Gangnam Style

Seoul's poverty lingers in the shadows of Gangnam-style prosperity

Worlds apart but right next door, upmarket Seoul district that inspired rapper's viral hit rubs shoulders with a community living in squalor

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 October, 2012, 5:16am

Shadowed by the high-rises of Gangnam - Seoul's wealthiest district - Kim Bok-ja, 75, pulls her trolley of folded cardboard through a shanty town that sits uncomfortably in one of Asia's most developed cities.

At a local recycling yard, Kim smiles thinly as she counts out the meagre cash return she gets for the load of boxes and packaging she spent all day collecting.

"This is all I can do to survive, probably up until I die, because I live alone with no proper income," she said.

Kim's home is Guryong - a squalid, sprawling slum of plywood and tarpaulin shacks settled in 1988 by squatters evicted from other areas in a push to beautify Seoul as it prepared to host the Olympic Games. Nearly 25 years later, Guryong (which translates as "Nine Dragons") has more than 2,000 residents scrabbling out a subsistence living with Third World poverty levels and little or no proper sanitation.

It's about as far removed as possible from the opulent, glitzy world of neighbouring Gangnam - the upscale district of luxury boutiques and nightclubs made world famous by rapper Psy's viral hit, Gangnam Style.

Taxi drivers have difficulty locating Guryong, although it is separated from Gangnam by a six-lane highway and covers an area of 30 hectares.

"Our village is Seoul's biggest slum settlement but it will not appear on any maps," said Lee In, the 59-year-old deputy head of the Guryong residents' council.

A significant portion of residents are in their 70s or 80s and live alone, most of them without any sort of state assistance.

"Many are engaged in rough work or odd jobs to earn their daily living," Lee said. "The fact they don't starve is largely down to help from volunteers and religious groups."

Guryong dwellings are all illegal, and gas and electricity supplies almost non-existent, leaving smoky coal briquettes as the main heating source during Seoul's bitter winters.

A fire in January spread through the flimsy plywood shacks in a matter of minutes, gutting scores of homes, while floods triggered by heavy rains in July last year destroyed a large section of the village.

The only advantage of living in such crude housing is that it can easily be replaced.

"What comes down during the day, we can erect again at night," said 54-year-old resident Kim Mi-Ran.

The irony of Guryong's squalor - and the factor most likely to lead to its eventual disappearance - is that it sits on an area of prime real estate which developers have long coveted.

The land is privately owned, but the squatters have been there so long that they have acquired a quasi-legal status buttressed by the municipal government's decision to grant them temporary residency cards last year.

Earlier this year, a private developer came up with a plan to build low-rent accommodation to house Guryong residents and redevelop the land they vacate.

City authorities have since proposed a similar plan of their own, and the two proposals have split the community down the middle with a heated debate over which would be more beneficial.

Forcible eviction is an obvious alternative, but the authorities are particularly wary of taking extreme action.

An effort to force illegal tenants out of a building slated for redevelopment in another Seoul district in 2009 triggered clashes that left five people and a police officer dead.

Park Won-soon, a long-time liberal activist who was elected Seoul mayor last October, has made it clear that any solution in Guryong must reflect the opinions and interests of its residents.

"Under the current mayor, there is no question of using coercion," a city official said.

For Kim Kyo-seong, a professor at Chung-Ang University's graduate school of social welfare, Guryong is a concentrated embodiment of everything that is wrong with South Korea's rapid economic development.

"It's a powerful symbol of inequality in our society," Kim said.