The Vulnerability of a Poor Urban Neighborhood to Extreme Weather Disasters and the Role of Ecosocial Work: The Case of Tongja-dong Jjokbang-chon in Seoul, South Korea

Joonmo Kang, Washington University in St. Louis


This study is an inquiry into the vulnerability of poor older adults living in the Tongja-dong jjokbang-chon, one of the last remaining informal settlements in Seoul, South Korea, to climate change-related disasters, particularly heat waves and cold waves; climate change’s impact on their livelihoods; and the role of social work in responding to these challenges. Even though the harsh living conditions and the sufferings of those living in jjokbang-chon residents during extreme weather is constantly highlighted in the media, there is a dearth of empirical research focusing on the vulnerabilities of marginalized communities living in jjokbang-chon to extreme weather and disaster risk in South Korea. This study aims to establish an understanding of the social dimensions of disaster risk for vulnerable communities by examining the experiences of jjokbang-chon residents facing climate change-related extreme weather and disasters. By focusing on the lived experiences of jjokbang-chon residents and how they make meaning of extreme weather and disaster risk, this study aims to increase insight into the social processes that create uneven distribution of vulnerability, thus expanding our understanding of disaster, risk, and vulnerability. Furthermore, this study assesses the current social work practices and policies in jjokbang-chon using the ecosocial work lens to provide implications for the role of social workers in addressing climate challenges. The main research questions of the study are 1) What are the vulnerabilities of jjokbang-chon residents to climate change-related disasters? 2) How do jjokbang-chon residents experience and make meaning of climate change-related disasters? and 3) What are the current social work practices and policies in jjokbang-chon and what are their roles in addressing these vulnerabilities? This study is an ethnography for which I lived in the Tongja-dong jjokbang-chon and worked with social work-related groups in the neighborhood from November 2019 to October 2020. Ethnography was particularly fitting for understanding the people living in jjokbang-chon mainly because of their lack of trust toward outsiders. Also, because the topic of this study was extreme weather, the embodied experience of living in a jjokbang enabled an empathic understanding of the multi-sensorial vulnerability created by the built environment of a jjokbang. In Chapter 4, I examine the vulnerability of jjokbang-chon residents to extreme weather using the five categories of the Pressure and Release framework’s “fragile livelihoods and unsafe locations,” which are physical, health, social, economic, and political resources. People living in jjokbang-chon experienced vulnerability in all aspects of life, but more importantly, the results show that these vulnerabilities are all interconnected. The poor built environment of jjokbang, jjokbang-chon residents’ already frail health, fraught social relationships, economic struggles, and political resources were all linked in an infinite loop, creating what the nurse at the Counseling Center described as “a vicious cycle.” Overall, through using the Pressure and Release framework, this chapter provides a thick description of what it means to be “vulnerable” to extreme weather and highlights the importance of social vulnerability in examining disaster risks. In Chapter 5, I examine how jjokbang-chon residents perceive and make meaning of their vulnerability and extreme weather disasters. Diverging from outsiders’ expectations, there was a wide sense of normalcy around disaster-like situations. Through observation and talking with jjokbang-chon residents, I came to understand that one of the reasons behind the widespread sense of normalcy was that many people living in jjokbang-chon have gone through past experiences that are far from what many of us typically consider “normal.” Moreover, residents’ sense of normalcy also represented a shrug of resignation, or a sense of acceptance, because it could be a strategic decision for jjokbang-chon residents given their circumstances of not being able to turn things around. Another reason that jjokbang-chon residents did not perceive disasters as disasters was because of the ongoing everyday disasters that subjugated their everyday life, such that they did not have the capacity to perceive extreme weather as a disaster. Even though jjokbang-chon residents were experiencing objective vulnerability as shown in Chapter 4, their own conception of vulnerability does not match what seems objectively true—thus, they do not necessarily consider themselves vulnerable. The finding suggests the importance of a more careful and emic evaluation of the disaster from an “every day is a disaster” perspective and engaging social vulnerability with attention to the chronic disaster syndrome of the jjokbang-chon residents. In Chapter 6, I examine the current social work practice and policy in dealing with extreme weather disasters from an ecosocial work perspective, mainly focusing on the Counseling Center and Sarangbang/the Community Co-op, the two main agencies in Tongja-dong. The Counseling Center mainly responds to extreme weather by giving out charitable material aid, which I argue is disposable social work as it is not only wasteful in terms of the environment but also disposable in the sense that rather than addressing the fundamental problems, it is a short-term reactionary response whose effects quickly fade away. Contrasting with the disposable social work approach, the approach of Sarangbang and the Community Co-op, which aim to achieve recognition and empowerment among jjokbang-chon residents, resembles an ecosocial work approach. I argue that the ecosocial social work practice and policy is an approach that is inclusive of the community members by providing opportunities for political participation and decision making, which recognizes and empowers the participants. While I highlight the differences between the two groups, I argue that despite the differences between the two groups, it is also important for them to cooperate because the lack of communication as well as tension between the two groups could affect the potential of helping residents in the long run. By understanding these vulnerabilities and what it means for jjokbang-chon residents to experience extreme weather through reconstructing the detailed texture of their social lives, this study aims to add knowledge to the discussion of the social construction of natural disasters, to illuminate the role of social work in addressing these challenges, and to strengthen the scientific foundation of climate justice research in social work.