Gosiwon is a form of housing that has been in South Korea for more than 40 years. It started as cheap, temporary accommodations for students who spend years studying for difficult state and bar exams, known as gosi in Korean. The flats usually consist of cramped rooms less than five square meters, with a communal kitchen and bathroom.
As housing prices rise in Seoul, gosiwons have evolved to find a broader clientele. Some are more clean, spacious, and even “minimalistic” — an euphemism for the bareness of the room — and claimed the ironic name of gositel (gosiwon+hotel). Such names became interchangeable, sometimes deceivingly. Soon not only students, but poorly paid office workers began seeking refuge in various forms of gosiwon or gositel. According to the former National Emergency Management Agency (now integrated into the Ministry of Public Safety and Security), there were 11,457 registered gosiwons across South Korea in 2014, 6,158 of them Seoul. Factoring in illegal, unregistered gosiwons, the total number must be greater, and the number of people living in gosiwons may be ten to twenty times that figure.
South Korean photographer Sim Kyu-dong, 29, lived in various gositels across Seoul for more than three years. Born and raised in the port city of Gangneung in Gangwon Province, Sim came to Seoul to find work during leaves of absence from school. Without money for a lump sum deposit for a studio — in South Korea, a big deposit is necessary to secure a rental — gositel was his only housing option.
When he chanced upon a gritty gositel in Sillim-dong, an area on the margin of Seoul known for high numbers of test takers, and migrant workers more recently, he realized how gosiwon and gositel became a place for the poor — both young and old. Its monthly rent was mere 220,000 won (US$ 200). What was his own personal story expanded into a photography project. Sim lived in this unnamed gositel for ten months, documenting the lives therein: his own and the other residents’.
“People around me asked, ‘Are you going to prepare for an exam?’, but that wasn’t it. I had many big questions when I first went into this particular gositel. I have been living in gositels for years on and off, and I was curious how and why old people still live there.”
Sim recalls a math instructor in his 50s that he met at the gositel. The man was smart, had a degree from a prominent school — Sungkyunkwan University — and had made good money. But for every year he got older, his status and value as a math instructor fell in South Korea’s rigorous and competitive hagwon hierarchy, and with that his self-esteem slowly dissipated. After he ended up in the gositel, he lost interest in money and didn’t care if there was a cockroach in his room. The subhuman living conditions at the gositel started eating away at what was left of Sim’s self-esteem as well.
“At first, I had a clear notion that I came here to take pictures and that I was different from all the other residents. But living there and befriending the residents, I felt like that I was becoming one of them. One night a brawl broke out between the residents and police officers came over. I was shocked when an officer around my age looked at me. In his eyes, I was no different.”
Sim’s photographs of the gositel bear witness to the circumstances that have driven some South Koreans to call their country “Hell Joseon.” Those who end up in gositels due to financial difficulties are cut off from the rest of society, physically and psychologically. In 2015, a woman in her 20s was found dead in a gosiwon roughly two weeks after her death. She worked with children as a speech therapist; it was reported that she had experienced economic hardship and that malnutrition may have caused her death.
It is no longer uncommon to hear about such solitary deaths in gosiwons. In 2016, an essay titled “Gosiwon Managers Know the Smell of a Rotting Corpse” in OhMyNews stirred a massive debate. With small wages and long working hours, South Korea’s dirt spoons at the very bottom of the social hierarchy can barely afford to make ends meet, let alone make friends or meaningful connections.
“People with means — ordinary, middle-class people, too — don’t really understand that you end up in a gositel because you can’t help it, because you have no other options. I thought I must tell that story,” said Sim.
While living in the gositel, Sim suffered from depression and at one point stopped caring about his cleanliness. Now back in his hometown, Gangneung, on South Korea’s east coast, Sim is making conscious efforts to put himself in a better mood and take care of himself by watching comedy shows and eating better. When asked what could be done about gositels and residents, Sim’s answer was simple, but clear.
“Welfare and a social safety net. Before, I was pretty conservative and didn’t empathize with homeless or poor people much. But living in the gositel changed my perception and thinking completely. There are people who can’t help it. Their stories are too complicated to dismiss.”
Sim’s photo book on the gositel is coming out in late April from South Korea’s photo book publisher Noonbit. He is running a crowdfunding campaign to exhibit the photos at the South Korean National Assembly in May. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.