Warming help for some of Seoul’s poorest people

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 29, 2012 - 13:42
  • Updated : Feb 29, 2012 - 21:24

Mannam volunteers prepare to distribute coals to residents in Guryong shantytown.
People living in a Seoul shantytown are a little warmer this winter thanks to 4,000 coal briquettes delivered to their makeshift homes by volunteers.

Around 100 Mannam International volunteers visited Guryong Village, in the otherwise plush Gangnam area to hand out the briquettes following a fire that damaged some of the 1,200 shacks there.

Fires caused by energy surges from unregulated electrical generators or gas explosions are a common occurrence in the unauthorized settlement of about 2,500 people.

The latest blaze in late January wrecked 17 homes.

Men from the village said they are now sitting a 24-hour watch over the generators to try to prevent further fires, but villagers still rely on the unpredictable power source for their energy.

Village residents first settled in the former green belt zone after being evicted by city authorities for redevelopment projects in the 1980s, in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics. Some others have since moved to the site because they could not afford to pay rent elsewhere.

Living in the area is illegal, but residents are fighting against the city government to stay, saying they have nowhere else to go.

Because the people in the settlement near the luxury Tower Palace high-rise block live on unrecognized territory, they are often unable to claim government welfare, and receive only basic services such as waste collection.

Self-installed power cables hang over the village’s sloping concrete walkways between the shacks. The small houses’ walls are made of Styrofoam, vinyl, bags and carpet materials, which residents say are bad for the respiratory system.

The streets are clean and orderly, with small marts and churches in larger shacks to serve the community, but life is far from comfortable.

Volunteers from around the world recently visited the site to deliver the coals. They also delivered blankets for those who had lost their homes in the fire.
Mannam volunteers distribute coals to residents in Guryong. (Kirsty Taylor)

Mannam International now plans to hold a monthly volunteer event at different locations to give expats and foreign visitors in Korea a chance to help others while here.

And their work at Guryong was appreciated by the residents.

“We have a lot of old people and these briquettes that you are bringing will help us to stay warm through the winter,” a village member said.

“In winter it is so cold. I’d like to thank Mannam International volunteer association for providing these briquettes. We can’t really afford to buy them to make our houses warm.”

Some residents receive 500 coal briquettes from the government each winter, but when they run out, sources of warmth are scarce.

Summer is a tough time, too, with heavy rainstorms last July sweeping away many homes. Those houses were reconstructed, but Guryong residents have decided that the homes burned down in January will not be rebuilt.

Last April, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced plans to redevelop the site. Not all residents agree with the plan, as attested in the many painted banners on the village outskirts proclaiming residents’ right to remain.

District law in the area prohibits residents from building their own permanent homes there because they do not own the land.

The work by state-owned firm SH Construction is part of a larger plan regenerate low-income areas in Seoul to make way for luxury buildings.

By Kirsty Taylor (

Shantytown shame

Aside from the struggle of daily life in a plastic shack, Guryong residents say shame is one of their biggest burdens.

Kim, who did not want to give his first name in case people outside the settlement recognized him, said he did not tell his colleagues where he lived.

“People from the outside view living here as shameful,” he said. “We don’t want to open up our living here to the outside world.”

The pastor moved to the shantytown five years ago because he could not afford to pay rent elsewhere. His two school-aged children live with his wife at a cousin’s house, where he sometimes visits.

Children living in the shacks have a sharp sense that they are different from others, too.

“One of the kids from this village visited a friend’s house far from here, but he could not go inside. When he reached the apartment the door system was really different for him,” said Kim. 
A house destroyed by a recent fire in Guryong. (Kirsty Taylor)

“He did not know how to open the door, but he didn’t want to ask and show that he was living here. It is not only the kids but many residents in this village that are acting like that.”

As well as poverty and poor living conditions, children born in Guryong also faced receiving no ID until recently, although the government started recognizing them last year.

Another ongoing dispute is what should eventually become of the villagers and the land they occupy. While a private developer published a blueprint for affordable housing, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced its own plan in April to redevelop the land.

“We are in a conflict about that at the moment,” said Kim.

“There are so many issues in Guryong. Coming here is like a blind man feeling an elephant ― you can only get part of the story.”