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Seoul Subway Forces Senior Expats to Subsidize Operating Losses
Institutionalized Discrimination against Non-Koreans Embedded in City Hall Policies
By Alan Timblick
President of The Seoul Times
Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon

Of the thousands of foreign residents in Seoul a modest few actually acquire the F5 Visa status, as permanent residents. They enjoy most of the same rights and privileges as Korean citizens, including using the Koreans-only immigration lines at Incheon Airport.

But since their Alien Registration number, although formatted similarly to the citizen’s I/D number, clearly marks them out as non-Korean, they suffer irritating discrimination in being excluded access to on-line services and facilities which require I/D authentication.

An even smaller number, hopefully growing thanks to excellent health services that promote longevity, reach the age of 65 and qualify for state pensions.

But despite having lived productive, socially engaged lives, having paid on average more tax than most citizens, these valuable residents continue to be discriminated against by Seoul City transportation authorities. Even those awarded the distinction of Honorary Citizenship of Seoul are required to pay full fare when travelling on the subway.

An American Christian missionary couple, both in their 70’s, told The Seoul Times It’s not about the money! The subway is cheap and efficient. It’s just the different treatment that is upsetting!”

Mayor Park Won Sun, perhaps unmindful of the fact that, under the Korean Constitution, F5 Visa holders have the right to vote in elections for local government, has reneged on the written undertaking of his predecessor, Lee Myung Bak, that Honorary Citizens of Seoul over 65, just as Korean senior nationals, should have the right to free public transport.

Ticket machines in subway stations are programmed to reject Alien Registration Cards even if they evidence the holder’s age as over 65.

Unlike other global cities, where subsidized public transport for the aged is not subject to a test of nationality, Seoul discriminates against non-Korean pensioners.

During my term as Head of the Seoul Global Centre, I tried to persuade Seoul City to end this policy but was told the cost would only add to the losses incurred by the subway operators. But no one troubled to calculate what it would actually cost, or to recognize that, as retirees, this group constitutes infrequent users of commuter transport.

More recently, at a Town Meeting, Mayor Park again used the argument that a loss-making enterprise could not afford to subsidize even this limited and strictly defined group of non-Koreans.

The effect of this policy is in fact the very reverse. Since they pay full fare, every trip by a senior long-term resident represents a subsidy to the Citizenry who travel for free.

This is a unique distinction among capital cities for which surely Seoul does not wish to be recognized? We look forward to hearing candidates’ pledges on this issue during the up-coming elections.

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Alan Timblick serves as President of The Seoul Times. He grew up in England, graduated from Oxford University, and has lived in Seoul for over three decades. A former banker, he also worked for the Korean government as head of Invest Korea and for Seoul City as head of the Seoul Global Center.






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