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Daegu International School's student news site
ANNOUNCEMENTS
  • KISAC MS Girls Volleyball @KISJ on February 29th - March 2nd.
  • SKAC HS Basketball Finals @GIFS/Samcheonpo Gym on February 28th.
  • Registration for Season 3 ASA from February 28th - March 4th.
  • GIDAS Dress Down Day on February 27th.
  • SKAC MS Girls Volleyball Tournament @BFS on February 26th.
  • SKAC MS Boys Volleyball Tournament @DIS on February 26th.
  • Don't forget your spirit shirts on Friday.
The Student News Site of Daegu International School

Jets Flyover

The Student News Site of Daegu International School

Jets Flyover

In the Shadows: Korea’s impoverished seniors live a double life

The daily struggles of cardboard cash exchange
An+elderly+woman+slowly+pushes+up+her+handcart+up+to+the+recycling+center.+Her+back+throbs%2C+but+she+must+push+on+to+receive+her+daily+pay.+
Anna Yoon
An elderly woman slowly pushes up her handcart up to the recycling center. Her back throbs, but she must push on to receive her daily pay.

At 5 in the morning, you force yourself out of bed, throw on the first clothes you get your hands on, and step into the bitter cold. Outside, you see your handcart chained to a pole, filled with the previous day’s boxes piled high. You trudge to the nearby scrapyard and stoop down to gather discarded boxes along the way.

One of the senior citizens arrives at the local junkyard with cardboard boxes stacked on the end of his bicycle. (Anna Yoon)

Unfortunately, this depicts the harsh daily reality of South Korea’s retirees. In the shadows, elderly citizens, also known as 폐지 줍는 노인 (pae-ji jup-neun eoreusin), forage for discarded boxes. They scour the streets and alleyways, for an average distance of over 12 kilometers, or up to 11 hours a day, perennially burdened by the weight of their handcarts. South Korea has the highest rate of elderly poverty among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and as of 2019, 1 out of every 100 seniors above the age of 65 rely on cardboard collection for a living.

Elders stack folded cardboard boxes in the scrapyard, but it takes more hours of arduous effort to see the number on the meter tick up. (Anna Yoon)

Even worse, the profits of this job have started to dwindle. “Each kilogram of cardboard used to cost around 130 won (10 cents), but now it has dropped to a meager 50 won (4 cents) per box,” said the owner of a local scrapyard in Shincheon-dong. 

He also expressed his concern for the senior citizens: “The dangerous part about this job is that there are so many fatalities as a result of the elderly members heading into busy streets with obscured vision due to the retirees’ stooped backs and tall piles of cardboard.” In fact, seniors over 65 years of age accounted for 116 of the 198 pedestrian traffic accidents in 2016~2018. 

When she is not at work, Mrs. Park often spends her time picking up recyclables around town to give money to her daughter-in-law. (Anna Yoon)

Some people who work this job keep their livelihoods a secret from their loved ones, ashamed of their inability to maintain a stable income. “I don’t want my daughter-in-law to know that I am doing this, and I am pretty sure that others share this thought,” one elder said. 

The covert side hustle requires lifting heavy loads and results in increased risk of back injuries and general health impediments. Given the hefty costs of hospital visits, treatment is out of their budget, and the vast majority have no choice but to endure the pain.

People from the volunteering centers often bring me food and banchan (side dishes) on Tuesdays.

— Senior cardboard collector

Amidst the elders’ arduous lives in the shadows, joy occasionally brings light. A citizen recounted her experience when she received a random act of kindness, “One time, the owner of a mart gave 20,000 won (around 16 dollars) because I picked up cardboard boxes in front of their store. I told them that this is my job, and they replied that they wanted to give money to show their appreciation.” 

The senior, who just turned 91 this year, also said, “People from the volunteering centers often bring me food and banchan (side dishes) on Tuesdays.”

The Korean government ranks near the bottom of the OECD in terms of elderly welfare expenditure. With no official solution in sight, seniors still head into the busy streets from dawn to dusk to make a living. Individuals privately reach out a helping hand through financial assistance, medical aid, and other forms of support. Hopefully, in time, the golden-agers will bask in the dusk of their lives.

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About the Contributor
Anna Yoon, Writer
Since elementary school, Anna Yoon soaked up music and sports like a sponge. Skiing, volleyball, and the flute truly pique her interest.  As first chair in the orchestra and vice president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, Anna proves that nothing can stop her once she puts her mind to it. Her diligence breaks through in multiple opportunities to volunteer and enter ski and research competitions outside of school. This year, video editing tops her list of goals. She extends her love of AP Psychology into the articles that she pens for the Flyover.
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    Yujun PiaoJan 25, 2024 at 6:28 pm

    I hope Korean government provides better support for older citizens 🙂

    Reply