By Lee Hyo-sik
Mariehelene Brasseur whose Korean name is Bae Hyun-jung has been living in Korea since 1972 when she came here from Belgium as a member of a Catholic medical volunteer group.
Brasseur, 66, is a nurse and has been running a hospice in southwestern Seoul for terminally-ill patients.
She is fluent in Korean and considers herself almost a native. But there is one thing that makes her and other permanent residency cardholders rethink their status here — a free subway pass for seniors.
“I think I have lived here long enough to earn the right to take the subway free of charge as Korean senior citizens do. I have also cast votes and paid taxes. I think it is unfair for me and other foreign permanent residents to be denied such a benefit. It is not much but still hurts,” Brasseur said.
Under Korean law, only Korean nationals aged over 65 are entitled to free subway travel.
Yushan Wang whose parents came here from China was born here in 1943. Wang, 68, has not given up his Chinese nationality as part of a family tradition. But Wang considers himself Korean and thinks he is entitled to a range of welfare benefits extended to Korean seniors.
“I have lived here my entire life. I ran a wide array of businesses and paid taxes. I think I have paid my dues to Korean society. It doesn’t make sense that I cannot receive a senior subway pass and other senior welfare benefits because I am a permanent resident, not a Korean citizen,” said Wang.
Like Brasseur and Wang, a growing number of elderly foreigners with permanent residency hope the government will allow them to use the subway and other means of public transportation free of charge.
According to government data, the number of foreign residents exceeded 1.2 million as of 2010, with the number of those aged over 60 reaching 75,000.
The government has said it will make all efforts to abolish discrimination against foreign residents.
However, many expatriates and civic group members believe there is a long way to go before South Korea becomes a truly multicultural society. They say the government should pay greater attention to eliminating discriminative elements, even though it would cost.
Kwak Hyun-ji, an activist at the Hope Institute, a progressive civic group here, also said elderly permanent residents and foreign visitors aged over 65 should be treated as equal to Korean nationals, insisting the current law discriminates against non-Koreans.
“Regardless of nationality, senior citizens can take the subway and other public transportation for free in Canada, Australia and other advanced countries. A senior subway pass and other welfare benefits should be extended to foreigners living here in order for Korea to become a truly globalized society,” Kwak said.
Is financial burden too big?
Seoul Metropolitan Government expressed negative views toward the change.
“We have received such demands from foreign resident associations and civic groups over the years. We are now consulting with Seoul subway operators and other municipal administrations about the issue. But the relevant laws should be revised first, which may take years,” said Shin Man-chul, deputy director of Seoul City’s transportation policy division.
Shin said Daegu and Busan allow non-Korean seniors with permanent residency cards to use public transportation free because there are not many of them.
“There is a large number of foreign seniors living in Seoul and other adjacent areas. Subway operators, which already struggle with chronic deficits, are extremely reluctant to shoulder an additional financial burden,” he said.
A spokesman at Seoul Metro, the operator of the subway line Nos. 1-4, said the company is not in a position to comment on the issue because it is up to Seoul City whether to extend the senior pass card program or not.
But he expressed concerns that the financial soundness of the subway operator will further deteriorate if more are allowed to take the subway free.
“Seoul Metro and other subway operators in provincial cities incur tens of billions of won in financial losses each year, partly due to the free ride program for seniors. But we do not receive any financial subsides from central or municipal governments,” he said.