Seoul Metro's Long, Open, Ugly War Against Disabled Protesters
Demanding more accessibility rights, activists have been paralyzing Seoul rush hour with their bodies and wheelchairs
What a Seoul Metro station can look like any day in the past few months.
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On any given day this past winter, Seoul Metro’s busiest stations have turned into a battleground.
Protesters, spearheaded by the disability rights organization Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD), pack a Seoul Metro station platform on their choosing during a busy rush hour. Many are in wheelchairs, usually in the frontlines of the protests. In the more combative protests, some deliberately hold a train from moving to disrupt Metro service by either placing their wheelchair in the gap between the platform screen doors and the train door; at least one protester even have chained themselves to the train door.
Seoul Metro has reported major delays during the protests, with some lines running up to two hours behind schedule during a packed rush hour period.1 In total, these protests have occurred at least 26 times since October during rush hour.
A wheelchaired protester sticks his wheels between the gap to stop train service. The difference in height between the train door and station platform has been a major inconvenience for many disabled riders of Seoul Metro.
Seoul Metro and the overseeing Seoul Metropolitan Government have increasingly relied on police to restrain protests from paralyzing the trains. Yellow-vested police officers line in front the platform screen doors facing wheelchaired protesters, as if in a standoff. Dramatic videos of protesters dragged or fallen out of their wheelchairs by police to allow train doors to close have gone viral and captured the Korean public’s attention for the past few months.
For outsiders looking in, what these protests are about may seem murky — and perhaps even out of proportion. One key demand has been the realization of a fully accessible Seoul Metro system, but that would require only 21 more stations in the 302-station system to install wheelchair-accessible elevators.2 In other comparable systems, like New York City as one extreme example, only about 30% of all its Subway stations are accessible.3
It is important to note the demands from the protesters extend beyond Seoul Metro. Their demands are broad and sweeping: a nationwide revamp of its bus fleet for better accessibility, stable funding for more mobility options for the disabled, and robust disability rights across more societal aspects in South Korea. SADD cite 20 years of broken political promises, reneged obligations, numerous deaths (including in Seoul Metro), a continuous and pervasive hostility and discrimination against the disabled, and an uncertain political course for the country as catalysts for these extreme protests.
The reactions in the mainstream media to these protest have been mixed, but protesters have increasingly received abuse from inconvenienced riders, online netizens, and lately, a rising star in South Korean right-wing politics. But perhaps no one entity has generated more controversy in its reaction against the protests than Seoul Metro itself. Seoul Metro have had to publicly apologize twice this winter: first for shutting down an elevator just before a protest so wheelchaired protesters can’t enter, and second for a bizarre presentation outlining public relations tactics on how to paint the protesters more negatively in media coverage.
The protests are entering a new era following the election of right-wing candidate Yun Seok-Yeol on March 9 this year. There has been several more protests calling for the president-elect to make commitments to the protestors’ demands before entering a short detente. While Yun’s People Power Party (PPP) have briefly engaged with SADD, Yun thus far have kept quiet on the issue. None of the demands have been met thus far.
Despite direct action on full dramatic display over the past five months, minimal discussions on this topic are evident outside South Korea. Full accessibility in public transit is an issue found globally, and the situation unfurling in Seoul Metro is a noteworthy item to keep track for any public transit advocate or a disability rights advocate. Regardless of one’s opinions on whether such demands should ever paralyze a transit system, this fight is worth learning about.
Methodology and Background
As evident in my first S(ubstack)-Bahn post “Hell Line": Lessons from Seoul's controversial privatized subway line”, Korean is my mother tongue. I consider this post an aggregation of Korean reporting spanning a decade and translating into English rather than original reporting. The sourcing is in Korean and English (as certain Korean media outlets have covered this topic in English as well).
An Incomplete History of South Korea’s Disability Rights Movement
More than 2.6 million South Korean citizens are registered as having a disability, comprising 5% of the East Asian nation’s population.4 Despite being a significant minority, persons with disabilities in South Korea have struggled against a deep-rooted culture of outright hostility and discrimination for their disabilities. Perhaps it’s best exemplified by the recently-outdated word for a person with disabilities in Korea: 불구자, or roughly translated as “incomplete person” or “deformed person”. That perception was the base start for the Korean disability community.
As outlined expertly by the English-language outlet Korea Exposé, disability rights movement in South Korea began around the Paralympics in 1988 held in Seoul. The first disability rights and welfare legislations were passed in the 1990s but they remained inadequate. It was not until 2012, for example, that disabled students’ right to public education was extended from middle school to high school.5
Within the highly competitive South Korea society where college admissions are a life-defining event for all citizens, access to education has proven to be difficult for progress in disability rights. While there are special education classes provided in public schools, many parents of disabled children choose to send their children to special education schools — often far from home due to its scarcity — to avoid daily discrimination and bullying. In one famous example from 2017, the Seoul Education Commission approved the conversion of an unused elementary school in the city into a special education school. Many local residents showed up in person against the conversion, angrily arguing a special school will drop their property values.
At a public meeting, several disabled students' mothers kneeled on the ground to beg for understanding that they too want to send their children somewhere closer to home. But instead they were jeered, shouted at and insulted by its opponents in a disgusting show of public school board drama.6
The issues of mobility and access to public transit have arguably been the most effective accelerant of the disability rights movement in South Korea. Some of the movement’s greatest victories happened in public transit; activists began a sit-in at Gwanghwamun Station in Seoul Metro back in 2012 demanding the abolition of a 6-tiered classification system which ranked disabilities and distributed welfare assistance according to the score. After 1,842 days (on the same day as the aforementioned school public meeting) of continuous sit-in, President Moon Jae-in in 2019 agreed to meet the activists and replace the classification system with a more flexible one.7
20 Years of Broken Promises and Broken Buses
The sit-in at Gwanghwamun Station abolished the much-hated score system, but it did not translate to progress in regards to public transit. Within Seoul Metro stations, a source of ire of the disability activists have been the wheelchair lifts which run along staircases between the concourse and platforms of many Seoul Metro stations. Disabled riders have long complained the lifts can be unreliable and very dangerous in case of a malfunction, where the lift can violently throw its patron down the staircase. Seoul Metro ignored much of its complaints — despite some shocking precedents.
One of the many wheelchair lifts found in Seoul Metro. It is often the most direct connection for disabled riders between concourse and platform for underground stations. Considering how deep the platform is buried, the staircases — and the lifts — can also be very long.
In 2001, an elderly couple using the wheelchair lift at Oido Station was thrown off, one dying of injuries and one severely injured. This moment is considered a key moment in Korean disability rights history. Demonstrations of activists chaining themselves to buses or lying prostate on Metro tracks stunned the country still coming to grips with a nascent disability rights movement. (Video below is a montage of the early 2000s protests, which capture some dramatic scenes of protesters on the tracks)
More than two decades later after the Oido accident, the wheelchair lifts remain often the best and most direct way for a wheelchaired rider in several Seoul Metro stations — despite almost 92% of stations being equipped with elevators. The lack of thoughtful accommodation by Seoul Metro has been consequential; five more disabled riders have died from injuries caused by a wheelchair lift malfunction since 2001, according to a 2018 report on wheelchair lifts by JBTC.
Since 2001, numerous Seoul Mayors have pledged to install elevators on all Seoul Metro stations. But promises have fallen short. In 2001, then-Mayor (and future President and future future convict) Lee Myung-bak pledged an elevator in every station by 2004. In 2018, then-Mayor Park Won-soon pledged the same by 2022. Seoul Metro is now forecasting the delivery date until 2024 amid unstable finances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 20 years of broken promises is highlighted prominently in many of the protest signs and appears to be an animating force among its protesters.8
Even boarding a train at Seoul Metro proves especially difficult for those on wheelchairs. Its older rolling stock has raised doors compared to the platform floor; this height difference allows wheelchairs to get stuck in the gap or needing extra manpower from behind to push the wheelchairs up and over.
Organic community-minded resources sprung up to easy the experiences of riding the Metro as a person with disabilities. One mother of a wheelchaired child crowdsourced an app called Muii, which plans out Metro trips for riders with disabilities based on Seoul Metro stations with elevator availability. Following the app’s success, the mother was consulted by the City in 2018 to help design transportation maps accessible for the elderly, pregnant women and persons with disabilities.9
The quality of public transit for disabled riders outside Seoul Metro, however, is far worse. Arguably the disability community’s bigger pain point is the woeful lack of accessibility found in buses across South Korea — and acutely more outside Seoul. Only 58% of buses in Seoul are low-floor buses which can accommodate persons on wheelchairs to enter. That is considered the best in the country by a long margin; the next highest city with most low-floor buses was Daegu at 33%. Gyeonggi-do Province, which surround Seoul and is filled with satellite cities to the metropolis, reported only 14% of its buses being able to accommodate wheelchaired riders.10
During a follow-along with activists on a December protest, the TV network JBTC logged what it takes to commute from the suburbs into Seoul on a wheelchair. Lee Hyung-Sook, one of the lead organizers of the protest, said she often waits about an hour for a bus which can accommodate a wheelchair as five, six buses pass by on the same route. When a low-floor bus arrived for Lee after a long wait, the wheelchair ramp broke down, and the bus drove away without Lee.11
There is a popular call taxi system in South Korea providing paratransit service. However due to its popularity, the average wait times can be around 30 minutes and much longer during rush hour due to not enough available taxis.12
A confluence of political events sparked the protests this winter. First, the Seoul Metropolitan Government under current conservative Mayor Oh Se-Hoon initially cut budgets on elevator installations at the remaining Seoul Metro stations and procurement of low-floor buses; that budget cut was retracted after much outcry from SADD and other disability rights organizations.13
Second, on December 31 last year, South Korea’s National Assembly passed a bill to increase transit access for people with disabilities. The law mandated procurement of a wheelchair-accessible bus when a non-accessible bus was being decommissioned. The law also allows the finance ministry to allocate funds for "special transit means" including paratransit taxis. However, the bus replacement clause only applies to inner city buses (and leaving rural buses woefully inaccessible), and the allocation of funds are mere recommendations rather than mandatory.
These two events plus a presidential election campaign season over the winter provided SADD the perfect timing to make its key demands: more procurement of low-floor buses nationwide; fully accessible subway systems in Seoul and elsewhere; permanent allocation for transit means for the disabled; and a ‘one station, one route’ policy in Seoul Metro which allows for people with disabilities and senior citizens to move between the station platform and the fare gates without requiring special assistance.
“You can curse at us all you want, but you should at least say something about South Korean society that does not guarantee even the most basic, fundamental rights. We’ve waited long enough,” said Park Kyung-seok, SADD’s executive director, inside a subway car during a February protest.14
A cartoon created by SADD titled “The Friendly Seoul Metro?” It shows a litany of social controversies Seoul Metro has been embroiled over the past few years, including its alleged aggressive stance against SADD and its protests.
Seoul Metro Strikes Back
For the morning of December 6, SADD proclaimed they would be holding a protest at Hyehwa Station on Metro Line 4 to put pressure on lawmakers to pass the mobility access bill in its full strength (the bill was watered down and then passed on December 31). But prior to their arrival, the lone elevator at Hyehwa Station was cordoned off and out of service.
The elevator was out of service from 7:30am until 9am — the morning rush hour SADD planned to be inside Hyehwa Station. The bulletin board from Seoul Metro in front of the cordons read:
Due to illegal protests planned by disability rights organizations (wheelchair boarding and off-boarding) scheduled this day, the elevator operation will be suspended for the safety of citizens and the protection of facilities. Thank you for your understanding.
The cordoned-off elevator at Hyehwa Station.
After the elevator closure generated a firestorm on social media, Seoul Metro issued a public apology the next day. Seoul Metro cited a protest from December 3 which caused a 45-minute delay on Line 3 and was concerned Line 4 may be impacted the same. The tweet was heavily criticized by many Koreans who were rankled by the letter consistently differentiating “people with disabilities” with “citizens.”
One viral quote retweet reads: “This statement makes it very clear that the Seoul Metro does not include the transportation-disabled people, including the disabled, among its definition of 'citizens'.”
The next week, Seoul Metro sued SADD and its leading organizer 30 million Won ($25,000), alleging its seven previous protests resulted in delays totaling seven hours and countless inconveniences for its riders.15
The uneasy standoff between Seoul Metro and the protesters have been palpable. In recent weeks, one may infer Seoul Metro’s disdain with the protests on its Twitter feed. In the past few weeks, the advisory tweets been calling the protests 선전전, roughly translated as “propaganda campaign.” In previous months, they called it 시위, or “demonstrations.”
서울교통공사 SeoulMetro @seoul_metro안내말씀 드립니다. 현재 전국장애인차별철폐연대 지하철 타기 선전전은 4호선 충무로역 하선(사당 방면)에서 진행되고 있습니다. 이에 따라 4호선 열차 운행에 지연이 발생하고 있습니다. 열차 이용에 참고하시기 바랍니다. https://t.co/9nqd0clpXF
The building tension came to a head on March 17 when the Korean media outlet YTN reported on an internal 25-slide Powerpoint presentation created by a Seoul Metro employee. Titled “Media tactics against social minority groups: Focus on Solidarity against Disability Discrimination (SADD) protest”, the leaked document was initially shared within Seoul Metro’s online employee bulletin board. The presentation outlines media strategies Seoul Metro should consider to win over the public while casting SADD in a harsher light. It recommends bombarding the media with photos of protesters shutting down train service to paint protesters as bad-faith obstructionists, and to take an "emotional stance" by claiming a lack of funds is the primary factor for the slowness of elevator expansion.16
The presentation in detail often veers into bizarre quotations and extremely poor comparisons. The first slide starts with a quotation from Sun Tzu’s Art of War: “지피지기 백전불패” or “If you know your enemy and yourself, you can win every battle.” The presentation also is peppered with the English loanword “Underdogma”, applying it to how the media paints SADD (the underdogs) in a more sympathetic light than Seoul Metro (the favorites).
In one slide, the presentation compares their media battle to the actual war happening in Ukraine; Seoul Metro — a la Russia — is considered the big, hopeless giant fighting against a fierce minority and is losing the war (author’s note: what the fuck).
As expected, Seoul Metro issued a public apology the next day, explaining this presentation was created by a frustrated employee (not in its media relations department) who created this in his off-work hours and uploaded in the employee intranet. “We are heartbroken and afraid this incident might cast a shadow over our countless efforts in the past to service the disabled and elderly,” writes Seoul Metro in the apology.
To Seoul Metro’s credit, it does appear they are correct with the author’s intentions. The Korea Times spoke with the alleged author of the presentation, identified only by his surname, who said he created the presentation in his own volition. The employee said he was “frustrated with confronting the press and public reactions over the past months.” He said he was transferred to another department days after the YTN report.17
Disability Rights as Culture War Proxy
Seoul Metro is not the only adversary the protests have made. As the protests continue, a growing backlash have been building, voicing frustration at the continuous inconveniences the protests are having on many Seoul commuters. SADD’s website was once taken down in a DDOS hack.18 Its signs were vandalized, and numerous clips catches riders yelling slurs and insults at the protesters.
In a February protest, a rider on a stopped train was caught on video pleading with a protester that he is on his way to attend to his grandmother on her deathbed. The protester chimed back “then take a bus.” The video went viral, and became a rallying cry for right-wing netizens who have grown more disgruntled at the protests.19
Lee Jun-Seok, the chairman for the right-wing People Power Party (PPP) and controversial political star as a self-described “men’s rights activist”, wrote on his Facebook page on February 26 that this incident captured the tyranny of “minority rule politics” emboldened by political correctness.20
During its 2022 stretch of protests, SADD pivoted to urge the two major candidates for president — Yun Suk-Yeol of PPP and Lee Jae-Myung of the ruling liberal Democratic Party — to meet with the protesters and add their demands into their campaign platform. Neither candidates obliged.21 Only the main third party candidate — Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party — met with the protesters.22
In the tightest presidential election in South Korean history, Yun defeated Lee by 250,000 votes. (Sim finished third received 2.8% of votes at over 800,000 votes) Mere days after the seismic victory, Yun’s party chairman, Lee Jun-seok, generated controversy again on Facebook stating the protests are holding Seoul residents “hostage” during morning rush hour. He also came to defend the current Seoul Mayor Oh, claiming the protesters’ furor at Oh was misguided and potentially revealing of their political bent against PPP. SADD strongly pushed back at Lee’s statement, saying they have never been motivated by party politics.
Lee’s remarks were not well-received within his party ranks. Days after, Kim Ye-Ji, a PPP National Assembly member and first legally blind person in Korea to be elected to the national legislature, came to a SADD protest at Gyeongbokgung Palace station to apologize on behalf of her party and kneeled to express deep remorse.23
After the election season and Kim’s apology, SADD has announced on March 29 they will pause all in-station protests temporarily; they threatened to restart the protests if Yun and PPP do not meet their demands by April 20, South Korea’s National Disability Day. On March 29, SADD leaders met with Yun’s transition team for the first time, giving the same April 20 ultimatum. The head of Yun’s team said they will review the demands but pleaded SADD to stop the rush hour protests.24
In the interim, they have commenced a “relay hair-cutting” demonstration, where organizers will publicly shave their heads, one by one, to show solidarity with the movement. Organizers have also demanded a formal apology from Lee for his remarks; Lee doubled down saying there is nothing for which he should apologize for.25
Organizer Lee Hyung-sook, in tears, after she shaved her head demanding SADD be heard and their protest demands met by President-elect Yun Suk-Yeol and the People Power Party by April 20.
This post is being published during a rare detente in the months-long saga between SADD and Seoul Metro and South Korea’s powers that be. After months of never-ending tension, Seoul Metro — for the time being — will see unimpeded rush hours for the next few weeks.
The detente is not lending itself to any signs of resolution. It seems highly unlikely the People Power Party will entertain any concessions to SADD now that its chairman has dug in his heels. Kim Ye-Ji’s breakaway from her party and apology was a big news item but as a freshman legislator, Kim does not appear to have the political capital to shift her party.
Within the disability community in South Korea, cracks are starting to form. The Korea Association of Persons with Physical Disabilities (KAPPD) on March 29 have called the Metro protests as “illegal demonstrations holding citizens hostage which crosses the line of ethics” — a line echoing that of Lee Jun-Seok’s. KAPPD stated SADD “does not represent all persons of disabilities” and that they have caused “great harm in the progress and the image the disability community has worked to win more rights.”26
It is impossible to predict how this will conclude. But what has unfolded over the past five months in Seoul should be of keen interest for anyone who is fascinated by public transit, South Korean politics, and/or disability rights organizing. Public transit remains not only a service but an intersection of so many societal threads. Seoul Metro has both been an antagonist (of many), a venue of protest, and a tactical pain point for the protesters to most effectively craft their message and direct action.
Seoul Metro, as an agency, did itself no favors. It failed to recognize that the fact that 92% of stations have elevators does not naturally lend mercy from the protest organizers; if anything, it highlights the missing 8% more. It failed to recognize the decades of inconveniences and broken promises — and the numerous deaths from those awful wheelchair lifts — the agency has wrought on its disabled riders. It failed to adequately acknowledge that history of pain in its two humiliating public apologies. It failed to think that shutting down the only elevator to stop protesters from entering would be a terrible look.
Despite its reputation as one of the most advanced rail systems in the world, Seoul Metro comes across — perhaps harshly from my perspective — as a regressive agency, mired in the old ways of thought as the city, country, society and its politics are changing rapidly.
Comparison invites misery, but perhaps a surface-level question I cannot shake out of my head is: if protests have gone this far in Seoul Metro, what may a proportionate protest look like in London, Paris or New York City whose accessibility records in public transit are far worse?
After much deliberation, I believe that question examines the tree but misses the forest. Accessibility at subway stations or better buses are pieces in a large puzzle, and that puzzle, when put together, is meant to spell out basic, unequivocal dignity given to all Koreans, with or without disabilities, in its society. Disabled Koreans enjoy far greater representation and socioeconomic standing compared to, say, 2001, after the Oido accident where protesters on standing in front of trains. But all that was permitted, piecemeal, at great cost and effort every step of the way, whether it be a 7-year-long sit-in or parents of disabled children begging on their knees for a special education school. While inspiring, I as a Korean can’t help but feel immense frustration at this glacial pace ascertained only by immense struggle.
The forest is global too. I came across a recent academic paper titled “Disabled People’s Fight for Rights in South Korea and Japan” which I found fascinating. Author Celeste Arrington writes how disability rights activists in Japan took turns to come visit Berkeley, California, on three-month visas in the 1990s. They flew long distances to the Bay Area to learn about the Independent Living Movement which started in Berkeley in the 1960s.27 There must have been much cross-pollination in the disability rights movements in Japan and South Korea. And there must have been some inspiration taken from the Civil Rights Movement or the Independent Living Movement forged in the United States. As one disabled Korean activist is quoted, “We protest to give rights meaning and obtain the welfare needed to realize our rights.”
As they learned from us, we learn from them too.
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