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Wheelchair-using subway protesters not underprivileged: Seoul mayor

Jan. 30, 2023 - 15:49 By Son Ji-hyoung

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks at a press conference held in Seoul City Hall in Jongno-gu, Seoul, Monday. (Yonhap)

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon on Monday reiterated a zero-tolerance stance against subway protesters in wheelchairs affiliated with Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination, who are demanding residences that allow for independent living.

The mayor stressed the negative impact of the protests on ordinary commuters, and noted that funding for disability housing was a matter under the central, not municipal government's purview.

"I don't think the protesters in wheelchairs are underprivileged. Rather, ordinary people affected by the unexpected delay in subway operations are," Oh said at a New Year press conference, adding that he is to meet the disabled protesters later on Thursday.

Oh, who was reinstated as the city’s mayor in 2021, also pledged to file a damage suit against the protesters over the costs that the subway users had suffered due to the delay in operation.

"Seoul will never tolerate any protests that involve a delayed subway operation, and a damage suit will be filed with the court to make up for the financial damages incurred by such protests," he said.

This is the latest row between the city and SADD protestors, as the nonprofit organization members in wheelchairs have delayed subway operations during rush hours by blocking entry to the trains so that operators cannot close train doors since January 2020, in a show of disapproval of the central government's cut in spending to provide shelters in normal settings. These protests often caused the subway operators to be unable to stop at some stations.

Oh claimed that SADD has been self-contradictory and inconsistent when explaining their motivation for the unauthorized demonstrations, given that Seoul is going ahead with a plan to install at least one lift per station to give disabled commuters access to all subway stations across Seoul by 2024.

"Around 95 percent of subway stations in Seoul have lifts installed for those in wheelchairs. ... Seoul has spent the related budget (allocated from the central government) for the last 10 years to install lifts," Oh said.

This is in contrast with subway stations in London and New York, where those in wheelchairs have access to about 30 percent of underground stations, the mayor said, citing a recent BBC report.

The decision to cut spending on housing for the disabled is made by the central government, so he is not the right person to protest against, Oh said, adding that he is open to having a conversation with disability groups regarding housing.

Meanwhile, he stressed that the city's foremost objective this year is to create a social safety net for the underprivileged.

The mayor ordered the city to limit waiting times for wheelchair-accessible taxis to within 30 minutes with further fiscal spending. In addition, those eligible for the city's pilot project providing subsidies for low-income households will double this year compared to 2022, he said.

For balanced city growth, Oh said housing prices in Seoul needed to be curbed.

"Expensive real estate in Korea poses the biggest obstacle to (the city's effort at) tackling the economic bipolarization unraveling (in Seoul)," Oh said, adding that given the declining disposable income of households due to the soaring cost of living, maintaining a gradual decline in housing prices would be the optimal option.

Oh added that refurbishment projects to boost the housing supply in Seoul are being underway.

Seoul's housing prices have been on a gradual decline since August 2022, ending an upward trend that lasted for over three years since the coronavirus outbreak, according to an estimate by KB Kookmin Bank.

In particular, housing prices in Seoul started to fall at a faster pace in January. They fell by 1.2 percent on average in the past month, steeper than a 0.79 percent drop in December.