Economic slowdown turns devoted father into mugger

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Economic slowdown turns devoted father into mugger

A man staggers down Gangnam Daero, a wide avenue of flashy boutiques and stylish office buildings in southern Seoul. As rapper Psy’s “Gangnam Style” pointed out, this is the boulevard of world dreams for many South Koreans.

This man is out of dreams.

“What did I do?” he thinks. “How can I explain this to my children?”

A few hours earlier, Mr. Lee, 52, was in a department store in Gangnam looking at goods he could not afford. He went to the parking lot in the basement. With a box cutter, he threatened a middle-aged woman getting into a car. He demanded money.

But Lee, who had not eaten anything for the last two days, was not strong enough to overwhelm the woman. She resisted fiercely. He dropped the box cutter and ran.

It was hard to believe that he, a father of two high school students, had become a Korean mugger.

Lee ran a small business that sold materials for construction of schools. Business fell off after the sinking of the Sewol ferry last year. Constructions jobs were cancelled, and there was no way for him to service his debts.

When the company was close to going bankrupt, other hardships visited. Lee’s wife was diagnosed with cancer of the spinal cord and his elder brother got leukemia. His mother, who was in her 80s, suffered from chronic diabetes. Lee was also diagnosed with diabetes, but he had to take care of his family first.

In March, the 52-year-old left his home in Munsan, Gyeonggi and moved into a small room at a nearby restaurant owned by his friend. He slept in a changing room for restaurant employees. He spent the days visiting construction companies and contractors looking for business. At night, he helped out at the restaurant. The restaurant gave him a free meal once a day.

The desperate father spent half a year like that. He did sales calls ? sometimes over 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) a day ? on foot because he did not have a bus fare. He often skipped meals. Sometimes his younger brother gave him small amounts of money, which he sent to his children.

“My sweethearts, they are dutiful students,” Lee thought. “And I’m a father who can’t support them.”

But he had hopes of a resurrection, especially after he got a few orders. Summer vacation was coming in June and July. That is when schools do construction projects. They would need materials from his company.

But the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak slammed Korea’s economy and the orders he received were cancelled.

Lee came to the conclusion that his life was not salvageable. He was a failure. He was surrounded by sorrow.

On July 4, the 52-year-old left Sinsa Station in Gangnam. He found a box cutter on the sidewalk and walked into a department store as if hypnotized.

Lee is not alone in his plight.

The number of crimes being committed by people just to survive is on the rise, analysts say.

According to data from the Korean National Police Agency, 18,427 minor crimes such as theft were reported in 2011, which increased to 31,529 in 2013.

Analysts see a trend in ordinary husbands and fathers becoming outlaws in a society against failure, only begrudgingly giving second chances.

But Lee now has motivation to get back on his feet. After the mugging was caught on CCTV, police tracked him down and charged him with robbery. His story was reported in the media and people donated money to him. One person said he had the same experience as Lee.

The money will be used for his daughter’s tuition.

“This is my fault, but I appreciate all the help,” Lee said.

BY YUN JUNG-MIN [nam.yoonseo@joongang.co.kr]

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