South Korea: Homeless multiply as unemployment surges FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 11 Feb 1999 12:05:32 -0800 (PST)
FWD  Reuters News Service - Feb 07, 1999


     By Jae-Hee Lee

SEOUL, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Just last year, Mr. Kim had his own farm. A short
time later, he was living in a Seoul railway station.

Kim is a homeless man, something virtually unknown in his country for
decades but now a growing problem as South Korea's grinding economic crisis
creates unemployment on a massive scale.

Most are men who have lost their jobs. Others, like Kim, who declined to
give his full name, saw their farms destroyed by devastating floods last
year. Many have lost their pride and some even their wives.

``We can't go home unless we find the means to make a living,'' said one
man, asking not to be identified. ``Do you think wives and children will
accept us?''

In a Confucian country where supporting a family is considered the
paramount duty of a husband and father, wives won't tolerate a jobless
husband, he said.

They leave them and take the children with them, said the man, a resident
of Freedom House, a new city-run shelter for the homeless where Kim is also
now staying.


Kim, in his forties, is not married. He came to Seoul from Paju, 40 km (25
miles) to the northwest, six months ago to find work.

``All my pigs were washed away and I had nothing else to do,'' he said.

For five months he lived at Seoul's main railway station. But a few weeks
ago he and 1,300 other men were forced to move to Freedom House after Seoul
banned the homeless from major railroad and subway stations.

``I have no trouble living here. The room is warm,'' said Kim.

Until last year homelessness and unemployment had been rare during South
Korea's post-war economic boom. That changed after a plunge in the value of
the won currency in late 1997 triggered a deep recession and threw hundreds
of thousands out of work.

Homeless numbers are still modest compared to many countries. About 6,000
people are homeless in South Korea, according to health and welfare
ministry estimates, including 4,700 in Seoul. But the sight of homeless
people queuing for food shocks many in South Korea, which enjoyed three
decades of economic growth averaging eight percent per year and was a
full-employment economy by most definitions.

Before the crisis, the homeless in South Korea were nearly all vagabonds.
Now they include farmers and businessmen.


At the shelter, men in jogging suits stand every day in a long line,
waiting for a hot lunch. After lunch, some play basketball. Others chat,
have a smoke, or stare into space.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate has soared to around eight percent. At
the end of 1998, 1.67 million people were out of work, more than triple the
556,000 unemployed a year earlier.

Homeless shelters are a new phenomenon in South Korea. The administrator of
Freedom House is optimistic that the problem will not be permanent.

``The increase in the homeless is a temporary situation caused by the
IMF,'' said administrator Choi Sung-nam, referring to South Korea's
acceptance of a massive International Monetary Fund financial bailout in
December 1997.

The deal with the IMF required South Korea to make harsh economic reforms
that have thrown many out of work.

Of the 1,300 men living at Freedom House, about 500 go out at dawn seeking
employment again. Most return by mid-morning, Choi said.

``The Office of Forestry is recruiting about 1,000 people to cut trees in
March and we are taking applications,'' he said.


The government has said it wants to create 400,000 to 500,000 jobs this
year by speeding up government investment in public works projects.

Jung Won-oh, a social welfare professor at Sungkonghoe University, said the
number of homeless is not that high compared to other countries.

``But they became noticeable after the recession because they began to live
in groups in public places,'' he said.

Sungkonghoe University has been asked by the city to run the five-story
shelter, which has about 70 dormitory rooms with 16 to 19 people in each

A Freedom House resident said a will to work is not lacking among those at
the shelter.

``I hope the government creates more jobs so that we can recover our
spirits,'' he said.


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