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Seoul: Reserved seating spawns young-old conflict.

Seoul Subway

Seoul subway—a platform for power struggle to play out?

Below are portions quoted from Straits Times. Published on Jan 31, 2014. By Young-Ha Kim


The Seoul subway’s designated-seating section has become a curious backdrop of intergenerational conflict in South Korea.

In the 40 years or so since full-scale industrialisation began, the social divide between generations has widened. Senior citizens grew up during Japanese occupation and the Korean War, and lived through the era of breakneck economic growth that followed, building a modern country from the ground up in just a few decades, most of the time under a military dictatorship.

Most younger South Koreans have come of age in a time of relative affluence and freedom, and like many younger people in East Asia, have gradually become more independent-minded than their elders and less attached to the traditional Confucian values that have been the basis of Korean society for centuries.

In recent years, South Korea’s economic woes have put strain on both groups, and frustrations are high.

Older South Koreans are finding themselves financially unprepared for retirement, while younger people cannot find jobs. The Seoul subway is a rare place where the generations cross paths – and the intergenerational tensions are playing out in the crowded trains.


About two years ago, I had unintentionally sat in one of the elderly-designated seats on the subway and was checking my e-mail messages when I looked up to meet the eyes of a scowling elderly man. I got up right away. He did not thank me, but continued to stare at me from across the train. There had been other free seats for him to use, but he pressured me to get up just to make the point that I should not have been sitting there.

All subway lines in South Korea are free for those over 65 years of age, so most elderly people use it whenever possible. There was a time when young people were happy to give up their seats for the elderly. And the elderly, fitting to tradition, have always assumed they had a right to a seat occupied by a younger person. But young people today are simply less deferential to their elders.

The fighting over seats mirrors a vast political gap outside the subway.

A majority of older Koreans support President Park Geun Hye and the governing party, but the younger generation is strongly opposed to her leadership. Many older people feel nostalgia for the days of Park Chung Hee, the current president’s father, when they were more prosperous and the country was in the throes of exciting development.

For now, South Korea’s intergenerational conflict seems limited to the underground. But without a meaningful dialogue on how to help both our struggling elderly and disaffected young people, the tensions will find a way of rising to the surface.

Full version on NEW YORK TIMES