Asia's Broken Lives
S. Korea's Middle Class Hides Its Despair
By Kevin Sullivan
ANSAN, South Korea – Two men on bicycles pedal up. Kim Myung Yun hops up from the curb, takes a deep breath, pulls his hands out of his pockets and musters a decent "Kookyunghaseyo!" – "Please take a look!"
It's almost noon, and there hasn't been a customer for hours. Kim feels more like a fire hydrant than a hat vendor, so he's fidgety when one of the bike men picks up a New York Yankees cap and checks himself out in the side-view mirror of Kim's car.
"I look good in hats," he says.
"That's because they cover your face," his friend shoots back.
Kim laughs with them and relaxes a bit. Still, for a guy who was a white-collar manager making $40,000 a year until he was laid off five months ago, in the midst of South Korea's continuing economic crisis, it's tough to work this hard for a $4 sale.
Hours later, long after dark on a 14-hour workday that started before dawn, Kim packs up and heads for the hour-long train ride home. He's sold the Yankees cap and one other all day. Subtracting his train fare, that gives him a profit of 25 cents.
At home late at night, Kim, 39, sits at his kitchen table beneath a tapestry of the Last Supper on the wall, in the glow of a single neon light overhead, drinking a cup of milk. His wife won't be home from work for at least another hour. His two young daughters are doing their homework in their bedroom, so he keeps his voice down.
"I feel guilty when I look at my family," he says, through eyes wet with tears. "A father has certain responsibilities. A man has certain responsibilities. In my heart I want to give my wife and my daughters everything, but I can't make anything work out."
If there is joy in this house, it comes from a violin.
Kim Eun Joo, 12, sets up her purple music stand in the kitchen, in the narrow space between the refrigerator and the stove. She puts her long black hair up in a ponytail, tucks her violin tightly under her chin and begins playing it with a bow half as tall as she is.
Staring hard at the somber Bach piece before her, Eun Joo plays with long, smooth strokes of the bow, which leaves a dusting of white rosin on her instrument, as though someone had sprinkled it with confectioner's sugar. The fingers of her left hand tickle and tweak the violin's neck. Close your eyes and it could be a professional; open them and see the chipped red nail polish of a young girl's hands.
As music fills this tiny three-room apartment, the first floor of a two-story brick building in Seoul, her father stares into space through a pile of pots next to the sink. He seems to know each note of a piece he's heard practiced a thousand times. In a day spent hawking hats to strangers, this is the only peaceful moment.
Eun Joo finishes, bows deeply and says, "Kamsahamnida" – "Thank you."
"I am so proud of you," her father says, sliding his arm around her waist.
Kim and his wife have refused to give up Eun Joo's violin lessons, which cost about $460 a month – a sum they really can't afford when they are surviving mainly on a $750 monthly unemployment benefit, which runs out in December.
They already have cut piano lessons for their younger daughter, Eun Hae, 9, whose tastes run more to sports than symphonies. But Eun Joo shows uncommon promise as a musician, and her parents refuse to accept – so far, at least – that the nation's economic crisis might steal her future. They think if it takes that, it has taken everything.
The family has cut the phone service at home. They want to sell their 10-year-old Daewoo car, but they would have to pay about $500 in parking tickets first, and that's probably more than the car is worth.
Kim lost his medical insurance when he lost his job. The family now pays a small monthly fee for bare-minimum coverage. But when his wife, Moon Mi Ya, recently fell down some stairs and required stitches on her head and chin, the family had to pay the $380 in doctor's bills. Still, the music comes first.
"Eun Joo prays to God every night that she can go to the United States to study at a music college," says Moon. "I don't want to break her heart, but one day I will have to tell her that she will never be able to do that.
"I can take twice this much pain, but I can't take it when it hurts my children."
This is the pain hidden behind the doors of hundreds of thousands of South Korean homes as families cope with the country's worst economic crisis in nearly half a century. Kim and Moon aren't the newly homeless beggars staring back from the covers of magazines. They aren't the poor driven deeper into poverty by the crisis. It's hard to tell from the outside that their lives have been shattered. But the pain in this middle-class home is the ache South Korea will feel long after the economists declare "recovery" and move on.
For the first time in a year, the stock market is moving upward and foreign investment is trickling in. But hope is not always comfort, and a spark on the trading floors doesn't warm Kim's feet on these cold fall mornings. Kim knows the catch: Too many companies here gave too many people employment for life, so firms are "recovering" by shedding thousands of middle managers like him. Even the optimistic government says unemployment will continue to climb to almost 9 percent by next spring – four times what it was a year ago.
Despite a college education and 14 years' experience in insurance, Kim is considered too old and too inexperienced in high-tech skills to be attractive to most firms here. Construction workers can go back to plastering walls and installing plumbing when South Korea starts growing again. But soft-palmed managers such as Kim, many of them the first generation in their families to trade rice paddies for an office building, fret that they could be the most permanent casualty of the Asian financial crisis.
"The more time you have to think, the harder it is," Kim says.
In Ansan, a suburb of Seoul, rap music pounds from speakers outside the Hot People clothes boutique. Businessmen with black briefcases stride by in a hurry, and well-dressed women on their way to the shops clickety-clack past, all avoiding a glance at Kim, who is sitting on the dirty curb with his head down.
Kim used to be one of them: Sales chief at a big insurance company, he was management, a suit, a comfortably middle-class provider for his family. But since his company laid off 76 workers at the end of June, he's ended up here, reading the want ads next to a noxious sewer manhole, waiting for someone to stop and shop at his "Hat Department Store."
The "store" is his brother-in-law's car, parked on the sidewalk and covered with green mesh netting. His hat display hangs on clothespins hooked into the mesh – dozens of baseball caps, ski hats with pompoms, berets. Each time Kim sells one, he and his brother-in-law split the $1.50 profit.
Kim says he visited several vendors in Seoul and asked them what sells best. They told him hats are cheap and sell well, so he and his brother-in-law pooled some money and bought 100. But the way things are going with hats, it might be time to try something else – maybe fruit, they think.
"There isn't anything I haven't thought of trying," says Kim, who already has sold shoes and water filters door-to-door and been rejected by construction foremen because of his slight stature. "I can't even count how many companies I called and went to. I have been working for an insurance company for so long, I don't know what else to do. It isn't like I just want a job where I can wear a suit. I'll take anything."
Kim's situation is so common in South Korea that everyone recognizes it and sympathizes – sometimes even the police. His hatmobile is parked illegally, and Kim can't afford the permit required to be a legal sidewalk vendor. On his first day here, he pleaded his situation to the officers who threatened to tow the car away. They still come by each day and tell him to move. But he never does, and they never do anything about it. Today, the police tow a car right across the street, but they never look at Kim.
It's easy to tell the newly unemployed amateurs from the people who have been on the streets all their life. The guy selling rubber gloves from a cardboard box on the subway, shouting and laughing and cajoling and charming the housewives with promises of no more dishpan hands – he's too good at it to be a laid-off accountant or engineer forced into the streets. But Kim, with his downcast eyes, soft voice and nervous smile – you'd trust him with your insurance portfolio, but you'd never hire him to run a garage sale.
"At first it was difficult for me to say anything to the people who came by, but I have to adapt to my new life," he says, shuffling and reshuffling a pile of wool caps on the car's hood.
The traffic is heavier at lunchtime in Ansan Square. A couple of people stop to look at Kim's hats, but nobody buys. His feet hurt. He can't stop thinking about his children. The sewer manhole smells especially bad today, so at least he's not hungry. But the questions nag. What happens next? How bad can things really get?
He admits he has no plan for when the unemployment checks stop around Christmas. He knows his prospects of finding work are no better than hundreds of thousands of other guys looking for jobs. He feels too "emotionally unstable" to think about it much.
"The reality now is so tough," he says, "I don't even want to think about one year from now."
Moon Mi Ya named her beauty salon "Noel," because her father told her it evoked Christmas and peace in English. But the place is far from a Silent Night. It's one brightly lit room up two flights of rickety stairs in the middle of noisy Seoul. The place has the sharp, chemical smell of hair being dyed, dried and gooped. Moon's four employees are busy clipping and brushing and perming, and snippings of hair pile up like black pillow down at their feet. Loud pop music – a silly old tune called "One Night in Bangkok" – blares from a boombox and mixes badly with the whiny drone of blow-dryers.
Once a week Moon gets up before dawn to hand out fliers at the subway station. She hates doing it, but it works: The six chairs are filled with yuppie men in blue suits and white shirts having their brush cuts shortened and working women having their hair straightened.
Amid all the clatter, Moon sits at a table covered with hair-care products and glamour magazines. As soon as she starts talking, the words and the tears come fast, and they won't stop, until she's 20 Kleenexes into the box.
"Thirty-nine is an age when you should be working. My husband was the chief salesman. He was the flower of the company, then it was all taken away from him in one day.
"My husband feels guilty and so sorry. He keeps saying 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' But it's worse when we feel sorry for him."
She says Kim comes home late at night, exhausted, legs aching and hoarse from calling to customers on the street. He's lost a lot of weight, and he can sleep only a few hours a night from worry. "When I look at him sleeping, I can't help but cry," Moon says. "It's so hard to see someone I love, someone who works so hard and was so successful, in so much pain."
Moon has not told her children the truth; she has said something about Daddy getting ready to start a new business. She is trying to wall them off from the turmoil and worry.
"Every day is a nightmare for me. I'm so scared," says Moon, 39. "I pray to God to give me the strength to overcome this crisis so we can hold on to what we have."
Moon knows there are people who have it worse. She visits orphanages and homes for pregnant single women, giving free haircuts to all. She has always done this, and she's trying to keep her life as normal as possible.
Moon grew up in a hard-working home in the South Korean countryside. Her father was an executive at a gold mine, then a carpenter when the mine went bust. When his job changed, the family moved to a cheaper home and neighborhood, giving Moon a taste of shifting fortunes before her teenage years. She moved to Seoul when she was 17. She heard that it was possible to earn money working in factories during the day and study at night. She finished high school that way, and she married Kim 13 years ago.
"Until now, I believed that if I just worked hard I would always get what I wanted," she says. "Look at my hands." She holds them up, showing deep nicks and scrapes and scars on her knuckles from painting the walls of her shop. "I've always worked so hard, and I believed that would always pay off. But now I realize that is not so."
Moon works more hours since the crisis began, but like many small business owners, she no longer can meet her bills; she is behind two months in the rent. Business is off drastically. People are cutting their hair less often, or even doing it themselves. She fears she may have to cut salaries for her four employees – whose monthly wages range from $175 to $575 – but if they leave, business leaves with them, since many customers come because of a favorite stylist. Moon also feeds her employees – all single women – breakfast, lunch and dinner to try to keep them on, but this cost is growing heavier too.
Eun Joo senses her parents' angst. She is the studious one, the one who is too shy to speak to boys but too sharp to miss what is happening around her.
"Her allowance is the same now as it was before, but she doesn't spend it now," Moon says. "She saves it because she is a smart girl and she understands our problems. That is so heartbreaking for me.
"She loves to skate, too, so we used to take her to the ice rink whenever we could. We'd all eat chicken afterward, and it was such a nice family outing. But now it's impossible. She doesn't even ask why we can't go anymore. The fact that she knows hurts me so much, because I know she's hurting inside."
Eun Hae shows no signs of pain. She's still the family clown, the class jump-rope and swimming champion, and fearless. Not long ago, when a boy flipped up her skirt at school, Eun Hae chased him up four flights of stairs, pinned him down and pulled down his pants. "He won't do that again," Moon says, laughing through her tears.
She says Eun Hae too senses that things have changed and keeps asking why she can't have chocolate, or new shoes, or other treats they used to have. "She asks why, and I can't explain it to her."
At his kitchen table, Kim walks through the finances that are squeezing him tighter every day. As he starts, he tries to soothe Eun Hae, who is sulking because she wants to watch television instead of doing her homework. Like many Korean men, Kim never spent much time with his children because he worked such long hours, so he's had to learn fast. "Okay, okay, you win – watch TV if you like," he says, and he closes the door to her room.
Kim used to earn more than 33 million South Korean won a year as chief salesman for Korea Life Insurance, a large firm in Seoul. Until the crash of the won one year ago, that was nearly $40,000, and it placed him squarely in the middle class in South Korea – especially with profits from his wife's beauty salon added in.
But the company laid off Kim and 75 others at the end of June because of decreasing sales in the sudden recession. Kim received $5,000 in severance pay and was without a job for the first time in his life.
He immediately found out just how fragile his middle-class status was. He had no savings and a pile of debt. As the economy soured late last year, people started canceling their insurance policies to save money, and few were purchasing new ones. So Kim's sales staff started coming up short on their monthly quotas.
But rather than report that bad news to the company, Kim began making up the difference out of his own pocket – a common practice in a country where managers often accept personal responsibility for their employees. Especially in lean times, Kim says, it was his responsibility to keep sales figures on target to prevent layoffs among the salesmen who counted on him.
To make his sales goals, Kim borrowed more than $11,000 from the company and nearly $4,000 more on his credit cards. He put the severance check toward that debt, and he says half of his monthly unemployment benefit goes to debt payments. Late payments on his credit card debt are hit with 30 percent interest penalties, so he must keep paying on time to avoid going further into the hole.
The family is in no danger of losing their apartment because of the South Korean system of chunse, which governs almost all property rentals. Under that system, people pay a large, one-time lump sum to their landlord, who invests it, and the interest income is the monthly rent. Kim paid the equivalent of $35,000 to his landlord three years ago, so he's secure in his home for the time being.
The government has not forgotten the unemployed: President Kim Dae Jung's administration has pledged about $7.5 billion this year to build a social safety net for the nearly 2 million workers who have lost jobs in the last year. There used to be just about nothing to help the unemployed, because there were just about no unemployed. Now, there are benefits for up to nine months, and the government is putting about 300,000 day laborers to work on public works projects.
The government says growth in new high-tech fields will fire a South Korean renaissance, and plans to train more than 300,000 workers in computer programming and other high-tech skills. It promises loans to help entrepreneurs start new ventures. But at Kim's kitchen table, where beans have replaced meat on the family's dinner plates, those programs look like something conceived in some academic bubble far from the realities of the streets.
"Even if I take these courses, would I really be able to get a job when all these companies are laying people off?" Kim says. "I have plenty of friends who have taken those courses, and they don't have jobs now."
Kim says he'd love to learn computer skills and better English to help him get a job. But he says, "Where would the money come from while I'm in classes? We need money now, so I can't afford to go to school." He says the government is tighter with its entrepreneurial loans than it lets on, and "somebody like me would never qualify for even one won."
He says he'd like to emigrate to the United States to work, but he knows no one there and has no idea how to go about it: "I don't see anything I can do but sell hats."
Lowering his voice further, Kim says he's fighting depression and the urge to just give up. He says he never used to understand why the unemployed would sleep on the floor of a subway station, drinking and withering away instead of trying to fight for a job – any job – to keep their dignity.
"But now I know how they feel," he says. "I realize that if the situation does not allow them to get a job, it's easy for them to turn to alcohol. It's so depressing. It's impossible for them to climb out of the hole they're in.
"Sometimes my friends will call and say, 'Let's go out and talk about what's happened to us,' but I don't feel like it. It just feels like I'm closing myself off from society."
Kim keeps looking toward the room where his daughters are watching television. His eyes are red and his voice is raspy. He doesn't refill his milk cup. He has been wearing the same clothes for two days.
The beauty salon has emptied out and it's after 9 p.m. when Moon finally locks up. It's Saturday night, time for her weekly grocery shopping. She hops the No. 135 bus for the 15-minute ride home with one of Seoul's daredevil public bus drivers.
When she arrives, she finds her girls laughing and playing in the narrow street in front of their house. Their cousins, the two daughters of Kim's business-partner brother-in-law, have come for their monthly visit, and the four girls are kicking a ball and raising a happy racket in the tiny street.
Moon drops off a couple of plastic packages of rice and seaweed for dinner, just as Kim arrives home from another day of selling hats: 11 today, not bad at all, considering. After getting the girls settled with their dinner, Moon walks to the store. Late at night is the only time she can get away to do the shopping.
At nearly 10:30 p.m., the all-night grocery is fairly empty, so Moon takes her time poking through the produce. A big red banner that reads "Let's all be healthy to overcome the IMF crisis" hangs over a dazzling display of dried fish, squid and six-foot-long plastic bags of dried seaweed. The abbreviation for the International Monetary Fund has become shorthand for pain in South Korea.
Moon says she used to spend more than $200 a week on groceries, grabbing whatever she wanted without paying much attention to price, and stocking up on big tubs of ice cream, all kinds of beef and pork, and lots of other treats for the kids. Now, she tries to keep it to half that or less.
She turns over six heads of cabbage to check the price tags before finally dropping one in her basket. She weighs some loose-leaf salad greens on a scale, replaces them and buys a cheaper bunch. Her basket of food is long on essentials: cabbage for kimchi, vegetables, eggs, a package of clams and two whole chickens. It fills four small shopping baskets and must last the family for a week. From the same load, Moon also will feed her four employees, supplemented with a little convenience-store rice.
At the cash register, Moon peels off eight 10,000-won notes, about $61. It is the price of 10 haircuts at her shop – it might take her husband weeks to make that much selling hats. Kim arrives with the car to help his wife get the groceries home. They tease each other as they load bags into the trunk.
"I really feel bad that you have to stand out on the street all day," Moon says.
"Yeah, but you still bug me for money," Kim says with a laugh.
The picture in the newspaper is enchanting: children playing and laughing in the tall grass on a mountainside near Seoul. Moon stares at the big color photo and sets it aside in the beauty shop. Her family used to take trips all the time to see the mountains or the sea, to give the girls a sense of nature and beauty, which all great musicians need, she says. But since Kim lost his job, the family hasn't been farther from home than the grungy neighborhood park.
So on this beautiful late fall Sunday morning, Moon decides the family needs a break. Church is the first priority, though, so she and Kim drop the girls at the morning children's service at their neighborhood church. For an hour, a dozen children listen to Bible stories and sings songs, accompanied by Eun Joo playing the old upright piano in the corner.
When the service is over, Kim and Moon arrive at the church door in hiking boots and old flannel shirts and carrying backpacks filled with boiled chicken, eggs and rice – a splurge that will set them back, but that doesn't seem to matter today.
Moon and her girls hold hands and skip down the city streets, then bundle together happily in a corner seat on the subway. Almost an hour later, they arrive at Bukhansan Mountain, a national park just north of Seoul.
They join the crowds hiking up the steep hillside paths, shedding their heavy shirts as the sun rises into a perfect blue sky, on a day that smells like leaves. Soon the vast mountain park absorbs the noisy crowds, and Moon, Kim and the girls find a quiet spot next to a mountain stream.
They spread their blanket out on a slab of smooth granite and lay out lunch – Moon has even brought along chocolate bars for her girls, a rare treat in this, the worst year the family has known. The kids roll up the legs of their overalls and wade into the cold, clear water. They crouch and dip their faces into the water – they say they're looking for fish – and they come up dripping and laughing and splashing each other.
"We didn't live a luxurious life, we didn't overspend, we just worked hard and tried to be honest, and suddenly this has happened," Moon says. "It's so scary. Today is a nice break for us, because we've been losing the little bit of courage we had."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company