South Korean Hell Typologies, Bang, Extreme Density, Jeonse Lease
Seoul, South Korea, is one of the most populated places in the world, with a population of just below 10 million inhabitants, and has the highest population density among OCD capital cities, at 16700 people per square meter. Seoul Capital Area, or Gyeonggi region, is the larger metropolitan area, including Incheon and the Gyeonggi Province, and houses about 25 million people, about half of South Korea’s population, and is the 5th largest metropolitan area in the world.
As most of the nation’s population is concentrated in this area, and as people continue to immigrate, the city of Seoul grows more prominent and denser, and in consequence, the habitable spaces become smaller and smaller.
South Korea has many different types of architectural typologies based on the social manifestation of the architectural bang; and different domestic typologies have grown out of a combination of the bang typology, the culture, spatial scarcity, and planning policy, in conjunction with the land value, and economics.
In Seoul alone, about 501,000 households, for 1,368 Million people, fall below minimum housing standards, mainly in the form of low-income housing, most prominently represented by the collection of three unique South Korean domestic typologies, which combined are called jiokgo, although other informal housing or dwellings where people can sleep exist, for example, jjimjilbang.
The three jiokgo typologies, banjiha, goshiwon, and oktapbang, all share the notion of low income, low quality, hyper-dense living conditions that all blur the boundary of legal and illegal non-residential dwellings. The number of people living in these three spaces increased significantly between 2005 and 2010.
To understand the rise of jiokgo, or any other informal, or illegal, non-residential dwelling form in South Korea, one needs to understand the context of jeonse and its contrast to wolse, which most would be more familiar with.
Jeonse is a lease contract of real estate, unique to South Korea, which is protected and regulated by law, where one pay the lessor as much as possible, at least 50 percent, but up to 90 percent of the market value for the property in as an initial lump sum, in order to secure a two-year lease contract. In exchange, not only does one get to occupy and use the property, but one no longer pays any monthly rent, only utility bills. At the end of the contract, the lessor returns the full jeonse deposit. On the other hand, the lessor earns additional money by investing and generating interest on the money while they have it. Once the contract is over, as they return the deposit, they keep any additional profit gains they have made during the two years of the jeonse lease.
Without going into the historical background or economic analysis too much, this has been an ongoing problem for decades. The contract type favors the already wealthy, as they are the only ones who can access these types of properties, where many –but not exclusively too– young people struggle to secure a jeonse style contract that further the class divide of rich and poor in South Korea.
Traditionally jeonse lease in Seoul was very common and represented 74.5 percent in 1995, but the share decreased to 55.9 percent in 2012. Jeonse style contracts have been on a decline since, additionally due to the Housing Lease Protection Act, in July 2020, which guarantees the right of jeonse dwellers for two plus two years instead, which reduced the total supply of jeonse residence available. Also, many jeonse dwellers changed their lease contract into the wolse style contract, due to current economics, as landlords hiked the jeonse prices in anticipation of the new act in 2020. As of January 2021, 39.3 percent of Seoul residence were now wolse lease types.
As jeonse contracts have traditionally dominated the Seoul real estate market, the jiokgo typologies have provided dwelling opportunities for people, which can not afford such a lease type, with non-deposit, monthly rental agreement, akin the rent of bangs such as noraebang or PC bang instead, which are paid by the hour.
Semi-basement, Social Hierarchy
The majority of banjiha was initially designed and built as a concrete, semi-basement bunker to protect from a North Korean missile invasion in the 70s. However, simultaneously, as economic pressure rose and housing demand increased, they were informally modified and subsequently rented out to cope with the housing demands. At first illegal, they found some formal status in the 1980s, becoming a legal, formal residential dwelling space. Still, the build quality is often low because of its history, and daylight and ventilation are fundamentally limited, while damp and mold are common. Banjiha apartments are very susceptible to flooding, especially during the rainy months in the summer. In 2010, an intense series of floods damaged over 9,000 banjiha dwellings.
Banjiha is an architectural representation of the growing low-income population in Seoul, who are forced to live in smaller and smaller spaces but also sacrificing the quality of life, and long-term health, for the sake of the lower cost of the rent. Banjiha, as emphasized in Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite (2019), represents a social hierarchy where you are physically lower than all other living arrangements, symbolizing the profound difference between the working-class and the upper-class in Korea by forcing some of the working class to live beneath others.
Although banjiha is a nationally recognized domestic typology, as many as 60 percent of the nation’s banjihas exists within the boundary of Seoul and make up about 10 percent of the capital’s total housing stock. Like all the jiokgo typologies, they are more prevalent in the capital, as the economic and spatial situations are more extreme than the rural areas and smaller cities, and banjiha is no exception.
Tim Nelson from Architectural Digest highlights that in 2015, as many as 360,000 individuals live in banjiha, and more than 75 percent of the people that live there are in the bottom 30 percent of the national income bracket.
Throughout Parasite (2019), the banjiha apartment was the home of the Kim family, showing and contrasting their poor living conditions to the wealthy Park family and their house, where the Kim family infiltrates and works. Parasite (2019), uses architecture and spaces to visually tell the story of class conflict, social inequality, and profound wealth disparity that exists and continues to exist in Seoul.
“Banjiha is a space with a peculiar connotation, It’s undeniably underground, and yet you want to believe it’s above ground. There’s also the fear that if you sink any lower, you may go completely underground.”
– Bong Joon-Ho
Through the immense commercial and artistic success of Parasite (2019), Bong Joon-Ho’s critic of South Korean society and banjiha as an architectural representation of that society, Seoul has started to implement laws to improve the conditions of the banjiha typology.
Rooftop room, Romanticism
Initially, in the 50s and 60s, most single-family, detached houses were built with a traditional wooden woojingak roof, however, in the 70s, the use of reinforced concrete became prevalent, and the preferred method became the flat roof concrete slab, and thus, the roof became a space for water tanks and other utilities, as well as en external space of use, as well. This lead to the emergence of the Oktapbang in the 1970s. Oktapbang is an informal dwelling typology built on top of an existing roof, much like a separated, individual roof extension.
Since the 70s and 80s, oktapbang has undergone many minor transformations due to various laws, planning policies, and building acts, creating what it is today. The vast majority of the users are low-income families, students, and newly graduated workers, mainly in their 20s and 30s. This demographic is not only attracted to oktapbang because of the low rent and the lack of jeonse contract but, it is also marketed towards this demographic, through Television, Film, and Media for South Koreans, as well as through “AirBnB” and "hotels.com" for foreigners and travelers, often referring it as a “penthouse.”
Oktapbang, unlike the goshiwon and banjiha, have since the 2000s been depicted more positively, as a more romantic representation of poverty, and as an opportunity of upward social mobility – a direct contrast to the banjiha – thanks to Korean media. This romantic representation can be seen in What's Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018) and Rain or Shine (2017), for example, either depicting it as a joke on the social stigma of economic hardship or as a penthouse of opportunity for the young couple.
As jeonse contract has been typical, especially in Seoul, landlords have favored oktapbang, as a supplementary monthly income for themselves, as they can charge another tenant rent, thus allowing them extra cash flow. They do so by simply making an additional oktabang, to whichever quality they think is appropriate, on top of the building. In 1995, external staircases, smaller than 1 meter wide, were made easier to build under permitted planning, leading to an increase in how to build and access oktapbang, making it easier for landlords to rent out to strangers.
Exam room, Educational Pressure, Patriarchal Society
Goshiwon emerged in the 1970s as a small, one-person bang for students to isolate themselves to focus and study for to complete the civil service entrance exam. As the use and popularity grew, so-called goshi-villages could be found throughout various locations in Seoul by the end of the 70s. Neighborhoods located near hagwons, Universities, and areas predominately of the younger generation were the natural areas for this typology to grow and establish itself naturally.
Initially, the room itself is a self-contained, tiny, private room of about 4-10 square meters, initially built, post-construction, in leftover spaces in larger buildings, to provide the service of privacy for students, and provide a luxurious, more private, and isolated version of dokseosil. As the societal pressures are enormous, both socially and economically, and as Koreans are generally highly educated, this self-contained study room grew naturally following the bang-culture in Korea.
The economic pressure to succeed and pass the civil service entrance exam is enormous due to the job security that a civil servant job would provide. Socially, the pressure is also high, as there is a significant level of respect, credibility, and financial gap of having a permanent job, compared to being a temporary or part-time worker, due to traditional and conservative values combined with the reality of modern economics. Although not the only ones, these outside forces were the driving factors to the development of the goshiwon. Instead of renting a goshiwon for a couple of hours, just like one would in, as per the previous example, a noraebang, students started to rent each goshiwon for weeks or even months at a time instead. The unique typology of goshiwon grew, as the landlords wanted to rent out their goshiwon over other competing goshiwons, they attracted students by providing not only a desk for them to study, but also a tiny bed in the room for the students to rest, and would start to serve kimchi, soup, rice, and coffee, which would all be included in the rent.
However, in November 1997, due to, or at least accelerated by the Asian Financial Crisis, the private renting market became unobtainable for most people, which started to flood the goshiwons with not only with students but with low-income people as well, as they had nowhere else to stay. This created a shift in what a goshiwon was, where it started, and what it is today. Initially, a room for students to study and stay temporarily became a place for the low-income population to live in, as the last and only housing option for this part of the low-income society. This created a gray area where people started to live in goshiwons, which is not regulated for living, but due to their financial circumstances, they had to live there to survive.
In 2019, about 2.8 million people lived below the residential standards in South Korea, and out of them, the majority, 41 percent, live in goshiwons.
According to EBS a typical goshiwon room is too small to inhabit permanently. Still, Eun-Seok lives in a room approximately 350cm by 220cm – a 7.7 square meter room. This is half of what the living standards act in South Korea, which specifies a minimum of 14 square meters per person, per liveable room. EBS highlights that this is not a suitable living space by showing the spaces, interviewing the people living there, and the other amenities. Still, rice, soup, and kimchi are often provided, which many residents claim are invaluable for them, as they are in economic need.
Goshiwon is a different type of living, a mix between a hotel room, but with no cleaning service, with (some) food service included, but in the size of a closet.
Maria Shéhérazade Giudici’s "Alone Like the Horn of a Rhino: Reproduction, Affective Labor, and the Contemporary Boarding House in South Korea”, explains that the goshiwon typology provides opportunities for a different way of living, still. It can be seen as a liberating way from the “conventional” way of living in South Korea, especially for women, as they face more societal constraints and pressures in the, still generally, conservative South Korea. Giudici highlights that while the room is small, they share a kitchen, bathrooms, laundry, and communal areas. The place offers a haven from forced domesticity and life outside social class, status, and hierarchy; liberating for many.