Singing the mailbag bluesAt Seoul's Gangnam Post Office, security guards turn off the lights at 9:30 p.m. to prevent mailmen from working any longer. A few postal workers go home, but others turn the lights back on and go right on working.
When he sorts mail this recent morning, Kim Su-yeong, 42, barely moves his head. His hands pick up envelopes from a desk, placing each one in pigeonholes along a green shelf.
"I usually come to the office around 7:30 a.m.," says Mr. Kim, who has been a postman for 17 years. "But about 80 percent of my co-workers are here earlier than 7."
Mr. Kim eats brunch at 9 a.m. and skips lunch. "No chance," he says, "if I want to finish a day's work in time."
He suddenly disappears and comes back pushing a big green cart. Stacks of mail lie on the cart.
"I deliver about 3,000 pieces of mail every day," Mr. Kim says.
That amount is more than double what the Ministry of Information and Communication recommends: A mailman in urban areas is supposed to deliver 1,440 pieces of mail a day.
Is he overworked? Mr. Kim smiles weakly. Do you lick stamps?
According to the Korean Postal Workers Union, the work intensity for mailmen has increased by 70 percent since the 1997-1998 financial crisis. As part of an all-out restructuring effort, the government in the last five years cut back on almost 17 percent of its mailmen. But from 1997 to 2001, the volume of mail increased 40 percent, from 4.6 billion pieces in 1997 to 6.4 billion pieces by the end of 2001.
During the same period, the volume of parcels ballooned by 89 percent, from 23 million pieces in 1997 to 43 million pieces in 2001. Meanwhile, the number of regular mailmen fell from 12,300 in 1997 to 10,300 in 2001.
Setting its sights on a "smaller government," Seoul has not hired any new full-time postal workers during the last five years, but has instead filled vacancies with "part-timers," less-devoted workers whose numbers increased from 700 in 1997 to 3,900 last year.
The longer hours and the job stress this year has, through August, caused the deaths of seven mailmen －－ on duty. Some were killed while driving the small motorbikes they use to deliver mail. Others simply died of exhaustion, frequently collapsing on the job.
At 9:30 a.m., Mr. Kim steers his cart to an elevator and rides from the basement to the third floor of the Gangnam Post Office, the largest post office in Korea.
There, he separates the mail into three bundles, then goes outside and puts one of the bundles into a carry box on his scarlet-colored motorbike. The other two bundles will be delivered by a small truck to two separate pickup points along his route.
"I've taken only four vacations since I became a mailman in 1986," Mr. Kim says as he closes the lid on his motorbike's carry box. He has skipped his vacations the past two years. "If I leave, my colleagues have to share my work, and I would feel terrible because I know they are already overloaded."
Vroom, Vroom. His motorbike leaves the building at 9:45 a.m., heading first to the Korea Internet Data Center building. At 10:15, his bike careens along a narrow street behind the building.
He covers Nos. 249 to 266 in Nonhyeon-dong, an upscale neighborhood in southern Seoul. At each street number stands approximately 24 to 32 house numbers, and at each number a small house or an apartment building with perhaps 20 households.
"When I started this job, I knew all the residents who lived in every house," Mr. Kim says, throwing a handful of mail at the gate of a red-brick house. "In fact, I knew how many spoons each family had."
He began his career in Sillim-dong, a not so well-to-do area in Southern Seoul. In those days, he arrived at the post office at 8 a.m. and would leave around 6 p.m.
Back then he walked his route. On the way were small mom-and-pop store owners, who usually sat outside their shops waiting for customers or, more often, poked their noses into other people's business. He especially remembers a middle-aged man he called hyeongnim, or brother in Korean. Whenever he walked by, his hyeongnim called Mr. Kim into his small store that sold all sorts of trivial things, from rice to children's snacks, to have a bowl of makgeolli, a thick Korean rice wine. It became a habit for Mr. Kim to hang around there for about 30 minutes nearly every afternoon, something he could never do today.
A dormitory for female bus conductors also stood along his route. Women bus conductors are gone today, now replaced by automatic transportation card readers. The women would always ask Mr. Kim, "Any letters today?" What kind of letters were they awaiting? "Oh, letters from pen pals," Mr. Kim says, nostalgically recalling a once popular hobby of the 1970s and 1980s.
"These days," Mr. Kim says, "the only letters that I see handwritten are the ones that soldiers send to their girlfriends or parents." From his carry box he takes out several pieces of mail bound together with a yellow rubber band. "Look, every single one of these is an advertising message or a bill."
The great irony is that the Internet, rather than replacing snail mail, has actually increased the amount of it －－?n a capitalistic way. Brochures from booming Internet shopping malls, television home shopping channels, bills from mobile phones and credit cards, and the products bought from the shopping malls delivered, overflow from Mr. Kim's carry box.
Mr. Kim estimates that only about 100 out of the 3,000 pieces of mail he delivers are personal letters. "Every year, even Christmas cards or Parents' Day cards are decreasing."
The scarlet-colored motorbike stops briefly as Mr. Kim hops off to pull out the handfuls of mail to be dropped in front of the gates of houses. Whoosh, plop. Whoosh, plop. As he zips along, past two dozen houses, he never stops to talk to a single person －－ in a house or at the gate of a house. When he has a piece of registered mail that requires a signature, he is usually greeted by housemaids. Chatting up a homeowner never happens.
He regrets this lack of personal contact almost as much as he regrets missing out on many of life's precious moments.
"I couldn't make the graduation ceremony of my first daughter from elementary school," he says. " I have never been to any of my children's school performances." His eldest daughter is now a middle school sophomore. His second daughter is a fifth grader and his son a second grader. He does not see himself at either of his two younger children's graduation ceremonies.
"My wife says she stops young women all the time, telling them to never marry a mailman."
In October 2001, Mr. Kim felt constant fatigue and pain in his midsection and knees. A doctor diagnosed it as hyperthyroidism.
"One of the causes of hyperthyroidism is overwork," Mr. Kim says. It took him two months to recover from the illness and he continues to takes pills.
Smiling weakly, he says, "I guess you can say that I work because I am on drugs."
He pulls up at a four-story apartment building, No. 259-2. As he approaches the front door, he stops and throws a bundle of mail for the 10 housing units in the building on the front steps.
"If I had to sort out the mail from one household to another, I wouldn't be able to go home tonight," Mr. Kim says, hurrying to the building next door. The tenants of the building will have to pick their own mail from the bundle on the steps unless the building's security guards are charitable enough to help Mr. Kim.
"I'm aware that customers are not enjoying the degree of services that they deserve," Mr. Kim says. He doesn't say so, but suggests it: Those services will likely get worse.
Standing in front of a low-slung apartment building for school teachers, a cold winter wind cutting the air, he points to three construction sites, two along the sides of the building and one across the street.
"Those places," he says, "are the new sources of my worry."
For all intents and purposes, Seoul has run out of land on which to build new houses. Each day, more and more existing houses are razed and replaced with high-rise apartments, especially since the financial crisis. On Mr. Kim's route, about 50 houses have been torn down and rebuilt as smaller apartments, usually up to five stories. If these were simply homes, one house number would mean one or two households. But they're apartments, and one number could mean up to about 20 households.
"It is not happening just in my route," Mr. Kim says. "Most of the areas in Gangnam are going through such changes."
It's about 1 p.m., and his next destination is street Nos. 262 and 263, where home deconstruction and enlargement is rampant.
"In these kinds of apartments," Mr. Kim says, "people move in and out every minute. You don't know who lives next door. And frankly, I stopped caring."
He tosses bundles for all the residents of each building, then moves to Nos. 264 to 266, a mix of houses and apartments.
It's about 4 p.m. when he finishes his route. Back at the post office he uploads from a handheld device he carries with him data about registered mail, and sends that information to the office computer. It's a process that takes about an hour, and of course he never had to do that in Sillim-dong.
After a 20-minute dinner in the company cafeteria, he goes right back to work, sorting mail for tomorrow into the order that he will deliver it.
Last August, a part-timer in the Gangnam Post Office hid a pile of mail that he failed to deliver behind his apartment house. The stashed mail numbered more than 2,000 pieces. "It sounds like a lot, but actually, it is just a day's amount," Mr. Kim says. "Maybe he tried to hide the mail that he failed to deliver on time. Or maybe he tried to deliver the mail the next day after hiding it."
On Nov. 18, the Ministry of Information and Communication, responding to complaints of an overworked postal staff, reinforced 230 larger post offices nationwide with 500 regular mailmen. Jang Hu-seok, director at the delivery service division at the Gangnam Post Office, says that after the ministry provided the new work force, things have improved.
At the Gangnam Post Office, 15 nonregular workers became regulars, parcels were outsourced and ajumma, or married women, were hired part-time to help as sorters, though they're not much help, according to Mr. Kim.
"I used to work 14 to 16 hours a day, which has been cut to 13 hours," Mr. Kim says. He earns 35 million won ($29,000) yearly. "My real problem is that I have to spend more extra hours delivering. Or rather, redelivering.
"People do not usually bother to sort out wrongly delivered mail and put it in the apartment box for return," Mr. Kim says. "In principle, I have to pick that mail up from the box to redeliver it. But actually a lot of the return mail are just ads, and I sometimes secretly wish that people would just throw them out, which they often do."
by Kim Hyo-jin