Kate Gilbert and Micaela Mastropietro contributed to this report.
SEOUL — On a cold Saturday in late November, a South Korean family comes together to have an open barbeque before they begin their annual kimchi making, the traditional Korean fermented cabbage dish that accompanies most meals.
Kimchi-making day is an important family event in Korea, giving a son reason to visit his parents. The place he comes to visit, though, is not a modern apartment building, let alone any of Gangnam’s glitzy high rises, but rather the small Guryong village, an encampment of make-shift houses on the outskirts of Seoul’s foremost business district.
Guryong Village rests at the southern edge of the Gangnam district, in a city that is lauded as the capital of one of the largest economic success stories of East Asia, rising from the ruins of the Korean War as one of the world’s poorest countries to grow its economy to 55 times its size just half a century ago – and become the 11th-largest economy in the world today.
Not all South Koreans benefitted equally. Today, the country is coming to grips with a growing senior poverty crisis. Almost half of the country’s seniors live below the nation’s poverty line, about $5675 per capita. Several causes stand out. On the one hand, Koreans enjoy good free health care, and so live longer than people in most other nations. On the other hand, however, jobs for the elderly are sparse, and the pension system does not give them enough to maintain their living standards. This culminates in poverty when children themselves cannot care for their parents, as expected in the country’s Confucian tradition, and the state has yet to catch up to this daunting reality.
For many, poverty is accompanied by an isolated life with little support, which contributes to Korea having by far the lowest score on its state of community out of all OECD members, a group of developed nations, with 24% of Koreans saying they are not sure someone would be there for them in cases of emergency.
The village, situated at the foot of Mount Guryong, represents some of the worst outcomes of this crisis. It formed after evictions of lower class residents in the real estate boom leading up to the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, which were heralded as the turning point for South Korea as a modern nation. The losers of the boom ended up here, and since then Guryong has grown to about 2,000, primarily elderly, residents today.
The son visiting his parents in the village says he is a doctor with a stable job and his own family, yet his parents have ended up here. This points to another aspect of the senior poverty crisis: many parents spend heavily to give their children the best possible education, but in modern Korea many of the children cannot care for their parents, and they live apart.
An elderly member of the community excitedly tells stories of his prior travels to the United States and various European countries, but somehow he too has had to make this village his home.
Annie Su, a retired women originally from Busan, says she has lived here for almost 30 years.
Despite how it may look from the outside, living in the slum does not exclude its residents from basic services. Mail arrives regularly, and in 2011 the government distributed temporary residency cards allowing residents to vote. Some houses also have running water and electricity, and many have gas cylinders that enable residents to cook on small stoves.
The village even has its own small church in a building on the main road.
A major problem for the community is risk of fire. Many households use coal briquettes for heating, which can easily burst into flames and as well as release toxic gases.
The houses have insulation to protect them from the cold, but the material is not covered by any outer layer in most places, and because it is highly flammable, parts of the village have burnt down 14 times in the past eight years. Firefighters frequently visit to check on the houses, and fire extinguishers are placed prominently in the center of the village.
While residents here face many difficulties, they have maintained their generosity to outsiders and welcome visitors with smiles, warm coffee and food.
Editor’s note: The Quest’s reporters were not able to report deeply on the reality and background stories of Guryong’s residents because of the language barrier.