South Koreans in the Debt Crisis: The Creation of a Neoliberal Welfare Society

South Koreans in the Debt Crisis: The Creation of a Neoliberal Welfare Society


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South Koreans in the Debt Crisis is a detailed examination of the logic underlying the neoliberal welfare state that South Korea created in response to the devastating Asian Debt Crisis (1997–2001). Jesook Song argues that while the government proclaimed that it would guarantee all South Koreans a minimum standard of living, it prioritized assisting those citizens perceived as embodying the neoliberal ideals of employability, flexibility, and self-sufficiency. Song demonstrates that the government was not alone in drawing distinctions between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Progressive intellectuals, activists, and organizations also participated in the neoliberal reform project. Song traces the circulation of neoliberal concepts throughout South Korean society, among government officials, the media, intellectuals, NGO members, and educated underemployed people working in public works programs. She analyzes the embrace of partnerships between NGOs and the government, the frequent invocation of a pervasive decline in family values, the resurrection of conservative gender norms and practices, and the promotion of entrepreneurship as the key to survival.

Drawing on her experience during the crisis as an employee in a public works program in Seoul, Song provides an ethnographic assessment of the efforts of the state and civilians to regulate social insecurity, instability, and inequality through assistance programs. She focuses specifically on efforts to help two populations deemed worthy of state subsidies: the “IMF homeless,” people temporarily homeless but considered employable, and the “new intellectuals,” young adults who had become professionally redundant during the crisis but had the high-tech skills necessary to lead a transformed post-crisis South Korea.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822344643
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/18/2009
Series: Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society Series
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jesook Song is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

Read an Excerpt


By Jesook Song

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4464-3

Chapter One


The spaces of cities are the spaces where the hegemonic struggles over liberalism are now being fought. Whose liberalism? Whose hegemony? The socially revisionist liberalism of "well-being" or the neo-liberal mantra of "international competitiveness"? There are clearly new alliances, new struggles, new forms of subject formation, new forms of consciousness, new narratives, and new and ongoing imperatives to rework the ever shifting articulations of state and nation, and nation and city.


To attempt to make sense of South Korea's homeless policy during the Asian Debt Crisis, I examine the transformation of two symbolically charged physical spaces in Seoul: the Seoul Train Station Square (henceforth, the square) and the House of Freedom, the former Pangnim textile factory. The square and the House of Freedom are spatial foci for evolving homeless scenes and policy as well as sites of liberal and neoliberal historicity.

Building on the work of ethnographers on assemblages of governing technologies, I show urban space as a problematic and symptomatic location for such technologies (Anagnost 2004; Li 2007; Mitchell 2004; Ong and Collier 2005; Strathern 2000). In addition, I use ethnographic observations of changes in the spatial construction of the square and the House of Freedom to trace neoliberal welfare and labor discourses in relation to conceptions of homelessness and unemployment policies during the crisis. This chapter looks first at the square, where homelessness was most visible to the public during the crisis, then considers the development of the city's homeless policies and shelter system, and finally moves to the House of Freedom, the largest homeless shelter, which was created during the crisis for sorting homeless people, according to neoliberal principles, into the categories "deserving" and "undeserving."

The Transformation of the Square

The Seoul Train Station, renovated in 2004 into an ultramodern space comparable to an international airport (see figures 1 and 2), is one of the largest and oldest transit centers in Seoul (Kang Se-jun and Kim Kyôngho 2004). It was built in 1925 by the Japanese colonial regime (1919-1945) as a hub for the numerous railroads connecting the Korean Peninsula to Manchuria, the route to the continent (Eckert et al. 1990: 269-273).

In spite of many repairs, the old buildings of the Seoul Train Station (figure 3) retain the typical architectural style of the colonial period, reminiscent of the European Renaissance (Cumings 1997: 148-154)-a style otherwise very rare due to efforts of the nationalist movement to eradicate colonial "shadows." Even when bus and subway transport became more popular modes in South Korea, the Seoul Train Station remained one of the busiest locations in the city, as countless bus routes and two major subway lines meet in the station area. The square remains a place for all kinds of commuters, travelers, and people in general to pass time and meet other people.

Before the crisis, people in transit frequented the small businesses that catered to passing travelers. Mobile bars and restaurants (p'ojangmach'a) were set up near bus stops and waiting areas to sell alcoholic beverages and cheap food, such as noodles (kuksu and udong), fried vegetables and seafood (temppura), seaweed rolls (kimbap), and Korean sake (soju). Mini food stalls were situated near the bus stops, where bus tokens, gum, candy, and nonalcoholic beverages were sold (see figure 4). Fruit and rice-cake vendors set up their pushcarts and baskets at the entrance and on the stairs to the two subway stations, or walked among the people in the square, selling their goods.

Until the early 1990s, the square was also the site of mass demonstrations urging political action against various authoritarian regimes, including the April Revolution (Sa-Il-Gu Hyôngmyông) in 1960 and the April Demonstration Withdrawal (Sôul-yôk Hoegun) in 1980, the night before the Kwangju massacre. Between 1998 and 2001-once the impact of the crisis really began to be felt-the square changed. During this time, the square became well known as a place where enormous numbers of homeless people resided. Those people were called the "IMF homeless," echoing the national resentment following the International Monetary Fund bailout. (As mentioned in the preface, the crisis itself was conventionally referred to as the IMF crisis.) When I visited Seoul in July 1998, rows of homeless people were lying on the ground in and around the square or in the station's underground tunnels. In August 1998, the city estimated that there were 2,000 homeless living in the square; in the winter the number increased to 4,000. It was hard to pass through some of the tunnels because so many homeless people used them as their shelters. Some used newspapers as layers against the cold, and many were surrounded by empty bottles of Korean sake (soju). The square had never been especially clean (sewage from mobile bars and restaurants as well as the "night soil" of drunken men were common) but during the crisis, city officials considered the square to be much filthier. In the early morning hours and at noon, long lines of homeless people waited for a free meal served by religious groups in several locations near the square (see figure 5). A quasi-governmental welfare agency and at least two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also provided support to the homeless at the square.

The quasi-governmental welfare agency was originally a civil group associated with the Anglican Church in Korea. The Anglican Church was a relatively small denomination compared to the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist Churches; despite this, it was influential. For example, the Korean Anglican Church University is the only higher education institute in South Korea that offers an academic program specializing in the civil society movements. This NGO department (aen chi o hakkwa) is staffed by leading activist scholars such as Hee Yeon Cho, who has a background in labor and student activism (1980s) and the civil society movements (1990s). Lee Jae-Jung, an Anglican church minister who was president of the university and closely associated with Kim Dae Jung, was the first chair of the City Commission on Homeless Policy (Nosukcha Taech'aek Hyôbûihoe). He volunteered to run the agency for homeless people. During the crisis, the agency was used as a resource by the Seoul city government. As an example of outsourcing and privatization of state machinery and services, it demonstrates how a neoliberal regime uses what Foucauldian scholars have referred to as "governing at a distance" and "acting upon others," that is, outsourcing to nonstate agencies (Gordon 1991; Lemke 2001; Li 2007). The agency became known first as the Homeless Assistance Center (Nosukcha Chiwônsent'ô) in the winter of 1997, and in the spring of 1998 as the Homeless Rehabilitation Center (HRC, Nosukcha Tasisôgi Chiwônsent'ô). The addition of the word rehabilitation in the title is symbolic of the shift from a "poor relief" welfare regime to a neoliberal workfare regime.

The center made homeless people register for a homeless identification card (nosukcha k'adû) in exchange for a free medical examination. Many homeless were either intentionally or inadvertently missing their resident registration cards (chumin tûngnok chûng), the most important identification document in South Korea. The homeless identification card functioned as a means of policing and surveillance: from it, the police could obtain information about the cardholders for the sake of security. The police sometimes used the homeless identification cards to investigate the background of the cardholder, and many street people resisted registering for the card. As Laura C. Nelson (2006) notes, credit card and private loan debt emerged as a salient phenomenon following the crisis, because credit cards were first introduced in South Korea during the crisis and people began using them as one of the only options for survival. There were reports that people in debt or in hiding blended into the crowd of street people. A TV drama series, Bali esô saenggin il (What happened in Bali) (Seoul Broadcasting System 2004), portrayed a male imposter who ran away with the savings of an "innocent" working-poor female protagonist. He hid and lived among homeless people in the hallway of a subway. In the 2002 Lodû mubi (Road movie), directed by Kim In-sik, a gay man, whose sexual orientation prompts him to leave his family, hides his identity by living among the anonymity of street people in the square.

Social workers who assisted street people in temporary homeless shelters told me that homeless people considered carrying a homeless identification card to be a risky and degrading experience. If shelter workers requested that they carry the card, it damaged their relationship with the homeless. It is at the heart of (neo)liberal governance that social security, in the protection of citizens' assets and lives (Gordon 1991: 35-41; Foucault 2003; O'Malley 1996, 1999), uses state machinery to exercise surveillance over its populations and markets. However, the free medical examinations and treatment often attracted the homeless because medical services were costly for anyone without health insurance.

The Humanitarian Practice Medical Doctors' Association (Indojuûi Silch'ôn Ûisa Hyôbûihoe) assessed the health condition of homeless people coming to the square (Pak Yong-hyôn 1999). A private welfare agency run by a renowned South Korean TV entertainer, the late Sim Chôl-ho, operated a bus with a hotline called the Telephone of Love (Sarang ûi Chônhwa) at the square and at a private homeless shelter, the Guest House (Gesûtû Hausû). The name Telephone of Love echoes other hotlines, such as the Telephone of Women (Yôsông ûi Chônhwa) for women suffering domestic violence and the Telephone of Hope (Huimang ûi Chônhwa) for people affected by a natural disaster. Telephone of Love workers served homeless people who were willing to complete a questionnaire about their family situation, hometown, employment history, and the length of time they had been living on the street. The answers were entered into a database of the homeless, run independently from the government. In return for this information, the agency provided clothing, toiletries, and nonperishable food.

During the day, as the square became busy with passengers, many homeless people would leave or were driven out by station guards. By November 1998, the city made it illegal for street people to be in public places, so homeless people were not supposed to be in the square even at night (see figure 6). Instead, they were directed to a homeless shelter called the House of Freedom. However, there were still noticeable numbers of homeless staying in the square, accessing social services (supplied by both the HRC and Telephone of Love), and resisting the regulations and the environment of the homeless shelter system.

Politicians and high-ranking officials, accompanied by photographers, paid visits to homeless people to demonstrate that they were compassionate leaders. Although homeless people resided in many other public parks and subway stations, politicians and government officials targeted those staying in the square, which led to the square's homeless people becoming the tragic "face" of the crisis. For example, Ko Kôn, the mayor of Seoul at the time, visited the square on September 21, 1998 (Kwôn Hyôk-ch'ôl 1998); Kim Mo-im, the minister of health and welfare, visited on June 2, 1998 (Ahn Ch'ang-hyôn 1998); and Ch'a Hûng-bong, the next minister of health and welfare, went on July 21, 1999 (Sôn Tae-in 1999). It is notable that homeless people in the square complained when reporters took pictures of them with Ko Kôn. The mass media (including newspapers, TV specials, soap operas, and novels) often dealt with the subject of the IMF homeless, frequently featuring dramatic scenes from the square. The homeless became portrayed as the casualties of mass layoffs during the crisis, encouraging donations and funds for those on the edge of unemployment and homelessness.

My visit in 2001 coincided with the time when the mass media and the government frequently reported that the crisis was over. The square had been rearranged into a huge, clean parking lot for the customers of the train station. I could not find any mobile bars or restaurants (p'ojangmach'a) within the barricades of the parking lot or in the nearby bus-stop area. There were only a few remaining fruit vendors with pushcarts or baskets.

The shifting policy on the street vendors is a good example of how surplus labor populations and marginal welfare citizens were inconsistently dealt with. Before the crisis, the government had attempted to eliminate mobile bars and street vendors in most of Seoul's public places with the intention of projecting the image of a clean metropolitan city-an image that would appeal to foreign travelers (Kim Su-hyun et al. 2001). However, during the crisis, there were several massive demonstrations and strong resistance from the owners of the mobile bars. They charged that the government was suffocating the poor working-class people who were managing to run marginally profitable businesses during such a terrible time. With increasing concern about social instability due to mass unemployment, the city reversed its order to remove the mobile bars. Initially, veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars and their families, who were entitled to public assistance, were granted limited permission to run such businesses; however, these regulations changed as economic conditions fluctuated. During the crisis, it became common to see college students and unemployed people setting up mobile bars in residential areas.

In 2001, once the crisis was officially over, street vending was again restricted. The change in policy seemed linked to the fact that South Korea and Japan were cohosting the FIFA World Cup in 2002. Situated prominently in the square and boasting huge glass windows on three sides, a large new gallery with a souvenir shop promoted the upcoming event through its panoramic glass storefront. The gallery shop took full advantage of the multimedia display of products with the 2002 World Cup logo and mascot: multiple TV monitors attached to the glass walls aired commercial advertisements and films specially produced by the South Korean government, while loudspeakers blasted out the 2002 World Cup theme song, which could be heard at the far edges of the huge square.

Kwangjang, a novel

The square is also a politically charged trope for South Korean democracy and for liberal intellectuals torn between socialism and capitalist liberalism in the divided peninsula. The square has been one of the most popular public places to hold democratic rallies and demonstrations. The symbolic value of the square is magnified in a controversial intellectual novel, Kwangjang (The square) (1960), by Choi In-hoon. In the novel, the square, a metaphor for public space, contrasts with the figure of the cave, a metaphor for private space. The protagonist of the novel, Yi Myông-jun, contemplates going back and forth between the public space in need of democratization (the square) and the private space of the inner self seeking peace (a cave). Yi pursues ideological neutrality between fraudulent liberalism in South Korea and fascist communism in North Korea, ultimately committing suicide on the way to exile in a neutral nation. The historical significance of the novel is twofold. The novel's time frame encompasses the era that began with the end of Japanese colonialism (1930-1940s) and ended with the Korean War (1950-1953). It was written after the April Revolution (April 19, 1960), the first liberal uprising against the dictatorship in postwar Korea (and specifically against the regime of Syngman Rhee). One of the biggest street demonstrations of the revolution was held in the square. Although the novel does not mention the April Revolution, literary critics believe Kwangjang was inspired by the revolution's mass demonstrations in the streets and squares of Seoul, and they see the novelist's intention as urging intellectuals to pursue a democracy of their own (Hughes 2002).


Excerpted from SOUTH KOREANS in the DEBT CRISIS by Jesook Song Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xxiii

Introduction: The Emergence of the Neoliberal Welfare State in South Korea 1

1. The Seoul Train Station Square and the House of Freedom 25

2. "Family Breakdown" and Invisible Homeless Women 49

3. Assumptions and Images of Homeless Women's Needs 73

4. Youth as Neoliberal Subjects of Welfare and Labor 95

5. The Dilemma of Progressive Intellectuals 117

Coda: The Pursuit of Well-Being 135

Notes 141

Glossary 163

Bibliography 169

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