The author with Olympic mascots
Walking along most major city streets in Seoul, you’ll spot a few things again and again. One is the Korean flag. Others are Soohorang and her buddy Bandabi, the official mascots for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics, respectively. Korean folklore has it that the white tiger Soohorang is a trustworthy friend who is the guardian of the people of Korea, and the black Asiatic bear, Bandabi, is responsible for the birth of the nation. While Olympic pride and national pride are on display, this is a time of change and uncertainty that is reflected on the streets of Seoul this week.
The usual quiet of the city was broken on several occasions this week by mass protests in the form of flag-waving and chanting by hundreds on the streets near City Hall Plaza. The majority of these protesters seem to be older conservatives. They are calling for the release of the imprisoned former president Park Geun-hye, 66, who was impeached by Korea’s National Assembly on December 9, 2016 and officially left office March 11 of last year. She is currently awaiting sentencing in a jail in South Korea. Prosecutors have asked for a 30-year prison sentence for charges of bribery and corruption. And while these marchers voice their discontent with the new government under President Moon Jae-in, one thing that people here seem to agree on is that grassroots action can make a difference.
“The people said enough is enough,” says Grace Song, a professor of Won Buddhism at Young San University in the Yeonggwang County, about three hours outside of Seoul. Song refers to the “candlelight revolution” that began in 2016, in which everyday people marched against the scandals, greed and corruption that were surfacing at the Blue House, the Korean presidential residence and seat of power. According to Song, the relentless candlelight protests were as much about truth and transparency as they were about an end to the Park Geun-hye presidency. Song says these vigils were a tipping point for the president’s downfall. Moon, the new president who won the election last May with 41 percent of the vote, is under intense scrutiny as the nation approaches a summit with President Trump and contemplates the evolving relationship with North Korea. Moon’s agenda is said to be more aligned with social justice and closing economic gaps. It remains to be seen what kind of change he will focus on.
No matter what the focus becomes, if you can measure something you can change it. This also means that if problems are not visible, they are not measurable and, therefore, are unlikely to gain political attention. One of these “unseen” challenges in the city of Seoul is poverty among the elderly.
According to Pastor Leo Rhee of Seoul-based City Lights Ministry, many elderly people can no longer be cared for by their children due to the enormous costs of living in Seoul and surrounding areas. In some cases, this leads to homelessness. The homeless of the city are hidden in places like under the Hilton Hotel. They don’t want to be seen since there are the stigmas of failure and shame attached to homelessness in Korean culture. Rhee points to the work of multiple Christian churches which have taken an active role in addressing the issue with one key organizer at the helm.
This umbrella ministry, Nanumi, has been around for over 20 years and draws volunteers from churches throughout Seoul. They say, it is founded and still led by a dynamic woman, the wife of a pastor who knows the homeless people by name, and they know her. I decided to travel to this Thursday evening ministry to witness the Nanumi team in action. This homeless ministry takes place near Seoul Station, a convergence point for the subway lines and taxis. It is home to many of the impoverished elderly people now living on the streets.
“There are thousands of reasons” why people are homeless, “too much to describe, “says Hae Yeon Kim, founder of the Nanumi Ministry. Mrs. Kim (aka The Pastor’s Wife, as she is affectionately known) stands about four-feet, nine inches tall and is a powerhouse. She commands me to put on an apron and get to work if I am to stay with her team. Kim speaks little to no English, but like most great leaders she gets her point across fast. I am now part of the Nanumi operation.
Upon her signal, the storefront soup kitchen is open and homeless men file in. They sit down in folding chairs in rows at six-foot-long tables facing one way. I stand before them. It is my job to scrape their metal trays clean after they finish eating.
Rice, soup, kimchi and other traditional Korean foods are piled neatly on each tray. Volunteers carry the trays to serve the men in their seats. Most have their heads bowed. As one man scoops a pile of rice, his face seems to read relief. The sounds of metal spoons clanging against the metal trays mix with deep breaths as the men eat, some ravenously. I hear the pastor’s wife yelling something as I see her pointing toward me. Another volunteer gestures to me to be quieter. I guess I am slinging trays too loudly into a wash bin as I attempt to keep up with the volume of people eating fast and heading back out into the city. I can see that Korean excellence applies to all jobs, including plate scraping. I quickly come to understand. The scraping of plates was not the real job here. Nanumi is committed to making a peaceful and quiet space for the individuals to enjoy a simple meal and to have shelter even if just for minutes. I began to gently rest each tray in the bin, as I said to each man, “kamsahamnida,” meaning thank you.
We did this for about two hours straight, serving what I counted to be about a hundred meals. I counted only five women. Men are more likely to end up on the streets, as it is considered more of a disgrace for a man to be taken in to another’s home or to sleep on a couch. While homelessness is a far more epic in Los Angeles, the cultural stigma here seems to keep the problem isolated in the private and religious sectors and not with policymakers.
At the end of the night, I hopped the train back to my hotel. As I emerged a few short stops from Seoul Station, I crossed the wide street near City Hall. On the corner, I was greeted by the jovial mascots Soohorang and Bandabi with a Korean flag flying overhead. I was soothed by their lighthearted cartoon features and the flag bearing the yin and yang symbol for balance. And while things seemed out of balance for many in this city, in this country, in this world, on this night there was an elevated comfort in these distinctly Korean symbols of protection, friendship and equality.
Sherry Simpson Dean is an award-winning documentary producer, a lecturer at Occidental College and former executive director of the Pasadena/Foothills chapter of the United Nations Association (UNA). She is currently part of a group of USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism students traveling through South Korea.