Why Is Crime Surging Among the Elderly in South Korea?

I was sitting on the subway one late evening and looked over to the other side to notice an elderly Korean man, who looked to be in his 60s, intoxicated and lifeless with both hands on his lap, one weakly holding onto his cell phone. To the right of him was another elderly man, seemingly a similar age. The second man reached over, took the vulnerable phone, and placed it in the back part of the sleeping man’s seat, right behind his butt. “What a nice guy,” I thought to myself. Surely, he was just watching out for a fellow elderly man. 

The good samaritan had since walked away, but returned five minutes later to the same seat. The announcement for the upcoming stop chimed as I saw him slyly reach behind the inebriate man’s back and grab the phone he had put there earlier. “Is this really happening?” I thought, as I clearly watched this person steal another man’s phone and make a beeline for the exit doors as they opened. I stood up quickly and blocked him before he could leave. Caught off guard, he hastily handed the phone over to me and squirmed away through the exit doors. I returned to the drunk, seated man and slid the phone into his pocket, admonishing him in Korean to take care of his belongings. He mumbled something incomprehensible in his unconscious state. I returned to my seat quietly and blended back into my surroundings. Everyone’s eyes were glued to their phones, and they were oblivious to everything else.

As I walked home from the subway station that night, I was still stunned that I witnessed a crime in Seoul for the first time since arriving 11 months ago. It was even more peculiar that the culprit was an elderly man. I arrived home to do some follow up research, and what I discovered made me realize that what I witnessed was a small part of a much bigger problem that Korean society was facing.

According to data from the Korean National Police Agency, the total number of crimes committed by people 65 and older in South Korea increased by 12 percent from 2011 to 2013. In terms of violent crimes, a total of 1,062 cases of murder, robbery, rape and arson were filed in 2013, an increase of 39.9 percent compared to the 759 violent crimes recorded in 2011

High Poverty Rates for Elderly in Korea

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is a forum for the governments of 34 democracies, South Korea’s poverty rate among the 65-and-above age group was 49.6% in 2013, four times higher than the OECD average of 12.6%. That elderly poverty rate is the highest among the 34 OECD nations.

South Korea’s employment rate for the 50-64 age group was the eighth highest in the OECD, at 70% in 2014. Yet their poverty rate, at 15.5%, was the second highest at almost 1.5 times the OECD average. What does this all mean? The main problem isn’t that the elderly aren’t employed--many are working temporary jobs or are self-employed, yet remain in poverty. Low education and skills, combined with the seniority-based pay system, a system that increases pay with length of service, creates a significant gap between wages and productivity as workers age. The result is a culture of mandatory early retirement leading retirees to temporary jobs with barely any tenure. The bottom line is, in Korea, wages fall significantly as age rises, and it’s throwing a whole generation into poverty very quickly.

Lack of Support For The Growing Elderly Population

In 2040, more than half of Koreans will be older than 52. A low birth rate and a longer life span is changing the Korean demographic structure drastically. While the increase in life expectancy due to public health measures, diet, and medical advances has been an important feature of the health of the elderly population, it has actually been the dramatic drop in fertility that has shifted the percentage distribution of South Korea toward the elderly. By 2025, the country is expected to experience negative growth rates while the median age continues to climb. The percentage of elderly living with a child fell from 77.7 percent in 1988 to 42.7 percent in 2002. Family support of elderly decreased from 72.8 percent to 53.3 percent during the same time period. If families are unwilling or unable to care for elderly members, the elderly may be required to work and/or draw on personal savings. Care of the elderly has traditionally been a family responsibility in South Korea, but strong confucian values have led to weak public policy for the elderly, which the aging population is becoming increasingly dependent on.

The subway cart I was riding that evening when I observed the attempted theft wasn’t very different from the reality of Korean society in the context of this dilemma. There was an elderly man stealing a phone, probably to sell it and get some needed money, while the rest of the passengers continued to sit in their seats, unaware and unconcerned. The single office worker glued to her phone felt no connection to the misdemeanor. Neither did the young university student for that matter. There were no children on the subway (no surprise there), but I’m sure they wouldn’t have felt involved in the issue either. However, in the broader scope of things, all of them are much more directly connected than they think. Female workers putting off marriage accelerates population aging. A larger aging population increases the financial burden of college students in their 20s to workers in their 40s--the people that fund the Basic Pension in Korea.

Although it would be remiss not to have pronatalist policies in place, it appears that it is the collective efforts of civil society that is necessary to change course, increase fertility, and care for the elderly. Time to put the phones down and take a good look at the faces of our fellow subway passengers. Each life is a thread in the fabric of Korean society.