SEOUL — There’s a dark side to South Korea’s 50-year rise to riches: The graying generation that is most responsible for that ascent is living in relative poverty.
In a fast-paced nation famous for its high achievers and its big spending on private tutors and luxury goods, half of South Korea’s elderly are poor, the highest rate in the industrialized world.
Some live in crumbling hillside neighborhoods that lack running water. Others wait in line at soup kitchens where there is no young face in sight. The worst-off comb through garbage, collecting cardboard and paper and lugging it to trash yards, where they can receive several dollars for a pile. It’s common in central Seoul to see hunched seniors gathering scraps.
Most of South Korea’s aging poor were comfortable or even prosperous during their careers, experts say. But they’ve tumbled backward since retirement, victims of a tumultuous change in the way this nation treats its old.
In much of Asia, a powerful Confucian social contract has for centuries dictated that children care for their aging parents. But that filial piety is weakening as younger generations migrate to cities. The change is particularly noteworthy in South Korea, because it has accumulated wealth so quickly and its society is so notoriously cutthroat, with ruthless competition for the best test scores and more-prestigious jobs.
“It’s almost like people don’t have the psychological space to care for other people,” said Lee Sun-young, an administrator at a senior center in the Seodaemun district of Seoul.
Over the past 15 years, the percentage of children who think they should look after their parents has shrunk from 90 percent to 37 percent, according to government polls.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s government has been slow to provide a safety net. Only a third of retirees have pensions, and the payouts are relatively paltry, analysts say.
“The family has crumbled,” said one retiree in Seoul, Park Jang-su. “That’s why we are dying alone.”
Increasingly, the mix of neglect and weak government support is turning deadly. South Korea’s elderly suicide rate has more than tripled since 2000, a surge that has occurred despite counseling and awareness programs funded by local governments.
At the senior center in Seodaemun, a district where some 9,000 elderly people live alone, three staffers run a suicide hotline. They take about 30 calls per day. Ten workers go door to door through Seodaemun, trying to find and help those who are “dangerously isolated,” said Lee, the administrator.
On a recent Friday, Yang Yun-kyeong, 24, one of the staffers, packed her sedan with several boxes of flavored milk, a foam carton of kimchi and a sack of sticky rice. Over the afternoon, she’d visit seven homes, making deliveries to those too ill or poor to buy the goods. She pulled out a clipboard with the name of the first couple on her route.
“You’ll see,” she said. “Their living situation is not ideal.”
After a short winding drive, she arrived at a darkened apartment building with cracked windows and X’s painted on the doors. The building had been condemned, but five units were occupied. One belonged to Lee Yeong-sun, 82, who lives with his wife, who is suffering from dementia.
Lee welcomed Yang inside and invited her to sit down. His floor was covered with quilts and heated only by an electric blanket. The apartment smelled of mold.
Lee had served in the Korean War and worked a variety of odd jobs in the following decades. He doesn’t have a pension. He lives on roughly $300 per month, he said — payments from a veterans group and a government welfare fund. His main hope, he said, is to stay alive longer than his wife, so he can continue to take care of her. But he has had trouble getting her the things she needs, because he doesn’t like to leave her alone for more than two hours. His two children lend him no financial help, and one doesn’t answer his calls.
“The worst part is the loneliness,” Lee said.
South Korea established its pension system in 1988, too late to benefit those such as Lee born before or during the war years. There is a welfare system, too, but its laws are antiquated. Those with children are ineligible, unless they prove that their offspring are unwilling or incapable of providing support. Many elderly people don’t pursue that exemption, because they are embarrassed about their situation.
Even those who had good jobs have fallen back into poverty because they spent heavily on education for their children and saved little money, figuring their kids would provide the care they’d need as seniors.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye had pledged during her 2012 campaign to improve welfare programs for the elderly and described a “National Happiness Pension” that would give seniors up to an extra $200 per month. But Park was never clear about the funding for her program and was reluctant to raise taxes. Several months ago, the president scaled back her plan in a move that prompted the resignation of her health minister. Only the poorest 70 percent of seniors, as opposed to all of them, will receive the new payouts beginning this summer.
For those such as Lee, the influx will make a small difference. For years he has taken extreme measures to limit his spending. To buy medication for his wife, for example, he occasionally takes a 50-minute train ride — free for seniors — to the outskirts of Seoul, where a pharmacy has slightly reduced prices.
During Yang’s visit, Lee apologized that he couldn’t offer her any food, and he told her a story about the years just after the Korean War, when South Korea was in ruin and the gross domestic product per capita was less than $100. “Back then,” Lee said, “food was so scarce that people didn’t ask, ‘How are you?’ Instead, they’d ask whether you’d eaten.”
Lee broke from reminiscing.
“Now,” he said, “I’m worried about running out of rice again.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.