Koreans could once be sure that their children would look after them in their old age, but no longer – many of those who worked hard to transform the country’s economy find the next generation has other spending priorities. As a result, some elderly women are turning to prostitution.
Kim Eun-ja sits on the steps at Seoul’s Jongno-3 subway station, scanning the scene in front of her. The 71-year-old’s bright lipstick and shiny red coat stand out against her papery skin.
Beside her is a large bag, from which comes the clink of glass bottles as she shifts on the cold concrete.
Mrs Kim is one of South Korea’s “Bacchus Ladies” – older women who make a living by selling tiny bottles of the popular Bacchus energy drink to male customers.
But often that’s not all they’re selling. At an age when Korean grandmothers are supposed to be venerated as matriarchs, some are selling sex.
I can’t trust my children to help – they’re in deep trouble because they have to start preparing for their old age”
“You see those Bacchus Ladies standing over there?” she asks me. “Those ladies sell more than Bacchus. They sometimes go out with the grandpas and earn money from them. But I don’t make a living like that.
“Men do proposition me when I’m standing in the alleyway,” she adds. “But I always say, ‘No.'”
Mrs Kim says she makes about 5,000 Won ($5, or £3) a day selling the drinks. “Drink up fast,” she says. “The police are always watching me. They don’t differentiate.”
The centre of this underground sex trade is a nearby park in the heart of Seoul. Jongmyo Park is a place where elderly men come to while away their sunset years with a little chess and some local gossip.
It’s built around a temple to Confucius, whose ideas on venerating elders have shaped Korean culture for centuries. But under the budding trees outside, the fumbling transactions of its elderly men and women tell the real story of Korean society in the 21st Century.
Women in their 50s, 60, even their 70s, stand around the edges of the park, offering drinks to the men. Buy one, and it’s the first step in a lonely journey that ends in a cheap motel nearby.
The men in the park are more willing to talk to me than the women.
Standing around a game of Korean chess, a group of grandfathers watch the match intently. About half the men here use the Bacchus Ladies, they say.
“We’re men, so we’re curious about women,” says 60-year-old Mr Kim.
“We have a drink, and slip a bit of money into their hands, and things happen!” he cackles. “Men like to have women around – whether they’re old or not, sexually active or not. That’s just male psychology.”
Another man, 81 years old, excitedly showed me his spending money for the day. “It’s for drinking with my friends,” he said. “We can find girlfriends here, too – from those women standing over there. They’ll ask us to play with them. They say, ‘Oh, I don’t have any money,’ and then they glue on to us. Sex with them costs 20,000 to 30,000 Won (£11-17), but sometimes they’ll give you a discount if they know you.”
South Korea’s grandparents are victims of their country’s economic success.
As they worked to create Korea’s economic miracle, they invested their savings in the next generation. In a Confucian society, successful children are the best form of pension.
But attitudes here have changed just as fast as living standards, and now many young people say they can’t afford to support themselves and their parents in Korea’s fast-paced, highly competitive society.
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