Who are the men laying prone on little rolling carts, with their non-functioning legs wrapped in what looks like inner tubes?
This is the second part to a Handicapped Beggars in Korea post. There is little or no reliable information about these people on the Internet. There have been no major news stories or articles written about these people. The information I have gotten is from two government officials, a former Songpa-gu police officer and a rumored, but unconfirmed KBS TV report several years ago.
I'm an early bird and live on Gangnam-daero. I get to see it all on my early morning strolls with my pup: late-night partiers still rockin' it, early-morning street sweepers, pools and pools of vomit and, on two recent occasions, a mysterious unmarked bus with tinted windows. The people who are on these buses, the "Seal Men", are the focus of this post.
Somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00am on weekends, a bus pulls up, opens it's side-doors, and two or three men spring out carrying a handicapped man "with their non-functioning legs wrapped in what looks like inner tubes". They roughly set him up on a rolling cart, place an empty money-collection box next to him, turn his music on and drive off. In one case, the man, who was clearly suffering from severe mental retardation, was forced to lay there without assistance. Most of the time, these guys lie face-down for long hours in the hot summer heat while the busy feet and exhaust smother their view and air. The occasional passerby will lend a hand or maybe even buy them a cool drink, but for the most part, these guys fend for themselves while on the sidewalks.
Before I go any further, I must add that there are two types of beggars who use the carts: One is the mentally handicapped and the other is the physically disabled. The physically disabled tend to be able to walk with crutches, use a wheelchair or maybe even get by with braces. The other, however, has no choice as their debilitating mental condition interferes with the basics of survival. I am focusing on these men, not the physically disabled.
I had a long talk about this with former Songpa-gu police officer who started his beat in Gangnam years ago. He told me that it was a scam. A scam, that I have since found out is ignored by the government. If you have seen Slumdog Millionare, then you kind of get the picture. It's about the same, but their "slaves" are adults who were already handicapped in some way.
It goes like this: A group of people somehow have gotten access to the mentally challenged and set up an operation where they drop these handicapped individuals off on different, but highly trafficked streets in the city, have them lie there all day collecting money and, once the evening has died down, they come and pick them up. Once picked up, the money is taken (usually less than 2o bucks) "to pay health care, food and housing costs" by the men in charge and the handicapped men are brought to a crowded apartment where they are given food and a place to sleep.
I want to be clear that I am only relaying information.
He said that in the 1990s, Korean gangsters were thought to be behind the operation, but I got the impression that he was not privied to such information. If you ask me though, I think it's a reasonable assumption. The Korean mafia is known for human trafficking, i.e. slavery and this would fit right into that theme.
The government officials were a little more vague with their knowledge except for the fact that they admitted knowing about the problem and hinted that by allowing the mafia or whoever is responsible for this to continue its operation, the government can stay out of it. On the surface, I guess it could be argued that these people are "working" during the day and, with the money collected, they pay for their living costs. Of course, only sick and twisted people would argue that. This is modern day slavery at least and there is no excuse for treating people like this. None.
Let's pretend that my three "informants" are all wrong and just lying to me. Fine, but it still doesn't change the fact that I have seen these people dropped off on the streets like animals only to sit all day without food, water, or a bathroom. This type of thing should not happen to the helpless. If they were just a little crazy, a tad mentally "off" or made the choice to beg, then that's their decision, but these specific men are clearly not in charge of making decisions for themselves. They are being pimped out by greedy hands and forced to endure endless days of deprivation without being given a chance to say "no". I'm sorry, but that's slavery.
I will continue to do more research on these "Seal Men" and hope that I can find some more definitive answers soon. Until then...