South Korea, a country located in East Asia, has a population of almost 52 million residents. Since the 1960s, South Korea has grown economically, shifting from a poor agrarian society to one of the most industrialized nations in the world. However, there is still a division gap between the rich and the poor.
While the economic growth has rapidly expanded urban areas, like Seoul and Pusan, which promoted the construction of apartments, poor people still live in semi-basement homes called Banjiha.
What are Banjihas?
Banjihas are semi-basement apartments that exist throughout South Korea. Typically, young people end up living in these lower-rent apartments while climbing the work ladder. In addition, lower-class citizens often live in these homes.
South Korea’s Banjihas initially emerged to protect the citizens from the war with North Korea in 1953 by acting as bunkers. The law required these bunkers during this era. Due to the bunker-style construction, South Korea’s Banjihas are roughly five to seven steps below the street level. As time went by, South Korea eased construction laws and permitted Banjihas to act as actual homes after the 1980 housing crisis. These converted bunkers only allow minimal light from a small window; due to the underground nature and minimal airflow, there is often mold in these tiny spaces.
The film “Parasite” by Bong Joon-ho illustrates life in South Korea’s Banjihas and demonstrates the wealth disparity throughout the nation. It portrays the struggles of lower-class life in Banjihas, while the upper class lives in luxurious mansions.
According to the BBC, South Korea’s Banjihas are inexpensive housing options starting from 540,000 won ($453 U.S.). Typically, the minimum monthly wage of a person in South Korea starts at 1.8 million won ($1,500), making Banjihas smart financial decisions. Banjihas exist as homes for almost 364,000 families in South Korea, accounting for 1.9% of the nation, according to a 2015 survey by the Korean Statistical Information Services.
Living in Banjihas
Haebangchon is one of the oldest neighborhoods in South Seoul; the neighborhood used to be a shooting field for the 20th division of the Japanese Army. With time, it became the epicenter for refugees and home to non-citizens from all parts of the world.
With the diversity that Haebangchon, also known as the Liberation Village, brings, new shops and restaurants pop all the time. New flavors and experiences from unknown parts of the world are available for consumers.
However, a decent amount of the population in Haebangchon still lives in Banjihas. The converted bunkers carry a stigma in that people immediately consider those living in Banjihas as poor. Bong stated at the Cannes Festival that a “Banjiha is a space with a peculiar connotation… It’s undeniably underground, and yet [you] want to believe it’s above ground.”
South Korea’s Banjihas not only represent a state of poverty, but they also represent the substantial social divide in South Korea. The higher a person lives in an apartment building, the higher social status that people add to that individual’s persona.
The tiny space takes on a distinct smell from the dampness and mold. That smell tends to linger within the walls, floors, bedding sheets and even clothing. One can compare South Korea’s Banjihas to Favelas in Brazil and cage homes in Hong Kong. Further, Banjihas are the most affected spaces during floods because of the low level. Sewage will clog and add to the stench throughout the home.
In a Los Angeles Times article, South Korean poet Shin-Hyum-rim wrote a poem about living in a Banjiha titled “The Happiness of Banjiha Alice,” alluding to Alice’s emotions while in Wonderland. This poem effectively outlines how tolling desperation and stress can be on a person’s psyche.
The Good News
Although 62% of South Korea’s Banjihas exist in Seoul, the number of this type of housing is declining. Since South Korea enacted a law in 2003 requiring park spacing, the building of Banjihas has become almost impossible. Additionally, there has been a growing rush for urban redevelopment and the country is tearing down old buildings.
According to a census from Statistics Korea, the number of semi-basement homes in South Korea accounted for only 1.9% in 2015 in comparison to 3.69% in 2005.
Further, there are several non-governmental organizations, such as the Federation for Evicted People of Seoul (FEPS) and the Korean National Association of the Urban poor, that are focusing on helping low-income areas with housing difficulties. These NGOs work to secure housing and advocate for tenants who the government has evicted.
Interestingly, the younger generations are bringing change to life in South Korea’s Banjihas. When looking up #Banjiha on social media, many young people living in the apartments are reinventing what living in a Banjiha looks like. Many of these younger individuals are aiming to end the impoverished stigma around living in Banjihas.
Even though this is not the reality for many who struggle financially, both young and old citizens of South Korea are fighting for a better life, in hopes that with new construction laws and with the cooperation of NGOs and their government, South Korea’s Banjihas will be a symbolic memory of the past.
– Merlina San Nicolás Leyva