he worked for 13 years.

After his mandatory retirement, he still needed to work to support his wife and kids. But almost nobody would hire him because of his age.

Now, as a suwi, he faces another mandatory retirement in about a year, at age 65. He confides that his father fudged his birth certificate when Mr. Lee was registered at the local government office for one as a boy, trimming two years off his age.

He earns 700,000 won a month ($535) as a suwi, and pays medical insurance but no income tax. "My wage is less than the minimum wage to pay tax," he says.

He says the management office of his apartment complex is relatively generous, and that suwi at other apartment complexes are only paid around 600,000 won a month. A suwi's salary is usually fixed, and doesn't rise as you accumulate experience.

The apartment complex Mr. Lee works at has 17 buildings, numbered 301 to 317. Each building has two suwi that alternate on 24-hour shifts. "All of them are over 55 years old, and most of them come from poor backgrounds," Mr. Lee says.

What do they do all those hours? "We do everything," he says. "Our basic task is to guard the building from theft, but if it snows, we start shoveling." Suwi also tend flowerbeds, clean the roads and manage the parking.

Suwi are supposed to filter out unwelcome visitors to their buildings, but it's hard to tell them from the welcome, Mr. Lee says. "We remember the faces of the residents," he says. "But sometimes problems arise when their relatives or friends come to visit."

Some people look down on suwi, Mr. Lee complains. "The worst are men in their 40s and 50s," he says. "When we approach strangers and ask them what brought them here, many of them just ignore us and try to pass on by."

Suwi seem to be, invariably, underpaid and overworked. "For all those chores and mandatory patrols, we have to be out of this booth for at least three hours a day," Mr. Lee says.

But most of the residents in apartment building 304 are nice to him, Mr. Lee acknowledges, and treat him like part of their family. Still, he says, it's very difficult to endure the "mean people" who bug him "about every petty inconvenience."

Hasn't there been any time that he felt proud or happy about his job? "About six months ago, I was on patrol," Mr. Lee begins. "On the seventh floor of building 303 I saw signs that a burglar was trying to break into a house. Fortunately, he ran off when he heard my footsteps, just before he was going to pry open the door."

While that display of courage spared one family a lot of misery, Mr. Lee is still just an ordinary old man. Isn't he scared of burglars? "Yes, yes I am scared," he says. "Burglars are mostly young people, and they sometimes carry knives. But we're supposed to watch people's homes when they're away. We feel really bad and guilty when a burglary happens."

Suwi can be fired if burglaries occur on their watch, Mr. Lee adds.

Put simply, a suwi's job is to protect people's possessions and attend to their needs. Are there any qualifications necessary to get hired? Mr. Lee explains that the head of the apartment management office screened him during the hiring process. The manager generally looks for men who seem to be agile, friendly and respond well to people's demands, Mr. Lee says, and shuns applicants who look like a criminal or drink too much.

"During my interview, the manager asked me what the necessary qualification for the job was," Mr. Lee says. "I answered that I should watch my mouth, that I shouldn't spread any bad rumors." That wise answer landed him the job.

Overall, a suwi's life is a lonely one, Mr. Lee explains: "On cold winter nights, when all of the people have come home early and the apartment complex becomes quiet, that's when I feel this overwhelming sense of isolation and boredom. Those are the hardest times."

by Kim Hyo-jin

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