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Gangnam’s Shanytown: A Look Inside

Juxtaposed under the shadow of the high-rise (and high-class) Gangnam District, Seoul’s Guryong slum is a revealing—and perhaps unexpected—example of the extent of poverty in which many South Korean elderly live. In fact, relative to other developed nations, South Korea has the highest senior poverty rates. This slum serves as a harsh reminder of that fact, as it is home to approximately 2,000 people, the vast majority of whom are elderly.

For many, this is no doubt more than a bit surprising coming from a wealthy country generally known for its high standards of living, top-notch Internet speeds, and cosmetic surgery.

Many of those who played a part in creating South Korea’s wealth, mainly during the country’s “economic miracle” from the 1960s to the 90s, are now queuing up in the bread line. Churches throughout the country give out food and 500 won coins (roughly US$0.45) every Thursday to the hundreds of seniors typically found in line.

The many that get by without any state subsidies are forced to eke out a living in Guryong for years, with little hope of fair relocation compensation from the government. For others, it seems that monthly living assistance (typically the equivalent of US$180) doesn’t quite cut it. Especially for those supporting relatives or whose spouses have passed away.

Kim Ok-nyo is one of these. Her husband died of a heart attack some 30 years ago, and she moved to Guryong shortly after his death. Now 80, she still hopes for a transition into improved living conditions, and soon. The shacks of Guryong are mostly wood, extremely old, and prone to fires (which happen all too often). Ok-nyo, like most residents of Guryong, uses shared public toilet facilities and relies on coal for heat during the frigid winters.

This transition may come about this summer, after years of dispute between the city and developers over plans for this prime piece of land. City and district officials have already approved a plan to build numerous low-cost housing units and subsidized homes for current residents. To make way for these, the slum is slated for clearing and demolition beginning in June.

Cho Gyu-tae, a Gangnam official handling the redevelopment, says, “We need to develop the area quickly to improve housing security for people there, because these illegal shacks are old, so they are vulnerable.”

The Guryong slum grew quickly in 1988, after the government reportedly forced hundreds out of their old dilapidated homes nearby, in a campaign to clean up the city for the Summer Olympics. Many squatted on what was at that time private farmland, which eventually evolved into the full-on shantytown that it is today.

H/T: KoreAm