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[KH Explains] Seoul mayor moves into humble rooftop dwelling -- why?

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon on Sunday left his official residence in central Seoul and moved into a humble two-room rooftop dwelling in Gangbuk-gu, in the northern part of the city, even amid the scorching hot weather. He announced that the small property -- two tiny rooms and a bathroom, without air conditioning -- will be his residence for the next 30 days. But why?

Rooftop dwellings are generally considered among the worst types of housing in Seoul. They are too warm in the summer and too cold in the winter. One of the cheapest -- and arguably unsafe -- places to live in Seoul, many young students and elderly Koreans who live below the poverty line live in this type of housing.

Park, who was elected to his third term as Seoul mayor last month, says his move is to “experience” the everyday lives of Seoul citizens, as well as their housing concerns, especially those who live in Gangbuk-gu. 

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (left) reads at his new, temporary residence -- a rooftop dwelling in Samyang-dong of Gangbuk-gu district of Seoul -- along with his wife, Kang Nan-hee (right).
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (left) reads at his new, temporary residence -- a rooftop dwelling in Samyang-dong of Gangbuk-gu district of Seoul -- along with his wife, Kang Nan-hee (right).

It was one of his election pledges: He had promised he would live in northern Seoul for a month, should he get re-elected, as part of efforts to find a way to reduce inequality that exists between those in northern Seoul and residents of the more affluent southern portions of the city.

“I believe both the problems and the answers are at the scene, rather than the office of the City Hall,” Park told reporters after moving into the rooftop house in Samyang-dong, Gangbuk-gu.

Housing, among other issues, is increasingly becoming a concern, especially among those who live in big cities. UN housing expert Leilani Farha, who visited Korea in May, said she was “alarmed” by the unaffordability of housing in metropolitan areas for young people and low-income households.

“Korea has some distance to go to ensure that human rights protections in housing extend to all vulnerable groups,” the UN rapporteur said in a statement. She added that South Korea’s low-income households -- defined as the poorest 20 percent -- tend to spend 50 percent of their income on housing, which leaves “scant resources” available to pay for other basic needs, including food and medicine.

At the same time, regional inequality in Seoul is increasingly being considered an alarming issue. Gangbuk-gu, where Park’s temporary residence is located, is one of the four poorest districts in Seoul, along with Gwangjin-gu, Seongbuk-gu and Jung-gu. Meanwhile, the wealthiest districts in Seoul -- Seocho-gu and Gangnam-gu -- are all located in southern Seoul.

Households in Gangbuk-gu on average made 3.1 million won ($2,740) a month as of last year, while those in Seocho-gu made 5.1 million won monthly.

Rep. Park Yong-jin of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, who also lives in Gangbuk-gu, said Park’s new dwelling is located in one of the poorest areas in the district. It is located on a hillside, which causes safety concerns especially during summer and winter.

“When I first moved to Seoul after finishing middle school, I also lived in a house that was built on a hillside. So I’m not totally new to such an environment,” Park told reporters. “It’s a rooftop house, so I assume it’s going to be very warm. I’ll try to listen to what the residents have to say during my stay here and consider them thoroughly.”

Park said he would endure the ongoing heat wave and tropical nights by reading books -- such as “The New Urban Crisis” by Richard Florida -- and using a fan.

Yet not everyone is pleased by Park’s latest efforts. Rep. Kim Su-min of the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party said Park’s first and foremost responsibility as mayor is to solve housing and inequality issues, rather than to “experience” them.

Some Seoulites have been disturbed by photographs of Park in his new residence released by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

“It’s not like he’s going to live there for his entire term -- he has pleasant housing to go back to after a month. But such accommodation is an everyday reality for real people,” said a Seoulite surnamed Lee. “He’s only exploiting the experience of others for his own political benefit.”

By Claire Lee (

Korea Herald daum