[VIEW 2035] Misery doesn't deserve company, it deserves help

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[VIEW 2035] Misery doesn't deserve company, it deserves help

Jeong Jin-ho
The author is a reporter of economic policy team of the JoongAng Ilbo. 
“What will be given to me? As payment for exhibiting my misery?”
This is what I was told by a homeless person I ran into in front of Seoul Station in December 2017. Back then, I was about to join the company and was told to cover homeless people who were enduring the biting cold. I just talked to them randomly. After saying “hi” politely, I asked why they had become homeless. I handed them a pack of cigarettes to pay for their stories.

He was put out on the street when the financial crisis broke out in 1998 and the company he had worked for went bankrupt. Before this happened, he was doing wholesale services of clothing in the area near Dongdaemun. He was hard hit by massive debt and ended up being divorced, wandering alone for 20 years. He showed no emotions like sadness or regret. This was because he had met so many reporters who asked about his story. Nothing had changed; he still needed to hold a plastic bottle filled with hot water to survive the harsh winter night. Let’s face the truth. We did nothing to change the situation. We’ve been idle spectators who just keep watching their misery.

Recently, heavy rainfall swept the Seoul metropolitan area and semi-basement rooms were flooded. The government and local governments announced a series of countermeasures. They are planning to eliminate these residences. Oh Se-hoon, the Seoul Mayor, said that semi-basements will be removed. Later, Oh added “What I meant is that the number of semi-basement rooms will gradually decrease. There must be some misunderstanding.”
All this happened because their countermeasures came out of the blue. This is not the first time we have seen semi-basements flooded. In fact, “Parasite,” a 2019 Korean black comedy that won an Oscar and is internationally famous, revolves around semi-basements. This type of residential space was covered by the foreign press as well. And Bong Joon-ho, who directed the film, even visited the Blue House to meet with then-President Moon Jae-in.
According to a Report on the Reality of Basement Rooms, Rooftop Houses, and Gosiwon (accommodations for students) recently released by the Korea Center for City and Environment Research, the number of households living in basements amounted to 327,000 as of 2020. The number went down when compared to that of 2005, which was 587,000. However, it is still a huge number, given that the entire number of households living in Jeju Island stood at 271,000 as of last year.

During the same period, the number of households staying at “places except houses such as gosiwon, vinyl houses, shacks, and so on” surged from 57,000 to 463,000. Among them, it is estimated that the proportion of households living in gosiwon accounted for approximately 40 percent. Back in 2018, seven people were killed by a fire at a gosiwon in central Seoul. Last summer, a heatwave killed a disabled person who was living in a rooftop house located in Seoul.

It is true that a countermeasure to gradually remove semi-basement rooms sounds desirable. However, it was inappropriate to announce it just after the record-breaking rainfall hit the city. Before announcing their plans to eliminate an option that people were forced to choose, they must have discussed more deeply where the residents can move. Without it, we’re just watching their misery like an audience, crouching in front of their semi-basement rooms.

BY JEONG JIN-HO [jeong.jinho@joongang.co.kr]
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