Thursday, July 9, 2009

Handicapped Beggers in the Streets of South Korea

Here is the question:
Hello Expat!We see many people around Seoul who are asking for cash. I'm sure you've seen them:

1) Blind people on subways, slowly making their way through cars, either with pre-recorded music, or perhaps playing a harmonica

2) Older people in subway stations, parking themselves at the bottom of
a stairway, perhaps remaining in a bowed position on the ground

3) People who have had a leg removed, and walk around with their pant leg rolled up, to get sympathy

And perhaps the saddest cases of all...
4) Men laying prone on little rolling carts, with their non-functioning legs wrapped in what looks like inner tubes.

Our question is: Are these folks generally
"on their own," or are they the "front people" for others who take a large cut of the money they collect?

In the US, we would tend to support organizations who in turn provide services to the needy. Which Korean organization(s) provide those same services?


This is a HUGE question that touches on so many different issues. Who are these people? Why are they begging or how did they become homeless? How did they lose their limbs? Do they have family? Why are they on the streets in the fashion they are? What does the government do to help? The questions are endless and "Ask the Expat" generally doesn't go into that much detail, but this is one that I, too, have always been curious about (question #4 in particular).

I guess we should start by identifying who these people are. It's hard to say, but some of them are just your average jobless or homeless dudes and luckily, there has been a good study done on homelessness in South Korea. I'd suggest reading it so you can get a better idea of who might fit each of the categories mentioned by the questioner. I will refer to some of the data from time to time.

I'm going to answer this one in three posts. The longer the posts, the less people read and I think that if people knew more about this, then they would be more inclined to throw out a couple bills.

The first group can be paired with the third group because they are both handicapped in some way. I separated the fourth group because their situation is much different. True, they are also handicapped (mentally or physically), yet there are a few other things going on there.

South Korea does not take great care of their handicapped citizens. There are glaring problems that need to be addressed. For starters, most of Korea is not handicapped-accessible and discrimination is rampant in companies and higher education institutes around the country.


"I was the only applicant for the PhD degree but my application was rejected because I have a disability,” claimed Ms. Lee, a 27 year-old who suffers from cerebral palsy who says she was discriminated against due to her illness.

And it's not just the handicapped who have a difficult time finding jobs or being taken care of by the State. Fat people and people with poor vision also get left out. The situation never really got much attention until the late former Pres. Roh Moo-Hyun promised some increased welfare and benefits, but the effects of his promises have yet to be felt just as Oh Mi-sook realized when she made the choice to fight for refugee status rather than being sent back to Korea. Ms. Oh is not the first to try this either. All the way back in 1985, Park Soo-young was fighting the same battle. Why?


"...handicapped and mixed-race people are subject to extensive discrimination in Korea, so Park and his wife want to remain in the United States."

The fact that very similar cases have taken place over 20 years apart suggests the Korea still has a ways to go. I can even add two fellow expats stories to this. About two years ago, I was a little late for dinner with friends, so I joined them at the table and introduced myself to the new faces. One of the guys had been there for a week, but was stressed out because he was already out of a job. He had been fired because he had cerebral palsy. He was not able to find another job and had to leave Korea ON HIS DIME.

Another one comes from an American woman who had had her left leg amputated as a child. I worked with her for six months and not once did I notice her leg. I knew she was an amputee because she had mentioned it, but it was impossible to notice. Well, as I got to know her, it turned out that she had been fired from a kids hagwon. The school knew that she had a prosthetic limb, but once the parents spotted it on a hot summer "sports day", they complained, threatened to pull their kids out and just like that, she was kicked to the curb. Luckily, she was able to secure employment teaching adults presumably because the dress code called for more formal attire which covered her fake leg.

Still, all of that discrimination does not answer why they are on the streets or playing music in the subways. It comes down to care and the government has an interesting policy. The burden of care falls almost entirely on the family. And of course, some family members are tired of the burden or, in this horrible case, they take advantage of the burden.



The Cheongju District Court Thursday sentenced an 87-year-old grandfather and two uncles of a 16-year-old girl to four-year suspended prison terms for sexually assaulting and raping the girl for the last seven years. Another uncle received a three-year suspended jail term.

The court acknowledged that their crime was ``sinful'' as they used the young girl, who is their family member, to satisfy their sexual desires. But it gave the suspended terms, saying, ``The accused have fostered the girl in her parents' place. Considering her disability, she will also need their care and help in living in the future.

Change the wording around and it reads: "As long as anybody but the government has to pay and deal with this retard, then so be it." I apologize for being crass, but that's what it boils down to.

Even in modern day Korea, parents often give their life savings to their children at the time of their marriage. This setup usually leads to the parents falling back on their children when their age becomes an issue. One study suggests that daughter-in-laws are the ones who must shoulder the heavy burden of caring for a disabled relative. I'm speculating now, but I'm sure that imposed role comes with a large amount of resentment and anger which could lead to a parting of ways within the family.

And that brings us to where we are today. Thousands and thousands of people are alienated from society and their families because of their uncontrollable condition. They have little or no support, so they make do and head out to the subways and streets to beg for help. There's no telling where they live or how much they make, but I can guess it's not that much. -Not enough for them to be able to avoid begging on the streets.


I always make it a habit to put money in their cup or basket and, from where I'm sitting, it looks like -as an expat- that's about all I can do.

I will talk about the old people begging next and the "front groups" when I discuss category #4.

2 comments:

Samuel said...

Sorry, can't buy your logic. Why are there such a greater number of homeless, begging, and mental ill people on the streets in Toronto than in Seoul?

The Expat said...

There's nothing to buy. The Korean government doesn't take care of its handicapped people, do they take to the street. This post was not about homelessness and beggers in general.