Like most youngish South Koreans, Kim Min-seob is spending his Friday evening seated with his neck craned downward, glued to his smartphone. But Kim isn’t scrolling through social media feeds or looking out for text messages from friends or love interests. He’s looking for his next driving gig.
It is around 8:40 p.m. and every few seconds Kim refreshes a service similar to Uber, provided by South Korean tech giant Kakao, where passengers post their point of origin and destination and request rides that drivers can grab as soon as they become available. Kim’s work is similar to that of an Uber driver, but with an important twist: He doesn’t have a car.
Kim’s vocation is known in South Korea as daeri unjeon, and entails him being called by motorists who have been drinking and want someone to drive their car home. He meets clients at whatever bar or restaurant they happen to be at, drives their car to their place, parks and leaves to seek his next fare. Daeri unjeon usually costs more than a taxi, but saves motorists the cost of parking overnight, and the inconvenience of having to go back and fetch their car the next day.
At busy times like Friday evening, due to the large number of fare-seeking drivers, and comparatively few ride-seekers, Kim says driving gigs are only briefly on offer before they are snapped up. “One second can make the difference in missing a call,” he says.
It’s still early and Kim is hoping that as the hours tick by and more drinkers start to head home, he will have a steady string of gigs that will bring him back and forth between Seoul and its surrounding suburbs. Some daeri unjeon companies dispatch drivers in pairs on a motorcycle. One driver meets the customer, drives them to their destination, and is met there by a colleague, who provides a motorcycle ride to the next job.
But as in other areas of the gig economy, it pays more to work alone, so Kim typically spends his evenings either running or taking public transit to wherever he can get his next fare. Tonight is different, however. Kim, 33, agreed to let a few Korea Exposé reporters tag along with him for the night, seeing up close what it is like to spend one’s evening acting as chauffeur for motorists who have had a few too many. He gave us a close-up look at the gig economy as we drove along together, dropping Kim at each of his calls, then meeting him at that customer’s destination.
At around 9:30 p.m. Kim’s first gig of the evening comes in, a man looking to go from Seoul’s Mapo district to Goyang, a bedroom community just outside of the city. We drop Kim off near the restaurant where the customer is waiting and he scampers off into the humid Seoul night.
In a bit of good fortune, that call ends up being the start of a string of fares all located fairly close to each other. The first, from Seoul to the suburbs, yields Kim a payment of 21,000 won, followed by two of 15,000 won each.
When we drive to meet up with Kim after the third fare, he emerges from the underground parking garage at a luxury apartment complex. He tells us how one pet peeve of daeri unjeon drivers is dropping customers off in underground parking garages, which often have several levels going down deep into the earth’s crust. After parking, the drivers then have to run up several flights of stairs to find the exit, and the ten minutes or so that takes can cost them a fare.
But there is another, even more common annoyance of the job: being lectured by middle-aged men. Kim says that the man he just drove home was president of a company, and spent the ride regaling Kim with stories of how he succeeded through hard work, and implored Kim to work harder to get ahead in life.
“There is a stereotype that daeri unjeon drivers are people who don’t have the skills to do anything else. The middle-aged men I drive are not at all considerate. Guys in their 20s and 30s just spend the whole ride looking at their phones, on Facebook or watching videos of sports highlights. Guys in their 40s and 50s like to lecture me.”
Kim says that about 90 percent of his calls are people who have been drinking. The other ten percent is made up of people who just don’t feel like driving, are unable to drive due to having just had medical treatment, or borrowed a car from a friend and need it returned.
With driving drunks comes the inevitable risk of passengers vomiting or otherwise misbehaving. But unlike normal taxi passengers, the boozed-up daeri unjeon customers are in their own cars, and therefore less likely to make a mess. “I had one guy puke in his mouth while I was driving,” Kim said. “Then he spat it out the window at a red light.”
Kim’s next call is to a nearby fried chicken restaurant to pick up two middle-aged men who have had some beers after playing badminton. He says the customer seems friendly so he asks his permission for two Korea Exposé reporters to tag along and observe the ride.
We piled into the car, with Kim driving and the car owner riding shotgun, his friend behind him, me seated on the driver’s side and Korea Exposé’s Jieun Choi in the middle. Of course in journalism there is no such thing as being an unobtrusive fly on the wall, and the presence of a notebook-wielding reporter inevitably changes interviewees’ behavior and makes it impossible to observe a scene without influencing it.
As I had feared, the car owner was intrigued by the two reporters in his car and began to ask me about life in Canada. He peppered me with a series of ‘if I had a dollar for every time’ statements about my country of origin, how it’s big and clean and is reputed to have a generous social welfare system.
I kept my answers short as I was hoping Kim and his passenger would start a conversation. Before long, we dropped off the car owner’s friend at his place, and continued on to the final destination. Kim parked the man’s car according to specific instructions, then politely wished him a good night, and we moved on.
Before his next fare, Kim said he needed to eat something. Because of the mobility of his job, he tends to eat fast food on the go, as sitting down for a proper meal can take too long. We found the nearest McDonald’s drive through, where Kim purchased a shrimp burger set that he gobbled up quickly while scanning for his next ride.
It had been a good night, Kim said. He had had a handful of fares and no particularly difficult customers. Summer was a slow time of year, he said, with fewer people staying out late. His busiest time was December, when South Koreans hold year-end parties with friends and colleagues, which typically involve heavy drinking. He also felt that South Korea’s social culture had changed, with fewer people who like to stay out late on the piss.
Being a driver with no guaranteed income isn’t anyone’s dream job, and Kim, like most people who drive for Uber or Lyft, would rather be doing something else. Kim’s aspires to success as a writer, and after his late nights driving, he spends some time jotting down his thoughts from the night. He authors several newspaper columns a month mostly about his experience as a daeri unjeon driver and a former part-time lecturer, and has written a book about the daeri unjeon life. But with a wife and two sons to support, he isn’t able to earn enough money from that work, and must drive to make ends meet.
Kim first garnered attention with his writings when he exposed online the realities of part-time lecturers in university under the nom de plume “Building 309, Unit 1201.” Part-time university lecturers, like Kim, are often PhD holders or researchers, but gets paid less than legal minimum wage and don’t have health insurance. With a wife and a newborn to feed, Kim had to juggle his teaching job and a job at McDonald’s, where he says he felt more respected than in the university.
Kim’s writing evoked sympathy from the many young South Koreans also struggling with financial insecurity, which led him to publish a book titled, “I am part-time lecturer at a provincial university” (such universities outside the capital are generally considered less prestigious) and cemented his name as a writer. Kim quit his job at the university and pursued the writing career while driving other people’s cars.
Last year, he published a book about his experience as a daeri unjeon driver, in which he argued that in this precarious age, we are all “daeri humans”, substitutes in a society without control over our own lives.
Around midnight, even though we hadn’t been driving, the three reporters were tired and reached a consensus that it made sense to head home instead of following Kim on his next driving job. Over the hours we had spent together, the recurring pattern of a daeri unjeon driver’s work had set in, and it seemed unlikely that spending much more time with Kim would yield new details or insight for the article.
As we bid him farewell, he dropped his McDonald’s meal packaging into a public garbage bin, and scurried off for another fare.
Jieun Choi and Ben Jackson contributed to this article.
Cover Image: Living as a daeri unjeon driver means always paying attention to one’s smartphone app for the next gig. (Jieun Choi/Korea Exposé)