A Seoul Taxi Story: It’s Just Not Fare

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A 61-year-old taxi driver surnamed Kim was booked without detention on Wednesday, after he allegedly rejected a drunk customer in northern Seoul.  

CCTV footage shows a man, reportedly surnamed Lee, grabbing onto the cab’s door handle, then Kim accelerating to get away from him. Lee is dragged several meters before tumbling onto the asphalt. Several passersby come to his aid and try to help him up.

Video from another camera showed Kim leaving the scene without checking to see if Lee was injured. Police said Lee suffered fractures and scrapes on his face. (The incident took place last month; Kim was nabbed yesterday after being identified through a police investigation.) Police said Kim, a taxi driver with 11 years’ experience, at first denied any wrongdoing, but has since admitted to the allegations. Kim said he didn’t want to take Lee because Lee appeared drunk.

In 2012, I wrote a feature story about taxi drivers in Seoul. I got the idea heading home late one night, when my driver, a young, gregarious, chain-smoking man named Young-gil, asked me if I minded if he picked up another passenger on the way to my place. I said I didn’t mind; it was a rainy Friday night and there were droves of people waiting outside for rides out of Seoul’s booze-soaked Hongdae area. Young-gil said he had to take advantage of busy times to boost his earnings.

Then, out of nowhere, he pulled his monthly pay stub out of his glove box, to show me that after the taxi company’s deductions for his use of the cab, he took home less than 1.5 million won (around 1,300 U.S dollars at the current exchange rate) per month. He told me that his wife had just given birth to the couple’s first child, and Young-gil had started working as a cab driver seeking a more stable way of earning a living (he had spent his adulthood to that point working in bars and room salons).

There are around 280,000 registered taxi drivers in South Korea, according to the Korea Transport Safety Authority. Drivers reportedly work 15-hour shifts, and earn around 1.75 million won (about 1,500 dollars) per month. Many drivers suffer back pain and problems with poor circulation caused by spending such long periods seated.

Young-gil and I met for an interview the following week. In addition to his grievances with long hours and low pay, Young-gil said that drunk passengers were the worst part of his job. He said he would prefer to avoid transporting groups of sloshed men leaving company dinners late at night, but couldn’t afford to turn down fares. He told me he’d had passengers puke on his seats.

In those settings, Young-gil said, South Korea’s military hierarchy would take shape in his cab. If the passengers were older than him, they’d talk down to him, gruffly ordering him around while expecting him to remain effusively polite. If they were white collar types, they would mock him for his working class vocation. He said some would even refuse to pay upon reaching their destination, and that he’d gotten into fights.

Not to excuse Kim’s alleged actions in the video, but it isn’t hard to understand why a taxi driver might want to avoid taking a noticeably inebriated passenger. Police say they plan to request a warrant for Kim’s arrest. He could also end up on the hook for Lee’s medical expenses. At the time of publication, Dobong Police Station had not responded to a request to confirm  the details of the incident

Toward the end of our interview, Young-gil told me he wanted to quit his job as a driver, but had to provide for his wife and child. He felt he didn’t have many other employment options. With the disappearance of stable blue collar jobs, taxi driving is a common vocation for non-university graduates.

“It’s stressful, but I just have to keep driving,” Young-gil said with a sigh. My guess is that today, as he waits to hear about his arrest warrant, Kim is telling himself something similar.

 

Cover image: The life of a taxi driver is full of challenges. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Read about one of the most interesting taxis to ride in Seoul:

Steven Borowiec is a freelance writer and editor living in Seoul. He also serves as Korea Exposé's politics editor.