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(Yonhap Feature) 500-won pilgrimage: Korea's elderly poor struggle to live

2017/08/30 14:26

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By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, Aug. 30 (Yonhap) -- Severely hunched over and leaning on an umbrella, Kim So-jae trudged her way to a cathedral in Yongsan, central Seoul. The weather was damp with sporadic showers. Her aching back and legs felt sore. But she could not afford to pass her daily "pilgrimage" to church charities, which give out petty pennies indispensable to her meager existence.

On arrival at Hankang Cathedral, the 85-year-old woman received a 500 won (44 cents) coin from a silent church official and turned on her heels and hurriedly left for another leg of her journey.

"I leave home early in the morning and come back very late at night because I feel so sorry for my daughter," Kim told Yonhap News Agency last Thursday.

She lives in Ansan, on the outskirts of Seoul, with her second daughter who she said is the poorest and least educated among her four children.

An old woman picks up cardboard in Hapjeong, western Seoul, on Aug. 25, 2017, a common scene in South Korea where a rising number of elderly lives in poverty. (Yonhap) An old woman picks up cardboard in Hapjeong, western Seoul, on Aug. 25, 2017, a common scene in South Korea where a rising number of elderly lives in poverty. (Yonhap)

Born to a rich family in 1932 in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province, she had a decent life until her husband squandered the family fortunes and killed himself in his 40s. She ran a cosmetics shop and sold insurance policies but could not earn enough to rear her children. Her second daughter dropped out of middle school after failing to pay tuition several times.

"I failed her. I've done nothing for her as a parent," she uttered over and over again as she continued her trip during the day to charity services at a park and a church in southern Seoul.

Kim is one of the growing number of elders who suffer extreme poverty and depend on charity handouts.

Throngs of frail, tired elderly people in shabby clothes waiting to get cash allowances, free meals and drinks are a common sight in some religious institutions in the affluent capital of Asia's fourth-largest economy.

A few hundred seniors come to Hankang Cathedral every Thursday, the official said declining to give his name.

This image provided by Getty Image Bank shows an elderly South Korean couple. (Yonhap) This image provided by Getty Image Bank shows an elderly South Korean couple. (Yonhap)

Missing out on the nation's rapid economic development, many elderly Koreans live under the poverty line without adequate support from the state and their families.

Among those aged 65 and over, 46.5 percent live on less than 50 percent of the median income. A survey showed people aged 51-65 are experiencing job insecurity and failure to manage savings and pension funds. In 2015, the elderly suicide rate was 58.6 per 100,000 people, among the highest in OECD nations.

The elderly citizens, who worked hard to transform the war-ravaged poor country to one of the world's richest nations, are largely unprepared for retirement life. They spent most of their savings on homes and educating their children, expecting their offsprings to care for them later. But amid a slowing growth, younger generations are having hard times to support themselves and the traditional value of filial piety are increasingly fading.

Kim So-jae heads for a church in Banpo to receive a little more than a dollar on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap) Kim So-jae heads for a church in Banpo to receive a little more than a dollar on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

Korea, one of the world's fastest aging countries, lacks adequate social safety nets for the older population. The public pension system was introduced in 1988, leaving most of those in their 70s and over disqualified from receiving benefits.

In July 2014, the nation started to provide 200,000 won (US$178) in monthly allowances to those aged 65 and over for the bottom 70 percent of the income bracket. The government plans to increase the basic pension to 250,000 won next year and to 300,000 won by 2021.

Despite the improving state care, many overlooked seniors are struggling to eke out a living.

Kim So-jae tries to find a spot to sit in a park in Banpo, southern Seoul, where three churches nearby give out 500 won each and some food on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap) Kim So-jae tries to find a spot to sit in a park in Banpo, southern Seoul, where three churches nearby give out 500 won each and some food on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

The waiting ticket that Kim So-jae receives on Aug. 24, 2017, shows there are 333 people ahead of her to get 1,500 won and food from three churches in Banpo, southern Seoul. (Yonhap) The waiting ticket that Kim So-jae receives on Aug. 24, 2017, shows there are 333 people ahead of her to get 1,500 won and food from three churches in Banpo, southern Seoul. (Yonhap)

Kim's daily pilgrimage is a dire fight. It takes 1 1/2 hours for the weak granny to travel from her home to central Seoul. Her bent back and aching legs make it all the more challenging for her to make the trip. But she can't stop, she said, as only a few thousand won a day still mattered to her.

"I have got nothing else to do anyway," Kim said as she took the subway, free because of her age, heading to her second destination, a park in Banpo, southern Seoul. Three churches located nearby give out 500 won, a rice cake and a drink to each needy elder every Thursday.

She got there an hour before the handouts started. But there were already more than 300 people snaking around the park and waiting in line. As all the benches had been already occupied, she sat on a piece of paper on the pavement.

Near Kim's place was another old woman Kim Young-sook, 85. She said she earns 50,000-60,000 won a month by visiting a few dozen churches and cathedrals.

"This place is good because I can get 1,500 won in total in one spot," she said. Besides getting some pocket money, relieving loneliness and what she said was "forced physical activities" motivated her to come.

"Coming out here makes me walk and less bored. I would be probably watching TV if I were at home," said Kim, who lives alone.

Kim So-jae earns 2,500 won, a little more than US$2, on her "pilgrimage" on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap) Kim So-jae earns 2,500 won, a little more than US$2, on her "pilgrimage" on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

Kim So-jae's last stop of the day was Nul Sa Rang Church in Sinsa-dong, also southern Seoul, which offers lunch and 500 won during an hourlong service. More than 200 people travel to the church located on a steep hill that would make even young people pant.

Pastor Lee Kang-ho of the church said one should watch people eat to begin to understand how desperate and hungry they are.

"It might be the only meal they get in a day. Some eat four bowls of rice and others surreptitiously take the food out in a container. Watching them do that makes my heart break," said Lee, who's run the church for 30 years.

Over the years, he realized the elderly poor have increased while relatively young homeless men have reduced in number. Some of the regulars include a dozen old men in their 90s.

People attend a service at Nul Sa Rang Church in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, on Aug. 24, 2017. They get free lunch and 500 won after the service. (Yonhap) People attend a service at Nul Sa Rang Church in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, on Aug. 24, 2017. They get free lunch and 500 won after the service. (Yonhap)

He shared the story of an old regular to the church, who spent all his pension to finance his son's business that eventually went bust. The son kicked out the aging father.

"Parents shouldn't spend all they've got on their children. They have to put aside some for themselves," he advised.

Around 2 p.m. Kim called it a day. She left the church, taking out a bowl of rice in a plastic bag.

"I feel like I'll die soon," she said. "Before I die, I just want to go somewhere to sing my favorite songs" that she learned in middle school -- the happiest time of her life.

Kim So-jae has a hard time walking with her bent back and aching legs. She walked toward Nul Sa Rang Church in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap) Kim So-jae has a hard time walking with her bent back and aching legs. She walked toward Nul Sa Rang Church in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, on Aug. 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr

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