Lee Sang-joon stands barely five feet tall, but the South Korean pensioner still has trouble stretching out to sleep at night in the tiny cubicle he has called home for the past 12 years.
Mr Lee, 76, is one of hundreds of old people living out their twilight years in rooms barely the size of cupboards, crammed side by side into the warren-like corridors of dismal hostels in the shadow of Seoul’s modern skyscrapers.
Time passes slowly in Dongjadong Jjokbangchon, a pensioners’ ghetto where old men and women sit in solitude in the park or shuffle slowly past rundown buildings before making a meagre dinner on a camping stove.
Like many others, Mr Lee, a former house painter who arrived in Seoul over 50 years ago, does not wish to burden his three children with his financial woes. “They are too busy taking care of their own children. I don’t want any support from them,” he said.
He rents his sparse living quarters – where he keeps a roll-up mattress, a fridge, fan, and a wire on the wall as a makeshift wardrobe – for $200, one third of his monthly state pension. Toilets and a shower are shared with his neighbours.
“It’s uncomfortable but I have to live with it,” he said. “Everyone here is in a similar situation to me.”
The story of Dongjadong offers a window into the problems faced by South Korea’s ageing society and it is by no means unique.
It is typical for many of the country’s older generation whose hard graft transformed South Korea into the world’s 12th largest economy but who have not reaped the financial benefits in later life.
In a nation renowned for its high-tech advances, almost half of the elderly population over the age of 65 live in poverty, according to a 2016 OECD economic survey. About a quarter live alone as the Confucian tradition of the younger generation taking care of their parents fades.
“There have been changes in values such as individualism… also due to urbanisation – children are married or employed and live elsewhere and elderly people want to live in their former residence,” explained Jung Gyunghee, associate director of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
“The elderly who live alone experience nursing problems, economic anxiety, psychological anxiety or loneliness,” she said.
South Korea has the 10th highest rate of suicide in the world, exacerbated by large numbers among the elderly.
In late August, the country reached another unwelcome milestone, officially becoming an “aged society”, which is defined by the United Nations as a society where those aged 65 or over exceed 14% of the total population.
According to Statistics Korea it has been the fastest such transition in the world.
The country’s working age population this year also declined for the first time and its birthrate remains abysmally low, creating a perfect storm for the government of President Moon Jae-in which is trying to prevent the demographic disaster of South Korea reaching “super-aged” status by as early as 2026.
The government has proposed a modest increase in pensions, but it must strike a tricky balance to not increase pressure on an already overburdened younger generation who are paying for welfare costs.
The lack of a safety net for elderly citizens caught up with Kim Cheung, 65, who used to be a successful trader until she made some bad financial investments.
Ms Kim has not told her siblings or friends that she now lives in a hovel in Dongjadong. She works in a local café where pensioners flock during the summer heat to take advantage of the air conditioning.
“It was hard working here at first. I remembered the old times when I was well off and just got by day by day. I’m used to it now,” she said.
Ms Kim is now trying to rebuild her business. “It is very hard for senior citizens to get a job but I want to escape,” she said.
But for most of Dongjadong’s older residents, the so-called “cubicle village” offers a final refuge where they can at least find company among their peers.
“A lot of elderly people who leave here end up committing suicide because they are alone with no friends or neighbours,” said Kim Hotae, 74, a volunteer for an aid group offering legal and medical assistance in the area.
“Old people end up moving to this neighbourhood because they have nobody else to rely on."
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