[Herald Interview] Tackling youth, gender and housing in South Korea

By Claire Lee

Writer and activist Hong Hye-eun shares why young Koreans lack ‘fundamental human right’ to housing

  • Published : Jun 20, 2018 - 18:28
  • Updated : Jun 20, 2018 - 18:30

As far as she remembers, Hong Hye-eun says, she always had to give up at least one of the following -- safety, privacy and a decent living condition -- in almost all of the housing she’s lived ever since she moved out of her parents’ house as a teenager.

In her final year at high school, the 30-year-old moved out because her parents’ home in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province, was too crowded and loud. She had six siblings, and had a university entrance exam to prepare for. The place where her parents sent her was originally a reading room for young students.

The owner of the property somehow unlawfully turned it into a rather peculiar living accommodation for young women. It was one of the worst housing she’s ever lived, but the rent -- about 100,000 won ($93.1) a month -- was cheaper than any other options she had at the time. 

Writer and activist Hong Hye-eun speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul, on May 30. (Claire Lee/ The Korea Herald)

Along with some 80 other students, all of whom were female, Hong would study at her desk during the day, and sleep under the desk at night. Her chair would have to be put on the desk to make space for her to lie down on the floor. That was the only space she was given -- a floor that was as big as her small desk --, and at the time, she thought this was normal.

The owner of the property, a man in either his 50s or 60s, would simply “break in” to the common area without any previous communication, anytime he wanted. Whenever he would go through the girls’ clothes and belongings, and scold at them if the area was messy. At the time, she thought this was normal, too.

“I thought whoever made the mess deserved to be scolded,” Hong, a writer and an activist currently based in Seoul, told the Korea Herald.

“It took me a while to realize that things are not always this way elsewhere.”

Hong is one of a “significant number of South Koreans” who are living -- and have lived -- in “completely substandard” housing in spite of the country being the world’s 11th largest economy, according to a United Nations rights expert who visited Korea last month.

Some Koreans were “forced to live in tiny spaces no more than 5 square meters, on short term leases and at the mercy of landlords’ arbitrary decisions to raise the rent,” and some are paying “exorbitant rents” although living in “grossly inadequate housing,” said Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of adequate housing, said in a statement released on May 23.

“The shift from housing being treated as a commodity to housing being understood as a human right is not yet complete (in South Korea).”

Indeed, a last year study which surveyed 775 working Koreans in Seoul found that 55.8 percent of them said they are interested in leaving Seoul. Among them, 62.3 percent said they want to leave as the cost of housing is too expensive in the nation’s capital.

Another study by a local think-tank, published back in 2014, said it would take 29 years on average for a newly married double-income couple to save enough to lease an apartment in Seoul -- costing about 280 million won as a lump-sum deposit under Korea’s “jeonse” real-estate system -- if they choose to avoid borrowing.

Hong says housing -- on top of South Korea’s notoriously competitive education system -- is deeply linked with how young Koreans interact with the society as well as those around them.

“Many elderly people say young people today are indifferent towards politics and social affairs, and fail to function as responsible citizens,” she said.

“But not having adequate housing -- and wanting to have adequate housing -- in South Korea makes you time poor. You have no time for anything else.”

When she was attending university in Seoul, for example, she lived in a student housing financed by the provincial government of North Chungcheong. The housing was specifically for university students from Chungcheong Province, who attend universities in Seoul and excel academically.

“The living condition was excellent; it was clean and safe,” she said. “But there was a curfew. You couldn’t bring anyone in after midnight. You had to have certain grades from your classes in order to secure your room for the next semester.”

She said although the housing was affordable and safe, she had to sacrifice her freedom, privacy, and most of all, time, in order to be allowed to stay there. On top of having to earn high grades to continue living there, someone would come in once a month and inspect her room to see if it’s clean enough. If they decided that it was messy, it would get recorded and make her less eligible to continue living there the next semester.

“The whole system was very controlling of your time and your body,” she told The Korea Herald.

“They controlled your social life by not allowing you to spend time with anyone at your place at midnight. This also meant sex was banned. By making it mandatory for you to excel academically in order to continue living there, and violating your privacy by inspecting your room once a month, the message was simple. Study hard. Don’t form social relationships. Don’t have sex. And how can you expect someone who has lived such a life throughout their 20s to be anything else than a de facto machine?”

Sick of the curfew, she moved to a national rental housing for the youth in 2012. Deposit and rent for national housing tend to be cheaper than those of private rental accommodations, and they are usually provided for the nation’s low to moderate income households as well as young people in their 20s and 30s.

By moving into this housing, she was finally able to invite friends over, and did not have to worry about her grades and cleaning. However, what she had to endure in return was mold that never went away, partly because the property was poorly built and did not get enough sunlight. It was also poorly ventilated. Her house was always slightly damp and dark. She complained, but civil servants in charge never ended up fixing the problems.

“What upsets me is that people think when you live in cheap housing, having mold in your house is normal,” she said.

“They just tell you that you should earn more and move elsewhere. But I think differently. No matter how much you pay, no one should live in a property where mold keeps growing in spite of you getting rid of them every week. It’s a basic human right for anyone to live in a place that offers you privacy, safety, space, adequate sunlight and freedom from forced eviction.”

Hong says things were often harder because she was a woman. Once, a man followed her from a bus stop and grabbed her from her back when she opened the door. Luckily, he ran away after finding out that her sister was at home.

Local studies have shown that Korean women, especially those in their 20s and 30s, have limited access to decent and safe housing, compared to their male counterparts.

According to a last year study by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, 43 percent of all female heads of their households, including those who live alone, were living as tenents, while 50 percent of all male heads of housholds were home owners.

Hong, who now collaborates with the Ministry of Gender Equality and the Seoul Metropolitan Government on the issues of gender, youth and housing, says affordable housing should a right to all young Koreans, not a conditional or temporary offer.

She stresses that many housing policies in Seoul for young population have been unjustly conditional. For example, the city government would provide affordable housing and ask the young residents to care for the elderly individuals who live alone in return. Another program, she said, would make them volunteer at community centers and excel academically for allowing them to live in an affordable and safe accommodation.

“This is problematic because these policies are basically saying that you have to be a certain person in order to deserve to live in a decent, safe place -- a male, wealthy, attending certain schools and receiving certain grades,” she said.

“It also takes away your time from you. You either have to fulfill all these conditions -- caring for the elderly or do well in school -- or live somewhere cheaper outside Seoul and spend six hours daily commuting to and from work or school.”

She said tackling this issue will eventually make the country more diverse, creative and most of all, democratic.

“Most of Koreans spend their lifetime paying off their mortgage,” she said.

“And I think it’s just sad. It’s sad to live in a society where almost everyone’s life goal is to secure a proper housing. How can a society like this be creative or nurture individuals that have time to think critically for themselves and others?”

By Claire Lee (