South Korea: A Generational Tug-of-War Over Subway Seats

In South Korea, a generational tug-of-war is surfacing daily over a subway seat. Physical or verbal hassles over the seat have been reported online and new posts complaining of elderly people's blatantly inappropriate behaviour on the subway are mushrooming over the internet.

One strange scene for a foreigner when he first lands in Korea would be three empty seats at every four corners of a subway compartment which no one dares to take. Often visitors witness a weird scene of teens or younger adults resting on that special seat who immediately spring to their feet when an older person approaches.

That seat is called a Noyak seat, a subway version of the handicapped parking space, the seat reserved for the elderly and the weak. Though it is stated that the Noyak seat is for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant women and women accompanying kids, it is usually exclusively elders who win over the seats.

Complaints on the aggressiveness of elderly people in occupying the Noyak seat have been reported in local media and online blogs. Senior people have shoved exhausted students, people in their 20s and 30s, and young pregnant women off the seat. More than a few elderly people have literally kicked and pushed away young people from the seat with their canes. Hurling abusive comments at younger generation and embarrassing them into leaving the seat are common in subway, some even cursing mothers for not teaching their children courtesy and respect to elders. These clashes, if the young choose to fire back, often turn into a screaming match, a physical hassle or even serious injuries and lawsuits which local media makes news.

South Korea's newspaper Hankook Ilbo quoted Seoul's subway coporation's report that shows the increasing clashes between the elderly calling dibs on the Noyak seat and the defiant young generation who often choose not to feign respect.

서울도시철도공사(5~8호선)에 따르면 지난해 노약자 석을 놓고 벌어진 자리다툼 관련 민원은 총 121건에 달했다. 올 들어 지난 4월까지 접수된 민원도 총 84 건으로 증가 추세를 보이고 있다.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation's (in charge of the subway line 5 to 8) report, 121 complaints on seat disputes have been filed for last year. From January to April this year, this number has already reached around 84 cases, marking a clear rise.

Subway tickets are provided for free for people over 65 and the elderly have used this free pass to sit through to the very last stops. A blogger Karsonic stressed that although allocating more Noyak seats in subway is understandable considering Korea is turning rapidly into an aging society, the senior people have also become free riders of society causing huge financial deficits.

노약자석이 부족하다고 말하는 사람들이 점점 늘어나고 또 우리 나라가 고령화 사회로 접어드는 관계로, 이제는 수도권 전철 각 운영 주체들간의 노약자석 늘리기가 대세인 것 같습니다. 게다가 또 다른 문제는, 어르신들이 운임을 단 한 푼도 내지 않고 있다는 것입니다. 아시다시피 65세 이상 노인들의 지하철 운임은 무료입니다. 하지만 이 분들은 이 운임 무료를 이용해서 소요산, 천안, 인천 등 종점이란 종점은 다 돌아다녀서 운영주체들의 적자에 한 몫 제대로 하고 계십니다.

As more people are pointing out the insufficiency of the Noyak seat due to Korea's conversion into an aging society, subway corporations have decided to allocate more Noyak seats. But the problem is that these senior people do not pay, not a single penny. These people have been abusing the free tickets to ride all the way to down to very last stops like Soyo Mt. station, Cheonan station and Inchon station and thereby contributing hugely to the corporation's financial loss.

People over 60's are the survivors of the Korean War which devastated Korean peninsula, whom suffered under the authoritarian rules and endured through radical societal shifts as South Korea turns from agricultural society, to industrial and knowledge based society in less than a century. 

A Daum blogger ‘Yoon Tae’ pointed out that elderly people are victims of one of the toughest time of Korean history when modern and proper education were given only to few privileged and now they feel they are being ostracized from the society.

노인들은 대부분 어려운 시기에 교육을 제대로 받지 못했습니다. 그렇다보니 나이가 들면 보상심리와 함께 세대적 상대적 박탈감이 많이 작용 할 수 있으며…

Senior people in Korea have never been given a proper education since they were born and raised in a (historically) tough period. As they have aged, they feel the need for compensation and a relative sense of deprivation…

South Korea's urgent need to restore the nation and compete against North Korea by scoring economic developments has led to a phenomenal growth on almost every level, but at a cost the welfare of minorities. A Naver blogger Hayan111 commented that Korea's utmost priority on economic growth has lead to serious neglects of minority rights and the elderly people have come back to fight for their place in the society.

한편 노인들의 권리가 이 정도까지 실추되게 된 배경은 우리 모두가 알고 있다시피 이분들이 시대의 변화에 적응하지 못한데다, 마땅히 노인들의 권익을 보호해 주었어야 하는 우리 사회 역시도 권익 보호에는 안중에도 없이 앞만 보며 달려왔기 때문입니다. 자기 관리에 실패한 노인을 더 이상 공경만을 할 수는없는 시대가 오면서 이들은 지하철의 ‘자리 하나'를 확보하는 것으로 잃어버린 자존심의 일각이나마 회복하려하는 눈치이건만, 이분들이 연세에 걸맞는 지혜와 품위를 가지지 못한다면 단지 나이가 많다는 이유만으로 공경받을 수 있는 평화로운 세상은 다시는 찾아오지 않을 겁니다.

The status (rights) of the elderly has been dragged this low, not only because they have failed in fitting into this rapidly changing society, but because Korean society was focused exclusively on making progress and completely neglected to protect the elders’ rights. Since elderly people have failed to manage themselves, it becomes impossible to expect respect from people just because they are old. The seniors are attempting to restore a chunk of their lost dignity by occupying a subway seat. However if they failed to obtain the wisdom and grace expected from their age, there is no paradise where they can be respected for it.

More allocations of the Noyak seat were greeted with furious criticism from the younger generation and some people are even suggesting a separate compartment for the elderly. Conflicts from contacts seems unavoidable in the heterogeneous Seoul subway.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.