A village the city ignoresGuryong village, the size of four Olympic stadiums, is the biggest slum in Korea.
The village covers 320,100 square meters, or 79 acres, and is situated in Gaepo-dong, in the Gangnam district of Seoul. It is a “ghost town” that does not appear anywhere on a map. The residents have illegally occupied privately owned land, and thus there is no address for each household. There is no regional governmental office or police station. The village is a self-governing entity.
The residents number 4,100, more people than in 750 communities in Korea. In the late 1980s, many slum areas in Seoul were bulldozed and redeveloped. As a result, many people lost their homes and began flocking en masse to the village. Some settled here because they wish to profit from any potential redevelopment of the area. There are bankrupt entrepreneurs as well as abandoned senior citizens among its residents.
Seventy percent of the area’s residents live in low-income households, but they have no access to welfare services.
“It is difficult for me alone to visit each household in Guryong village and other areas that I am responsible for,” said Oh Hye-gyoung, a social worker. Only 6 percent, or 120 households, receive welfare benefits. Three hundred senior citizens live alone in the village, but only 100 of them receive assistance.
The village has been in existence for 20 years, but no demographic survey has been conducted. Thus, it is not easy to know whether those in immediate need of welfare benefits have been overlooked.
“We cannot neglect the residents forever,” said Lee Ho, a researcher at the Korea Center for City and Environment Research. “The elderly and babies need health care services.”
“Electricity and water bills unpaid for three months could result in the suspension of electricity and water supply,” a town rule says. The rule exists because many people are late in paying their utility bills. The bills are not addressed to each individual household because the services are used collectively. Instead, the residents turn over payments to their villagers’ association, and the association pays Korea Electric Power Corp. and the water supply company.
Another rule says, “The residents directly elect the chairman of the villagers’ association.” There are two such associations, and the residents can choose the one they want to join.
Keeping the village safe is also the responsibility of the residents. Eight men patrol the area from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Perhaps because of the lack of administrative services, the residents have cooperated to a great extent.
The villagers’ associations and church provide free meals to the elderly. Eighty percent of the residents use common restrooms.
The size of the shacks ranges from 16 square meters (172 square feet) to 99 square meters. These houses are illegal, but they sell for 10 million won ($9,700) to 40 million won.
A few years ago, the associations issued residency cards to the current occupants to prevent more people from moving into the village, but the cards are traded like house deeds. According to the associations, 1,000 residency cards were issued. The Suseo police station said although the residency cards have no legal validity, they are sold for tens of millions of won.
“Brokers are encouraging sales,” a police officer said.
“Residents who paid to move in here get their money back from prospective residents,” said an association official. “There is no way to stop transactions between individuals.”
Guryong village is only 1.3 kilometers (0.8 mile) from the luxurious Tower Palace apartments in Dogok-dong, which indicates that the area’s possible redevelopment could lead to a fortune for residents.
“Because of geographical reasons, there are people who want to take advantage of potential redevelopment,” a Gangnam district office official said. “About 20 percent to 30 percent are ‘fake’ residents.
“Most of them are illegal inhabitants and we cannot provide administrative services,” he added.
Only 2 percent of the residents have registered addresses in the village, primarily those who began living in the area before the village was formed. The rest have registered addresses outside the village.
The current ban on redevelopment of the area will be lifted at year’s end. “There will be a discussion of development. If interested parties cannot agree on the way it is to be developed, there are going to be conflicts,” a real estate agency official said.
The two village associations are already involved in a power struggle over control of possible development. The associations blame each other for encouraging the sales of residency cards and try to increase their clout by soliciting residents to their side.
In reality, Seoul city and Gangnam district officials say that even if development restrictions are lifted, they do not intend to develop the area for residential or commercial use. Instead, they plan to turn the area into a park or sports facility for public use. Then, there would be no benefits for the residents.
“In the long term, the residents should be relocated and offered apartments to lease in order to stop the vicious cycle of poverty,” said Ryu Jeong-sun, the head of the Korea Research and Consulting Institute on Poverty.
For the elderly, free meals are critical
The announcement blaring from a loudspeaker in a steel tower near the villagers’ association said, “Meals are provided from 7 a.m.”
Before sunrise, at five minutes to 7, senior citizens were already lined up in front of a building where the food is served. Breakfast is prepared for 100 people. The menu consists of cabbage leaves in bean paste soup, kimchi and rice, but to the elderly this is a feast. Meals are offered twice a day: breakfast is provided by the village church and lunch by the associations. The church, charities and associations share the costs.
“We were concerned that seniors were skipping meals,” said a woman who was helping to serve the food.
Meanwhile, on a hillside in the village, a billboard reads “Missionary Beauty Salon.”
The only equipment in the tiny shop is a stool and a mirror. A 51-year-old beautician, Song Gi-ok, is trimming an elderly woman’s hair for free. “The elderly here do not have money so I do it for free,” Ms. Song said. “After a trimming or a perm, the old ladies are as happy as young brides.”
After asking for the location of the restroom, a 76-year-old woman is handed a key. There is a restroom in an empty lot, which five or six households use. It consists of a latrine; 80 percent of the residents here use this kind of toilet.
In front of a community hall are a number of fire extinguishers. “There is a great likelihood of a short circuit and fire because the houses are built with wooden boards,” said Kim Byeong-chan, 48, the head of a village association. According to Mr. Kim, there was a fire a year ago that burned for 20 minutes before it was put out by the residents.
The gap between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’
In the evening, a few cars, including a Grandeur family sedan and Santa Fe sport utility vehicle, pull up to the village.
People get out of the cars and walk into the village. They all refuse to talk.
“There is a gap between the rich and the poor here, too, just like everywhere,” said Jeong Min-chan, a 63-year-old resident. Mr. Jeong lives in a 16.5-square-meter (178 square foot) room. The ceiling is so low that one cannot stand up straight in the room.
Some houses, however, have two-meter-high ceilings and electronic door locks. They have a flush toilet, two or three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room. Some even have satellite TV antennas. The residents call these houses “hotels.”
“There are wealthy people who stay here for a short time, to take advantage of the area’s potential redevelopment,” a 40-year-old resident said. “See the house right there? We are illegal residents, but they are ‘fake’ residents.”
A daycare center to instill confidence
There is a kindergarten-like playroom in the village, filled with the noises of the children there.
They play on a slide and dive into a “pool” made of balls. Then they gather to listen to a teacher read a book.
“I intend to teach them to have confidence and grow up happily,” said a nun named Monica. She set up the 50 square meter (538 square foot) playroom for the children of double-income households and single parents.
“The efforts we make for our children are comparable to those of mothers living in high-rent southern Seoul,” said Jeong Ji-yeon, a 38-year-old housewife. She said she spends 30 percent of her family’s income on education. Her house also has Internet connectivity.
“It is tough because of the educational expenditure, but I am happy about it,” Ms. Jeong said.
Chronology of Guryong
1985: Some farmers move into a greenhouse in the village
1988: Residents in Haan-dong, Gangmyeong city, move in after slums in Haan-dong are removed
1989: More residents move in after other slums are leveled to build five satellite cities around Seoul
1992: Electricity supply begins
1998: Water supply begins
2000: Development of the village is restricted
2004: Fire breaks out, resulting in 3.6 million won ($3,500) of damage
2005: The government announces that the development ban will be lifted in December
by Yang Young-yu, Chung Yong-whan, Min Dong-ki