Korean towns and neighborhoods are very compact. An area that covers only a couple of blocks is often packed with dirt sports fields, a variety of schools, office buildings, apartments, restaurants, playgrounds, busy streets and supermarkets with parking lots on their roof. Korean addresses are sometimes hard to figure out. Koreans often identify places by nearness to a landmark rather than a street number.

Korea has a makeshift impermanence to it. Structures are often poorly built and zoning rules are virtually non-existent. There are few parks, sidewalks start and stop, stairways are steep, buildings are often thrown up in a very haphazard manner, and beauty parlors and shops are often found in houses in residential districts.

Many Koreans live apartment towers that increasingly dominate the cities, suburbs and even some towns. Rice paddies have been cemented over to make room for them. When you fly into some cities, passing over the suburbs, they stretch as far as they eye can see. Generally the taller your apartment tower is and the higher floor you live on in the tower, the more expensive your apartment. Often the only thing you can see out the windows is buildings identical to the one you live in across the parking lot, maybe with a scruffy park or playground off to one side..

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in Countries and Their Cultures”: “As part of government-sponsored rural development projects since the late 1960s, thatched-roof houses in rural areas have mostly been replaced by concrete structures with a variety of brightly colored slate roofs. The tile-roofed traditional urban residential houses have also become almost extinct, partly because of the ravages of the Korean War and the rush toward modernization and development. Now a wide range of architectural styles coexists. Lack of land for construction and changes in people's lifestyle have combined to make condominium apartments the dominant housing type in urban areas. Close to half the urban population consists of condominium dwellers, but the bedrooms in most condos still feature the ondol floor system. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Villages in South Korea

Almost every Korean is loyal to his or her home village or neighborhood (known as dongs in Korea). Korean villages have traditionally been set up according to the principals of feng shui, with a mountain in the back and a stream in the front. Many villages were occupied by members of only one clan and consisted of one story houses.

Choong Soon Kim wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Before recent economic growth and industrialization accelerated urbanization, most Koreans lived in the countryside. In 1910 when Japan colonized Korea, the urban population of Korea was no more than 3 percent of the total population. In some villages the population consists solely of members of one lineage; other villages have many different lineages. The size of villages varies, ranging from 10 to 150 households. Most of the housing consists of one-story structures made of stone or homemade bricks. Formerly, some of the houses had thatch roofs, which have been replaced by tile or slate roofs as part of the New Village movement that began in 1970. Traditionally, rooms were heated by the ondol method, and hot air from burning wood outdoors warmed the stone floor. Now coal, oil, and electricity are replacing wood. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993 |~|]

“Rural settlement patterns have been altered significantly by a massive migration from rural to urban to industrialized areas beginning in the mid-1960s. In this period, at least 9 million farmers and their families, nearly a quarter of the total population, are estimated to have left their farms and moved to cities. In 1988, the urban population reached over 78 percent. In mid-1989, the population of Seoul, the capital, was more than 10.5 million, nearly one-fourth of the entire South Korean population, with a population density of 17,365 persons per square kilometer. Construction of large numbers of high-rise apartment complexes in Seoul and other cities has alleviated housing shortages to some extent and has determined the major settlement pattern of urban Korea.

Rural Homes in South Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Homes in a typical Korean village “had mud walls papered inside with newspapers and posters, and heavy wooden pillars held up the roof structures, which were covered in thatch or, in rare cases, galvanized metal. It was a poor village and the residents had few valuable possessions. Even so, most of the dwellings were surrounded by traditional walls made of mud and stones, topped with long swatches of woven thatch or, more rarely, tiles. The walls were subject to erosion whenever it rained and constantly had to be repaired. Gaps were common and the walls obviously were more symbolic than useful. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The finest home in Kongnam-ni—and Poksu's top historical attraction—was the family residence of the Cho family across the stream from the main village square. The Cho family house itself was typical of a yangban home, having been improved and altered over many decades by succeeding generations. Part of the house was in Japanese-style, with sliding glass doors opening onto a polished wood hallway along the south side that was designed to be warmed by the winter sun (but was something of an oven in summer).

“Inside, however, the rooms were Korean-style with heated floors and elegant wooden cabinets. One of the cabinets contained the family treasury. One treasure was a quiver that was said to have held the arrows that Cho Hon shot at the Japanese during the Battle of Kumsan. Another was a commendation certificate written in Cho Hon's memory by his students after the battle. Others included a bound treatise by Cho Hon himself and several books that were said to have belonged to him, including editions of the ancient Book of Mencius and the historical text Tongguk t'onggam (Precious Mirror of the Eastern Land). There was also the all-important Cho family chokpo, the genealogy that documented Cho Hon's own lineage and the generations descended from him down to Cho Inse's late father.

Housing in South Korea

According to the OECD: “Housing costs take up a large share of the household budget and represent the largest single expenditure for many individuals and families, by the time you add up elements such as rent, gas, electricity, water, furniture or repairs. In Korea, households on average spend 15 percent of their gross adjusted disposable income on keeping a roof over their heads, the lowest level in the OECD, where the average is 20 percent. [Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development( OECD) Better Life Index]

“In addition to housing costs it is also important to examine living conditions, such as the average number of rooms shared per person and whether households have access to basic facilities. The number of rooms in a dwelling, divided by the number of persons living there, indicates whether residents are living in crowded conditions. Overcrowded housing may have a negative impact on physical and mental health, relations with others and children's development. In addition, dense living conditions are often a sign of inadequate water and sewage supply. In Korea, the average home contains 1 room per person, less than the OECD average of 1.8 rooms per person. In terms of basic facilities, 97.5 percent of dwellings in Korea contain private access to an indoor flushing toilet, more than the OECD average of 95.6 percent.

Indicators: A) Rooms per person 1.0 rooms; Rank: 36 out of 40; B) Dwellings with basic facilities: 2.5 percent; Rank: 26 out of 40; Housing expenditure: 15 percent of income; Rank: 1 out of 40.

Land is in short supply in South Korea and real estate costs are high. Most city dwellers live in high-rise apartments or in homes of cement block with tile roofing. Many people live in high-rise apartments that arranged in huge blocks with 20 or 30 separate buildings. Lotteries are sometimes held to determine who gets housing. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “After liberation in 1945, southern Korea faced a housing shortage greatly compounded by high population growth rates. A housing shortage continues to plague the nation, especially in Seoul, Pusan, and other large cities, where shantytowns house many rural arrivals. The 1985 census counted 9,588,723 households but only 6,274,462 housing units, a deficit of 3,314,261. According to 2002 estimates, there were 11,892,000 housing units nationwide and 12,099,000 households. The same year, about 543,000 new housing units were built. Most new housing is in apartment buildings. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

South Korea: the Land of Apartments

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “South Korea is a nation covered by apartments, so much so that from above, it resembles a coast-to-coast line of dominoes. Apartment buildings snake around mountains and form jarring clusters in the countryside. In cities, they align in grids that stretch for miles. Apartment buildings first sprouted decades ago as a way to accommodate South Korea’s booming middle class, and they were the picture of a nation in rapid ascent. But the most remarkable thing about them isn’t the national transformation they heralded, urban design experts say: It’s their staying power. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, September 16, 2013]

“South Korea today is dominated by tech giants, its streets filled with neon lights, coffee shops and barbecue joints. But despite its first-world status, it hasn’t seen a new demand for townhouses, city-center living or artsy warehouse districts. Rather, people still prefer to live in apartments that look nearly unchanged from the boom years — units built by Hyundai or Samsung or Lotte, in buildings 15 to 30 stories tall.

“Although the country’s real-estate market has slowed, apartments form the backbone of preplanned cities under construction, such as Dongtan, where 100 complexes — for 310,000 people — are being built in a loose ring around a golf course. Apartment buildings are also pushing into some of Seoul’s classic neighborhoods. A few mid-size cities have mega-towers, 60-some stories high.

“The apartments, initially, were a means to hold South Korea together during its growth after the Korean War. Government officials sometimes said that if people became dissatisfied with their living situations, they’d be likelier to protest against the government, at the time controlled by military leaders. The first apartment buildings, South Korea’s national housing developer said in the 1960s, would “contribute to the aesthetics of the capital city” and serve as a useful propaganda tool — showing North Korea the affluence of the South. Best seen from a distance

“Many of South Korea’s early apartment designers studied in the United States and were perhaps influenced by the boxy look of stand-alone suburban homes, some experts say. But they acknowledge that South Korea’s apartments have a distinctly communist feel and resemble the buildings seen in some parts of Moscow.

“South Korean construction companies try to differentiate their apartment buildings — each firm uses its brand name, like the IPark, the Castle — but experts admit there’s little difference between them. An annual contest is held to pick the best apartment complex constructed within the previous calendar year. Ten urban designers and architects tour the country by bus, inspecting applicants’ buildings and interviewing residents. One judge says that copycatting is rampant and that modest innovations by one developer are soon adopted by others. Fitness centers. Artificial streams. Underground parking. Ahn Kun-hyuck, the lead panelist, said the contest in some years is “very hard to judge.”“

Living in a South Korean Apartment

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: “Some South Koreans say that the apartments have become a symbol of success and that moves into bigger units serve as milestones in their lives. After college: first apartment. After marriage: a bigger apartment. As children grow: a similar apartment in a better school district. The average Korean moves every five years, a steady vertical migration, and about 60 percent live in apartments, up from 1 percent 40 years ago, according to a recent book, “Apartment,” written by Park Cheol-soo, a professor at the University of Seoul. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, September 16, 2013]

“Most Korean apartments are rectangular, and few have balconies. Their biggest windows tend to face south or southeast, offering the most sunlight. Most buildings have construction company logos and unit numbers stamped on the sides. They do not rise from the street with businesses in the bottom floor or two. Rather, they’re built in complexes that are strictly residential, with one or two guarded entrances. Only residents or approved visitors may enter. Modern facilities have playgrounds or fitness centers for residents.

“Koreans aren’t blind to the downside of such a style. The walled complexes close off large plots of land to the public, and the apartments themselves cut the nation into millions of impersonal cells. At one complex in Jamsil, on the outskirts of Seoul, 19,000 people live in a single city block containing 72 high-rises. “There isn’t much design inspiration. They’re just stacked up,” said Park In-seok, an architecture professor at Myongji University. He described a paradox in which the apartments are mocked for their appearance but coveted for their convenience. “Almost everybody hates the apartment,” Park said. “But everybody wants to live in one.”

“South Korean society emphasizes the family, not the community, and analysts say the apartments reflect that: The individual units look much nicer than the buildings they’re in. Particularly in apartments built since the 1990s, the interiors are comfortable, with wooden floors and stainless-steel kitchens. Outside maintenance is provided, and families can focus on their own small spaces. “It is convenient,” said Kim Sung-jin, an employee at Dell who has lived in three different apartment buildings in the past 17 years. “Plus you have a security guard. There’s a parking space for you. There’s a school nearby.”

“If the apartments have a beauty, it’s best seen from afar — a scale that recognizes their utility and militant geometry. Kim, the Dell employee, is an amateur photographer, and he sometimes darts out of work at dusk and heads to mountain ridges or scenic lookout points. The sky is orange, the massive Han River shimmers, and the apartment buildings catch just the right light. But Kim said his best photos actually come minutes later, when the sun sets. With nightscapes, “you only see beautiful lights,” he said. “You don’t see the ugly things.”

Renting and Lease Options in South Korea

Wolse (Monthly Payment + Deposit), according to Korea4expats.com, is a variation of Jeonse (See Below) in which you pay a certain sum as a security deposit (usually worth about 1~2 years rent) and pays a monthly rent on the designated date of each month. The deposits range from 4 to 20 times the monthly payment amount. It is usual to pay 10 percent of the deposit when the contract is signed and the balance plus one month’s rent when moving in. The deposit is returned to the renter at the end of the lease period. If the tenant is late with the rent that amount will be deducted from the deposit as will costs for damages, etc. It is occasionally difficult to wrestle the full amount from the landlord/landlady, especially if the lease was signed by an individual who is about to leave the country. Wolse is becoming increasing popular with property owners since they still get money they can invest (although interest rates are lower than they once were) while also getting a steady, non-refundable income from their property. Monthly rents range from KRW 300,000 to around KRW 3 million a month or more depending on location and quality. [Source: Korea4expats.com]

Kalse (Full Payment up Front) means that the rent is paid for the entire period of the lease before the tenant moves in. Property owners prefer this method and often require it from multinational corporations since they don’t have to return any money and they still earn interest on a large sum. Under this system, if the monthly rent of a two-year lease agreement is KRW 8 million (roughly USD 8,000.00) the company will pay KRW 192 million before their staff moves in. When using this system, it is important to be very specific in the contract and include an opting-out clause in case problems are discovered after the expat moves in. Bear in mind also that Koreans don’t always view a contract or lease as absolutely binding (although this situation is improving). Kalse (Monthly rent with no deposit)

The Lease period is usually for a minimum of one-year and a maximum period of three years. It is not unusual, especially for expats, to have to terminate the lease earlier than indicated. To avoid having to pay a penalty or losing the entire pre-payment, it is important to clearly stipulate acceptable reasons for early termination as well notice and refund procedures in the lease agreement. The usual notice period is 60 to 90 days. General if you have a provision in your two-year lease allowing for termination after one year and you have to leave before completing the first twelve months, you may only receive a refund on the second year's pre-payment.

A pre-paid two or three-year lease is, of course, is the option most preferred by realtors and property owners, and the one they will often push. Bear in mind that you do not have to go this route and that it may not be to your advantage. If, for some reason, you find that your initial housing choice does not meet your needs (or those of your family), it is very difficult to get out of the lease (and get back the balance of the money paid). Moreover, some property owners and realtors are not as efficient or willing as others when it comes to following-up on problems in the house/apartment, despite what was said before you moved in. Protecting your investment (pre-paid lease or deposit) is very important. One way to protect yourself is to register a 'kuen mortgage', especially if you've paid out a large sum. A lawyer can help you with this (although it can be done without legal representation) and the legal fees will be about 1.5 percent of the total rental payment. A Kuen mortgage means you have registered your investment with the local government office and that you hold a first lien on the property for the total amount of your payment. This will ensure that you get your money back if the property owner goes bankrupt or becomes, in some other way, insolvent or that you will not be evicted should the property change hands.

Jeonse (Key Money)

Jeonse (Chonsei, ‘Key Money Deposit’), according to Korea4expats.com, “is specific to Korea and involves depositing a large sum of money (usually works out to 30~60 percent of the property value/ price) with the landlord for the duration of the lease (usually 2 years). Once the tenant’s lease is up, the landlord must return the full amount. This is a very advantageous system for renters who have the money to make the key money deposit, which can range from KRW20 million to upwards of KRW300 million. [Source: Korea4expats.com]

“The renter is expected to pay 10 percent of the total amount when the contract is signed and the balance when moving in. Should the tenant have to leave before the expiry of the lease, he/she may be expected to find another tenant who will pay the key money. Although financially advantageous for the renter, this system can also be risky. For example, ownership of the building or apartment may change before the expiry of the lease, or the landlord may not be able to find another tenant right away and so may not have the money to pay back the full deposit. Some landlords also tend to think they can maneuver their way out of paying if the lease was signed by an individual rather than by a corporation. There are steps a tenant can get at the beginning of the contract to reduce the risk.

“While the average jeonse has averaged 40-50 percent of the 'house' value, property owners have been asking for over 60 percent from even renewing tenants. This is the situation for Koreans as well as for expats. In 2011, Jeonse rates are reported to have gone up 13 percent around the country, 11 percent in Seoul. Some tenants have seen their chonsei double. Because interest rates are so low and property owners gain little financially from the traditional jonsae system, they prefer to receive a monthly rates instead.

Getting your jeonse (or wolse) money back: Registering the lease and jeonse payment at the local gu (local government) office offers some protection.Bring your lease agreement to the local registry office to get a hwak-jeong-il-ja.. This is an official record of the deposit money you have put down, and establishes your priority for getting your money back should the property go to public auction.

However, if you haven't done registered the lease, you may still be able to establish your priority rights over other creditors. According to Korean law, a tenant can claim priority over lenders claiming the property if the tenant can show proof the he/she (1) has occupied the property and (2) registered her/his relocation with the local government office. However, the tenant may not be able to claim priority for the total amount of her/his deposit. For more information contact Korea Legal Aid http://www.klac.or.kr/ or check out Lawyers in the Korea4Expats Directory.

US$300,000 in Jeonse Money Needed for Seoul Apartment

Matt Phillips wrote in Quartz: “Many Koreans who rent apartments don’t actually pay rent. You read that right. They don’t make monthly rent payments. Don’t start planning your move to Seoul just yet. There’s a catch. To get one of those apartments, on average, you need to plunk down the equivalent of almost US$300,000. Under the country’s Jeonse—or Chonsei—system, tenants lend significant chunks of money to landlords in lieu of rent. (Jeonse is usually translated as “key money.”) It works like this. In exchange for access to the property for specified term—usually two years—tenants make a lump sum deposit to the landlord, based on a percentage of what it would cost to buy the property. The transaction is essentially a loan, with the tenant as the lender, the landlord as the borrower, and the house as the collateral. [Source: Matt Phillips, Quartz, March 10, 2014]

“Jeonse contracts have deep roots in Korea. They can be traced back several hundred years. But their popularity grew sharply in the 1960s and 1970s. Amid the country’s rapid transformation into an urban, industrialized economy, Korea faced two large problems: Housing rural Koreans arriving in cities, and financing economic activity. The Jeonse system was an elegant solution to both. “On the one hand, it’s a household rental system,” said Hyun Song Shin, a professor of economics at Princeton who has studied the Jeonse system. “But actually it’s an informal lending scheme as well.”

“Shin has a hunch that the Jeonse system might have been something of a secret weapon powering Korea’s rapid economic development. He argues that Korean savings rates surged from 1960s into the 1990s, in part, because people socked away significant sums for Jeonse money. The system efficiently channeled that money to Korean landlords, many of whom were also small business owners and entrepreneurs, and happy to forgo rent in favor of a lump sum to invest in their businesses. During the financial crisis of the 1990s, the system only became more entrenched as it allowed Koreans to bypass a deeply troubled banking system.

“But recently something has changed. For example, household savings rates have collapsed. And levels of household debt have moved sharply higher. In 2012, South Korean household debt hit 163.8 percent of disposable income, far higher than the OECD average of 135 percent. What happened? Well, the short version is, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, Korea’s banks started lending big. According to the IMF, between 1998 and 2009 household debt increased by about 13 percent annually. (At the end of 2009, household debt as a share of GDP was about 70 percent. By the end of 2011, it was 82 percent, pushing up against the 85 percent threshold some see as the point where high household debt hurts growth. )

“In other words, as it’s gotten easier to borrow, Koreans have had less of an incentive to save. And that’s completely transformed the Jeonse from a vehicle to build savings into something quite different. “If you don’t have the Jeonse deposit you actually go and borrow it from the bank,” said Shin, the Princeton economist, who later this year will take over as chief economist at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland. “And that used to never happen.”

“Now it does. For instance, when Minwoo Park rented his three-bed room apartment in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo section, the 33-year-old software engineer borrowed money for the lump sum he needed for his Jeonse contract. From his perspective, it makes a ton of sense. Interest rates remain very low in Korea. And his monthly interest payments to the bank amount to roughly 25 percent of what it would cost him to pay monthly rent for a comparable apartment, he says.“It’s a better deal,” Park said. “In Korea everyone prefers Jeonse.”

“Not everybody is eligible for the same deal as Park, who was easily able to get a loan thanks, in part, to the solid salary he earns working in the mobile advertising industry. (He declined to offer specifics.) But the current economics of the Jeonse are a clear win for tenants. As a result, the demand is sky high. And that’s leading to some to worry. “Now the Jeonse is kind of a problem,” said Dongrok Suh, a Seoul-based partner at McKinsey and Company.

“Jeonse’s aren’t risk-free. They’re loans. And sometimes loans don’t get paid back. Now, Jeonse tenants have some protection. In fact, they are living in the collateral. If the landlord defaults, and doesn’t give them their money back, they are entitled to get it when the house is sold. But remember, the Jeonse is the lump sum payment, based on a percentage of the house’s value. Traditionally, that percentage was somewhere between 40 percent-60 percent. That provided the tenant with a large margin of safety. (Should anything go wrong, and the house had to be sold to cover the loan, there should be plenty of cash to pay the tenant back.) But as demand for Jeonse apartments has risen, so has the percentage landlords are asking tenants to pay. In some instances, the Jeonse percentage is now often between 70 percent and 80 percent or even higher than 90 percent, leaving a much smaller safety cushion.

“That’s something worth considering. Especially if you’re wondering why any landlord would be willing to continue on a Jeonse system with tenants when they could potentially make more money by collecting monthly rent. Well, some are. In fact, the share of Korean apartments rented under monthly payments is increasing, though Jeonse contracts still account for a little over half. But many landlords simply don’t have the cash they need to pay back their tenants. In other words, they are stuck in the Jeonse system, because they need to find another Jeonse tenant, and use that deposit to pay off the previous occupant. Citing a Bank of Korea report, the Economist recently noted that 10 percent of the country’s 3.7 million Jeonse landlords could have difficulty repaying the Jeonse money they owe to tenants.

Switch Away from the Jeonse System Boosts the South Korea Economy

In 2014, Choonsik Yoo of Reuters wrote: “For a country trying to avoid the menace of deflation, South Korea is receiving timely help from unusual quarters - the country's landlord and their tenants. Interest rates at historic lows have wrought a change in traditional rental contracts that could gradually unleash tens of billions of dollars for more productive uses like consumption and home buying. Landlords have for decades operated the "jeonse" rental system. There is a huge pool of funds being under utilized. Nomura estimates that there was some US$400 billion tied up in jeonse deposits in 2012, equal to one-third of South Korea's annual economic output. [Source: Choonsik Yoo, Reuters, October 19, 2014]

“But the jeonse system appears to be going out of fashion, as most landlords can't make high enough returns from stashing the money in bank deposits paying just 2.5 percent - they will go down again after the central bank lowered its policy rate further last week. Using the funds as leverage to further invest in the real estate market holds little attraction for landlords either. Prices have been flat.

“Jeonse accounted for slightly more than half of rentals early this year, sharply down from nearly 70 percent in early 2011, land ministry data showed. "The sharp drop in interest rates is the most important factor behind this phenomenon as home owners want to make up for the shrinking income as much as possible," Kim Eun-kyung, a consultant at Samsung Securities said. "The jeonse deposit money has mostly been illiquid, but the declining jeonse contracts will turn the money more liquid, more ready to spend on consumption or paying back loans, although this will happen very gradually," Kim added.

Lee Yeon-hee, an office worker in her 20s in Seoul, had rented through a jeonse contract, with a deposit of 80 million won, until her landlord demanded an extra 15 million won increase. At the same time, with South Korea's economy slowing, her father's small-scale machine assembly business failed. "I couldn't accept the demand for an increased jeonse," Lee said. She now pays a monthly rent of 400,000 won, and has used the returned deposit to pay off a loan and support her parents.

Jeonse System Outdated for South Korea’s Needs

Choonsik Yoo of Reuters wrote:“South Korea's aging population - the number of working-age people between 15 and 64 will begin shrinking from 2017 - also heralds lower demand for rentals, as typically demand comes from younger people. Landlords have responded to the changing market environment by either charging a monthly rental, or asking for a substantially higher jeonse deposit, which should further reduce demand for such rentals. Either way, the prospect of less money locked up in the jeonse system, and more becoming available for people to spend, invest, or buy their own homes should be a boon for the economy. [Source: Choonsik Yoo, Reuters, October 19, 2014]

Young Sun Kwon, an economist at Nomura in Hong Kong and a former official with South Korea's central bank, estimated that renters have borrowed about 64 trillion won (US$60 billion) to fund jeonse deposits. The trend away from jeonse rentals comes at a good time for Finance Minister Choi Kyung-hwan, who fears Asia's fourth-largest economy could go the way of Japan and slip into deflation. The extra money coming into circulation will help his strategy to lift asset prices as a way to boost consumption.

“As jeonse rentals have fallen and the benefits of Choi's policies come through, analysts see clear signs that people are using money for more productive purposes, like home buying. Home prices have risen for 13 consecutive months and, according to data from Kookmin Bank, have gained 1.41 percent so far this year, following a mere 0.37 percent gain last year and a fall of 0.03 percent in 2012.

“The jeonse system developed decades ago, when banks' lending was focused on financing South Korea's rapid industrialization, and the mortgage lending market was under-developed in a country emerging from the ravages of post-war poverty. The country passed through a long phase of high economic growth, which fueled inflation, high interest rates and rising property prices, all of which sustained the jeonse system in the past. "When the country was short of capital and short of proper retail banking service, the jeonse system contributed a lot to economic development, but times have changed and much of the money does little for economic growth," said Kwon.

“If just 5 percent of money now tied up in jeonse deposits flowed back into consumer spending, it would amount to 20 trillion won, equivalent to 3 percent of annual private consumption, according to Reuters' calculations based on central bank data. While the government has not said it wants to abolish jeonse, some officials say in private that waning popularity of the jeonse system was good for the country over the long term. "The country should abolish it, and as long as it is done in an orderly manner, it will make big contribution to the economy," said Kwon.

Possessions and Furniture in a South Korean House

Furnishings in atypical old-style Korean dwelling, Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”, “might include a television, chests or armoires for the rolled-up bedding to be stored in the daytime, and cushions on the floor instead of chairs. These multiple functions mean that fewer rooms are needed, heat is used more efficiently, and families get used to living in much closer proximity than most Americans experience in their family life. The rooms can be transformed into dining rooms at mealtimes because food is dished up in the kitchen and served on small eating tables that resemble short-legged trays. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

A Korean bedroom is often not much bigger than a large American walk-in closet. A typical Korean two-bedroom apartment has one bedroom for the children and smaller one for the husband and wife. A 10 foot x 10 children's bedroom is sometimes jammed with two desks, a dresser, a bunk bed and stacks of comic books and textbooks on a bookcase.

Some Koreans don't sleep on beds. They sleep on futons (a thin mattress that folds up). Futons are typically rolled up each morning and placed in closet to create more space inside the home.

Many Koreans take a shower on the floor of the bathroom (they special drains for this) not in the bathtub even though the bathroom contains a bathtub, though smaller than ones people are used to in the United States. Koreans typically shower in a squatting position or sitting on a low plastic stool. The shower head is connected to a hose that can be held in the hand or hooked to the wall.

Toilets in Korea

Most homes have Western-style toilets whereas public rest rooms often have hole-in-the-floor- Asian-style ones. An Asian toilet is regarded by Asians as more hygienic than a Western one because no part of the body touches it. Asians also find it easier to squat over them than Westerners do. There are stories of old people — used to Asian-style toilets — that when confronted with a Western-style one, put their feet on the bowl rim or the rim seat and squat over he bowl because they don’t want sit on it like usual users do.

Sometimes public restrooms don't have toilet paper (for this reason always carry tissue with you). Many restrooms are coed, with urinals in the front for men and separate toilets behind closed doors for men and women. Large restrooms have long rows of Asian-style toilets with maybe one Western-style toilet at the end. Koreans knock on the doors of the toilet booths to see if they are occupied, and grunt when it is occupied.

Some toilets are coed. urinals are often little than a found smelling porcelain trough. There is a saying in Korea that toilets are like mother-in-laws—the farther away the better.

History of Toilets in Korea

Medieval Koreans used chamber pots that were color coded to define rank and status. Commoners used ones were dark brown and noblemen used ones that were grayish green. Chamber pots carried by women on sedan chairs were outfit with cotton wool and paper to muffle unpleasant noises.

In the not too distant past, many homes had outhouses instead of inside toilets. Users stumbled out in the cold with candles at night. Children believed they were inhabited by ghosts that were appeased with rice cakes; Farmers often collected the “night soil” to use as fertilizer and pig feed.

The first flush toilets were introduced by the Japanese in 1910 and the earliest ones were found mostly in banks and hotels, They did not became widespread in the homes of ordinary Koreans until the 1960s.

Suwon (outside Seoul) is a city that hosted some World Cup games in 2002 and spent US$4 million to fix up it public toilets. Some were built in geodesic domes and had piped in music and special devices that covered the toilet seat with a fresh plastic cover after each use. Other restroom were built to resemble mountains, castles, traditional Korean ceramic pots and fireflies and offered panoramic views from the urinals and “etiquette bells” that covered up unpleasant noises and some of the first bidets in South Korea. Many of the toilets were built with a particular theme in mind. The Olympia was built in the shape of the five rings of the Olympics. One was s a glass structure shaped like a fortress gate

For a while Suwon ran “World Heritage Fortress and Beautiful Restroom Tours” and published a guide that showed where the toilets were. The new toilet complexes had special names and themes such as the “harmonious joining of nature and mankind.” One Korean tourist told the Los Angeles Times, “I heard there were beautiful toilets in Suwon, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.” Suwon has also hosted competitions among restaurants for cleanest bathrooms and occasionally puts on concerts in the larger public bathrooms. For a while the city ran a website on public toilets and organized a group called Citizens Alliance for Toilet Culture that supported clean toilets worldwide.

Moving to Seoul

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Recently, I made the biggest move of my life when I took a job as The Times' Seoul Bureau chief. This time, my company was paying for the move. I didn't have to lift one box. The moving men would come to my house in San Francisco and pack every plate and green ceramic monkey (a gag gift from my late mother) and unpack it on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2009]

“The movers were courteous and professional. They shipped our belongings via container ship. Meanwhile, I had moved into an empty apartment in Seoul. I slept on a mattress on the floor. I had one chair and a small table. I was a bohemian again. Just like college. Then my stuff arrived. ...The knock came on the door. I didn't want to answer. They knocked again — they knew I was in there. So I opened up.

“What greeted me was an army of fast-moving, hard-working South Korean men — almost a dozen of them. Their supervisor, Mr. Kim, handed me a clipboard with a piece of paper with 288 marked boxes, one for each box of my belongings these poor stiffs would have to haul out of two delivery trucks, up a freight elevator 34 floors and into my apartment. "You have a lot of stuff," Mr. Kim said.

“What happened over the next four hours was simply remarkable. My job, if one wants to call it that, was to stand in the doorway as this moving battalion carried each box inside, one by one. They would call out a number and I would check the appropriate box. Then they would announce the contents and I would direct them to a room. Soon, numbers were flying fast and furious. I couldn't keep up. I was sending boxes of bathroom junk into my home office.

The movers were everywhere at once. They unpacked. They put together furniture that had been dismantled. They arranged books on shelves. They helped me put the spoons and the forks into the right trays. By 6 p.m., Mr. Kim was pushing paperwork before my eyes. The men were done. The moving paper was gone. The boxes were gone. Other than a few miscellaneous crates spirited away to be sorted through later, the apartment was spotless. It looked as though we had lived there a year, not a day. The door closed and I marveled, walking room to room. Tutto a posto, as my Italian cousin says, everything in its place. No living out of a suitcase for this couple. If this is the way they do everything in South Korea, I think I'm going to really like it here.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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