Relocating exploitation

Tenant shopkeepers, rental relationships, and the speculative commodification of urban space in South Korea

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Yewon Andrea Lee Junior Professor, University of Tübingen, Germany yewon.lee@uni-tuebingen.de

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Abstract

In light of recent trends toward “jobless growth” and increased wagelessness, a debate has arisen concerning whether there is an “outside” of capitalism. Surplus populations that are superfluous to the needs of the capitalist class can, it has been argued, constitute this “outside,” with some among them sustaining a living unscathed by capitalist exploitation. However, in my case study of tenant shopkeepers in South Korea, I demonstrate how supposedly superfluous livelihood activities are subsumed in exploitative capitalist relations when the urban commercial properties in which tenants make their livelihoods become high- return, speculative commodities. By identifying how and when exploitation can be activated well beyond the employment relationship, or even the “disguised” employment relationship, I call for extending the concept of exploitation to include these frontiers of capitalist extraction.

When I described my fieldwork with tenant shopkeepers who are collectively organizing to defend their livelihoods to a Korean academic and long-time mentor, she mentioned how her Japanese friends complain that travel guidebooks for Seoul become outdated on a yearly basis. While a seeming non-sequitur, this comment aptly captures a reality that South Koreans have come to expect: whole stretches of bustling streets packed with small shops—many of which are run by shopkeepers who rent the spaces where their shops are located—becoming desolate in the space of a few years. Such localized booms and busts within a relatively short time span, which result from a combination of rent hikes and evictions that drive out “tenant” shopkeepers, have drawn considerable media attention in South Korea (hereafter, Korea) (e.g., Kim 2019). These episodes have a common lifecycle. Landlords in a popular or up-and-coming commercial area compete to prop up the value of their property by hiking rents on their tenant shopkeepers, often with the intention of selling quickly when a real estate bubble is perceived to be at its peak. Property owners who took out a sizable loan to acquire their commercial properties are often counting on high rental payments to cover their interest payments. Therefore, even when tenants are no longer able to shoulder the increased rents and to sustain the inflated values of the commercial properties, landlords are reluctant to recalibrate and lower their rents. What begins as a few shop closures can soon become a cascade of closures, leading to the concurrent plummeting of local real estate values. The result is a commercial street that was once described in tour guide books as a happening place becoming suddenly deserted.

With the aim to provide an analytical framework that extends the concept of exploitation, this article draws parallels between a commercial property owner's expropriation of the value generated by a tenant shopkeeper and the more conventional industrial capitalist's expropriation of the surplus value generated by their (wage) workers. The point of this exercise is to theoretically relocate exploitation within transactional relationships not necessarily mediated by wages in order to derive a fuller picture of the workings of capitalism. Scholars have documented the continued prevalence of non-wage workforces or “wageless life” (Denning 2010) throughout the capitalist world, but particularly in the Global South (Harriss-White 2014: 988; Monteith and Vicol 2021). Here, non-wage work takes on various forms, including contract-based or self-employed work and/or the piecing together of multiple and intermittent jobs, while “waiting” to settle into a “proper” job that corresponds with one's skill sets and aspirations (Jefferey 2010). Also, renewed scholarly interest in the concept of (relative) surplus population—coined by Karl Marx (1978: 422–431) to refer to those who are by definition (temporarily) superfluous to the accumulation needs of industrial capitalists—is, too, a response to the imperative to refine our understanding of non-wage workforces and their relationship to capitalism.

One critical scholarly intervention has been to complicate the functionalist approach that reduces surplus population to the role of an industrial reserve army. Tania Murray Li (2010) highlights a situation where certain places (or their natural resources) are “wanted” for mass farming, logging, mining and so on, yet where the individuals who formally occupied those places are “no longer wanted” and made superfluous, resulting, Li (2010: 69) notes, in a particularly “lethal combination.” Li (2010: 68) vividly describes a bleak scenario where large numbers of people are simply “abandoned” or “let die” because they cannot contribute to capital accumulation. Far from “being prepared for work,” the author notes, the surplus population is, in fact, being “kept alive in prisons, refugee camps and ghettos.” In fact, scholars studying rural dispossession from farmland or other livelihood spaces have identified a mismatch between those who are actually absorbed into newly created jobs and those dispossessed of their land and livelihoods while initially being sold a prospect of a position in the newly created wage sector (Breman 1990; Li 2010). It should come as no surprise that, in reality, more marginal—and therefore submissive—migrant workers are preferred for the new waged jobs. Still, Li (2010: 69) points out the resilience of the transitionary paradigm in scholarship that propagates the myth of a reserve army where sooner or later the surplus population will be absorbed into the workforce with “a transition from agriculture to industry, country to city, and peasant to entrepreneurial farmer or wage worker.”1 To Li, the ideological effect of embracing this transitionary paradigm is one of dismissing the concerns over capitalist enterprises that threaten and displace existing livelihoods as a passing problem, if not an inevitable byproduct of progress.

While largely in agreement with Li's critical take on the transitory paradigm and its masking of the disturbing reality in which large swaths of the population face utter abandonment and are “let die,” this article makes a different analytical intervention. I focus not on those in the waiting room of capitalism or those who are “let die” in the conceptual “outside” of capitalism (see Campbell 2018: 268–271). Rather, along with other contributors to this Theme Section, I focus on how the life-supporting livelihood activities of those labeled as superfluous are, yet again, intermittently appropriated for surplus extraction and subsumed into exploitative capitalist relations.

In the following section, I lay out a framework to analyze this underexplored mechanism of exploitation. This framework builds upon labor scholarship, including the informality literature, and its insights into how various forms of livelihood activities outside the wage regime are integral to the smooth functioning of capitalism. In the rest of this article, I demonstrate how the livelihood activities of non-wage workers—in particular, tenant shopkeepers—are exploited in the course of intensifying capitalist accumulation, and I analyze who profits and how. Piecing together the complex and hidden ways by which the capitalist system works through those who are made to look superfluous to the performance of capitalism is an attempt to call out exploitation when the label is warranted. Ultimately, understanding how exploitation is relocated in this way enables building solidarity around shared experience of exploitation. I agree, in this sense, with Michael Denning (2010: 81), who insists that “proletarian” is not “a synonym for ‘wage labourer’ but for dispossession, expropriation and radical dependence on the market.”

Situating exploitation beyond the wage relationship

The literature on the informal economy has helped unveil capitalism's systemic and structural reliance on a wide network of non-waged, informal workers who are often renumerated on a piece rate basis. Informal workers’ “workplace” is often situated outside the factory floor—some “work” even takes place in the private sphere of the home—and with little to no social safety net or access to the bundle of worker's rights. Scholars in this literature have together shown the breath and width of the informal workforce's entanglements with capitalism. For example, global clothing, automobile, and shoe brands depend on home-based workers to carry out tasks that are considered ancillary to the core functions of production (Agarwala 2013). Public services such as trash collection, too, rely on informal workers for its on-the-ground operations while supplying for the global recycling industry (Rosaldo 2016, 2022). This literature has effectively unveiled how those labeled “independent contractors” or “self-employed” are in fact “dependent” on those who control access to the market and are therefore vulnerable to accepting exploitative terms (Chun 2009; Cranford et al. 2005). Nevertheless, while a crucial corrective to the previous labor literature's narrow focus on ideal-type industrial wage workers, I argue that the literature's predominant focus on revealing the hidden employment-like relations in the informal economy risks masking relations of surplus extraction and exploitation that occur beyond employment or even employment-like relationships.

On the other hand, the literature on “interlocking” ventures into an analytical space that situates exploitation within the broader milieu of multilayered power relationships. Various positions of power—such as landlords, local patrons, merchants, moneylenders, patriarchs, in addition to employers—intersect in such a way as to lock in exploitable subjects (Bharadwaj 1985; Mezzadri 2016; Srivastava 1989). For example, Alessandra Mezzadri (2016), in studying the production of embroidery garments in India, draws on the framework of interlocking to highlight how often intimate or locally embedded power structures are actively harnessed for coordinating and stabilizing the practices of surplus value extraction from various out- contractors. Specific mechanisms of exploitation include: tapping into a patriarch's power to redistribute commissioned work among family members, thereby opening individual households and private realms of reproduction to exploitation; and leveraging loans or advances to lock in subordinates. In Mezzadri's case, such loans and advances are particularly employed to secure the labor of scarcer skilled fractions among embroidery artisans while forcing them to accept lower rates for their work. Mezzadri vividly describes the mechanisms by which interlocking enables exploitation to permeate the complex pyramid-like production chains that link large Delhi-based garment exporters to a host of artisans living in remote villages. Under this scheme, those who exploit and those who are exploited are not fixed in their roles. For example, local contractors who often exploit rural cheap labor are themselves exploited by larger national-level contractors that offload the risks of a volatile market onto local contractors. This literature together convincingly makes the case that to understand the workings of the contemporary capitalist mode of production and accumulation that heavily relies on decentralized out-contractors, researchers must search well beyond the boundaries of the formal and informal labor contract and into the manifold relationships of domination and subordination. Only such an expanded scope of vision can enable investigations into the variegated ways in which unequal terms of exchange are established and stabilized over time.

Along these lines, my case study of tenant shopkeepers in urban Korea foregrounds the exploitation found in rental relationships. Although identifying exploitation in rental relationships is nothing new, most works have focused on the exploitation of landless peasants to illustrate these dynamics. Elaborating on Marx, William Roseberry (1976: 45–47), for example, refers to “nonproducers” landlords claiming “a portion of the total product of direct (peasant) producers” as “exploitation” of “surplus product.” Here, compared to exploitation via a wage, Roseberry (1976: 51–54) characterizes exploitation via rent as one of “inefficiency.” As farm landowners do not have full control and overview over the process of production, the extracted rent tends to be “less than or more than the total surplus” (Roseberry 1976: 51). In other words, landlords may be slow to adjust their rent extraction to correspond to a good or bad year of produce or to the fluctuating prices set in the global market. Therefore, when it comes to exploitation through rent—whether the exploited subjects are tenant peasants or tenant shopkeepers—it is key to analyze the conditions in which property owners are emboldened to fully capitalize on their exploitative grip over their tenants—in other words, conditions conducive to over- and not under-extraction of surplus.

In the case of tenant shopkeepers, in the most abstract level, over-extraction is most likely where commercial business is taking an upturn and thus where the price of urban commercial real estate is appreciating. Under such conditions, commercial landlords may freely wield their power over tenant shopkeepers without the risk of losing a steady flow of rental income. On the other hand, for tenant shopkeepers, sunk costs have already been incurred in a shop, to say nothing of the emotional attachments formed to a shop and its location. Therefore, while one might ask why tenant shopkeepers cannot simply take their equipment and furniture—the remaining means of production apart from the physical shop itself—to restart elsewhere, the locational dependence of the shopkeepers forecloses this possibility, forcing them to endure exorbitant rent hikes and other demands from their landlords. A tenant shopkeeper who is in the process of rooting themself and their business in a neighborhood is, therefore, already in a position of weakness vis-à-vis their landlord. When this place-bounded character of tenant shopkeepers’ livelihoods is combined with the rising speculative value and attractiveness of commercial real estate as a speculative commodity, the incumbent tenant is made expendable in the eyes of the landlord. The vulnerability of tenant shopkeepers to exploitation is, therefore, not a constant but amplified under certain market conditions. I will further analyze below the unique conditions in Korea that exacerbates tenant shopkeepers’ vulnerability to exploitation.

Before turning to specific analysis of the situation in Korea, I emphasize that I am well aware that individual landlords are categorically not industrial (or “productive”) capitalists. Nevertheless, by using the term exploitation to their speculative action, I am interested in understanding the conditions under which the landlords come to perceive their interests in extracting surplus created from the place-making “work” or “livelihood activities” performed by their tenants. Therefore, while inspired by scholarship examining petty commodity production (Harriss-White 2014) or disguised wage labor, the intention of this article is not to coin yet another category that is worthy of theoretical attention or to expand the meaning of “workers” but instead to unveil the underexplored conditions that activates exploitative relationships. Finding that tenant shopkeepers are subject to exploitation does not necessarily rule out the possibility that they, as petit bourgeois and micro-entrepreneurs, can also exploit their own employees and their own family labor, or even engage in “self-exploitation” (Harriss-White 2014: 984). Adopting such a relational approach where exploiters and exploited are emergent instead of being fixed enables an analysis of exploitation in all its complexities and contradictions.

Who are tenant shopkeepers?

In recent years, Korean media has sounded the alarm over the difficult conditions facing shopkeepers, whose incomes barely equal the minimum wage despite their long work hours (Gum 2019; Yoon 2018). Therefore, it is necessary to contextualize Korean tenant shopkeepers through an overview of their basic demographic features before analyzing their exploitation.

While there are no official statistics documenting the socio-economic status of “tenant shopkeepers” per se, aggregate survey data on “the self-employed”—a category that includes tenant shopkeepers as well as shopkeepers who own their shops and other self-employed workers that do not operate shops—provides a starting point from which to sketch out the socio-economic standing of this demographic. Scholars tracing inequality in Korea have shown that the average income of the self-employed has lagged behind that of wageworkers since the 2000s, based on data from the Bank of Korea. The average operating surplus of the self- employed, after deducting the expense of the employees’ wages and taxes on production, is only 60 percent of wageworkers’ average income in 2014 (Chang 2015: 249). In addition, after adjusting for inflation, the income of the self- employed decreased 17 percent between 2000 and 2014, during which time the overall economy grew 73 percent (Chang 2015: 250). Among the self-employed in Korea, approximately 70 percent are sole operators who run their business without additional employees or with only family labor and their business heavily concentrated in “retail and restaurant industries and in some personal services” (Koo 2022: 42). Studies show that during the period from 2001 to 2012, only 47 percent of all self-employed businesses survived after three years, and on average, these ventures lasted only around 3.4 years (Kim 2012). The shorter average life span of self- employed businesses is a telling data point that partly speaks to the frequent evictions faced by tenant shopkeepers but also more broadly to the overall competitiveness in making a living through self-employment in Korea.

A question that naturally emerges from such a set of stylized facts is: Why, despite the well-publicized hardships associated with it, does self-employment, far from withering away, persist in Korea? In fact, one out of every four members of the working population in Korea is self-employed, and this high proportion has remained relatively constant even well after Korea's successful transformation into an industrialized economy (OECD Labor Force Statistics 2021). The staying power of self-employment in Korea reflects a bifurcated labor market that leaves unappealing options for the low-skilled and those with uncompetitive educational credentials.2 In my interviews, many of the self-employed tenant shopkeepers opted out of meager and insecure wage-paying employment to start a business of their own. A self-run commercial business is perceived as a viable alternative for those who find themselves unable to escape precarious employment options, such as sub-contracting, part-time work, or non-regular fixed-term work. In addition, retirees also are channeled into self-employment when faced with the economic necessity of continuing to work after retiring from jobs that offer inadequate retirement benefits.3 Indeed, official government surveys in Korea confirm the fluid boundaries between wageworkers and self-employed workers: around half of self-employed workers have previous work experience as wageworkers (Statistics Korea 2015). In particular, in Korea, where large corporate brand names have not yet been successful in completely saturating the commercial market, self-employment such as tenant shopkeeping is perceived as being a way of making a living with low-entry barriers and one that fills the void of decent work created by a bifurcated wage market.

Relocating exploitation in rental relationships

A useful illustration of the exploitation of tenant shopkeepers in Korea can be found in the case of a man I refer to as Mr. Shin, a middle-aged tenant shopkeeper who once owned a pig intestine BBQ restaurant near a college campus with his wife. Mr. Shin was a so-called mom-and-pop tenant shopkeeper, but nevertheless maintained a small operation that was fairly lucrative. He took pride in his method of marinating ingredients to eliminate the unique scent of the pig, and in his recipe for the special sauce he applied to the pig intestines. When Mr. Shin's restaurant started establishing a reputation among nearby college students, the landlord declared that he would end his contract with Mr. Shin. In the oral agreement that Mr. Shin had made with the landlord, the landlord initially promised that “you can do business as long as you want here.” Of course, this verbal promise was not legally binding. Adding insult to injury, after evicting Mr. Shin, the landlord opened an almost identical pig intestine BBQ restaurant at the very spot with only minor changes to the menu and interior décor, investing little of his own effort and resources. Mr. Shin's story highlights a case of direct exploitation of tenant shopkeeper's livelihood activities in which a landlord literally appropriates the ideas, time, and monetary investments of its tenant (Lee 2020: 827).

A more common story of exploitation that accompanies the process of a tenant shopkeeper's eviction requires the understanding of a more indirect form of exploitation than employed in Mr. Shin's case. In order to understand this form of exploitation prevalent in urban Korea, I must explain a unique local practice called “right-money (kwŏlligŭm)” exchange. Right-money refers to a large, one-time payment made by an incoming tenant to an outgoing tenant when the lease on a commercial property changes hands. This exchange of right-money between the incoming and outgoing tenant shopkeepers putatively recognizes the role of the incumbent tenant shopkeeper in increasing the value of a place—in other words, in engaging in surplus creation through place-making. The amount of right-money is decided by the market—in other words, it depends on the supply and demand for commercial shops. For example, if no incoming tenant is willing to take over the tenancy, the right-money can disappear altogether. Conversely, if the incumbent tenant shopkeeper successfully increases the desirability of the place of business—as demonstrated by an increase in foot traffic in the area—then demand for the location among other prospective tenants will increase, driving up the right-money attached to that spot through competitive bidding. The popularity of the location of business, which has been cultivated by the incumbent tenant shopkeeper, is, therefore, reflected in the amount of the right-money. Through this mechanism, the amount of right-money partially captures the intangible surplus value added to commercial real estate over time by the incumbent tenant shopkeeper (Lee 2020: 824).

Exploitation occurs when this practice of right-money exchange can be manipulated by landlords with the intention of appropriating and cashing in on the increased value of the commercial spot. A landlord needs only to terminate a lease with an existing tenant without first securing their replacement. By displacing the existing tenant before a replacement is found, the existing tenant is deprived of the opportunity to recover its right-money. Subsequently, the landlord is able to request a higher monthly rent from a future tenant in exchange for having ridded that tenant of the cost of right-money. In this way, the landlord is able to demand a higher rent even without making any investment of his own to improve the commercial property. Organized tenant shopkeepers came to refer to such extractive practice by the landlords as “melting right-money into the rent” or “right-money theft” (kwŏlligŭm yakt'al) (Lee 2020: 825). Given the high amount of right-money required to secure a space in urban Korea, such expropriation of right-money combined with eviction, often determine whether one can continue to make a living in the city.4 Tenant shopkeepers evicted from their shops without being able to recoup the right-money are deprived of the capital necessary to restart a business by dispossessing the lump-sum fund that is needed if one is to make a right-money payment at another location.

Hiking monthly rents is another method for extracting surplus from tenant shopkeepers. The revised Commercial Building Rental Relation Protection Law only enforces limited degrees of commercial rent control, and these apply only during the first five years of the tenant's tenure. (In 2018, the law was revised to extend these five years to ten years.) Beyond the period in which the commercial rent control applies, landlords have complete discretion over rents and can even pursue multiple methods of surplus extraction simultaneously. A landlord can, for instance, implement sharp rent hikes with the plan of using delinquent rental payment as a justification to lawfully terminate the rental contract without having to guarantee right-money protection. With this two-pronged strategy, surplus is extracted through both exorbitant monthly rents and right-money theft.

A vocabulary to challenge exploitation by landlords was altogether lacking before tenant shopkeepers started organizing. Tenant shopkeepers were accustomed to talking about such exploitation as “bad luck.” Words of advice that circulate among tenant shopkeepers emphasize the need to somehow learn to discern the “bad” landlords from the “good” ones and to try their best to avoid the former. Tips on how to avoid bad landlords often take the form of cynical jokes: “Make sure to check three things before signing a lease (with a landlord). First, does the landlord have an unemployed son? Second, does the landlord have a son returning from military service? And finally, does the landlord have a son returning from study abroad?” The need to provide a son with a means to make a living is a common excuse offered by landlords before evicting incumbent tenants and dispossessing them of their right-money. It was only in 2015, after fierce and devoted mobilization by tenant shopkeepers that various protective measures against landlord's exploitation of their tenant shopkeepers became codified into the Commercial Building Rental Relation Protection Law—including the codification of right-money exchange that was formerly an informal custom among tenants.

However, this legalization has so far failed to eliminate exploitation in rental relationships. The revised law stipulates the right of the incumbent tenant to collect right-money from the next incoming tenant upon a property owner announcing its intent to terminate a tenant's rental contract. The law also guarantees the incumbent tenant a certain period of time to find the next tenant and to agree upon the terms of the right-money exchange. Landlords are prohibited from interfering in this process or refusing the replacement tenant without good reason. However, in practice, the law's many loopholes make it difficult for tenant shopkeepers to recover their right-money. For example, even after the revised law of 2015, a common tactic by landlords has been to claim that they plan to use their property for their personal use—to provide for a son, as in the joke quoted above—thereby obviating the need for a replacement tenant. Through this tactic, landlords can still get away with “melting right-money into the rent.” Only after many conflicts and much collective resistance by tenant shopkeepers did a Supreme Court judge in 2019 overturn a lower court's ruling and order a landlord to pay compensation to an incumbent tenant for using the pretext of personal use to dispossess the tenant of their right-money. This ruling has set the precedent for those like the aforementioned Mr. Shin—who was dispossessed of his right-money on top of having his business idea appropriated by his landlord—to be able to request compensation directly from the landlord. However, the persistence of such various loopholes and the need for tenants to be embroiled in constant legal battles in order to actualize the protection of their right-money demonstrates the on-going struggle against the devaluation of the contribution made by tenant shopkeepers’ livelihood activities. Under a legal system that sanctifies property ownership, the need to protect non-wage workers like tenant shopkeepers against exploitation is too often subordinated to the landlords’ need to maximize their profits. The recognition of the surplus generated from tenant shopkeepers’ livelihood activities remains contested.

Making the rentier capitalist: Who are the landlords exploiting tenant shopkeepers?

Who, then, are those responsible for extracting surplus from tenant shopkeepers? The advent of a sub-group of landlords engaged in speculative activities, whom I have referred to as “rentier capitalists” or “speculative investors,” and who are looking to profit from surplus extraction from tenant shopkeepers, is a phenomenon that deserves further historical contextualization.

To understand the constellation of events that triggered the rental relationship between tenant shopkeepers and their commercial landlords to take an exploitative turn, it is important to first understand how residential real estate—in particular, newly-built, high-rise apartments—first rose as a speculative commodity with the full backing of the developmental state. The story of Korea's miraculous economic growth has been examined at length in the developmental state literature. According to the literature, the Korean state took a hands-on approach in nurturing and steering corporations to becoming global market players that produce export goods (Amsden 1989; Chibber 1999, 2003; Cumings 1984; Evans 1995; Wade 1990; Woo 1991). Yet, less examined is how the developmental state during the same period also played a similar role in luring corporate players into building apartments (B-G. Park 1998: 279; Yang 2018; Yim and Kim 2015: 169–177). Building apartments requires large capital investment upfront and entails waiting a relatively long period before profits can be realized. Therefore, if the development state aided fledging export corporations by assuring their access to the lucrative American consumer market (Chibber 1999), then a similar assurance of guaranteed consumer demand was also necessary for corporations to commit to building apartment complexes. From an early stage, such an assurance was provided by developmental state's policies that manufactured demand for apartments by establishing apartments as much as a speculative product as a residential option. The developmental state devised a scheme that allowed the pre-sale of new apartments through a lottery-like system, where the rights to a unit are sold at a lower-than-market price even before the apartment is built. When the Korean public witnessed segments of its society gaining a solid foothold in the middle class through windfall profits from investments in apartment-ownership, the speculative turn toward real estate investment gathered momentum (Son 2008; Yang 2018: 76–77).

I have laid out elsewhere that the rise of commercial real estate as a speculative commodity is connected to the rentier capitalists’ search for a new lucrative investment opportunity when investment on new apartments failed to consistently deliver on their promise for capital accumulation (Lee 2020: 824). In short, it took the two global financial crises—the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the 2007–2008 International Financial Crisis—to expose the bubble in the apartment commodity market. In the aftermath of these crises, the investor class adapted swiftly by turning to alternative investment venues—such as commercial buildings that promise generous rental income on top of capital gain in times of price hikes.

Furthermore, in Korea, the vast appetite of individual households to take part in the speculative mode of capital accumulation is, to some extent, a self-defensive response to the investors’ own precarity. According to Hagen Koo (2022: 27), Korea's middle class has decreased at a faster rate over the past two to three decades compared to other OECD countries. Simultaneously, disparities in real estate assets, rather than income disparity, has become the primary driver of inequality in Korea, and this trend is particularly pronounced in the greater metropolitan area of Seoul (Oh 2020: 13–17). The economic precarity of the shrinking middle class and its desire not to miss out on the proven strategy of capital accumulation through real estate investment is reflected in the titles of prominent books on the top shelves of real estate sections in major Korean bookstores. Examples include: I invest in commercial buildings instead of housing, and Buying a small building: Wage-earner becoming rental income rich! These books propagate the message that individual “wage earners” can succeed financially if they master the skills needed to spot “healthy” or “undervalued” commercial buildings. These guide books on real estate investment are full of “tips” on how to “read” the profit potential of a street or an area by accounting for factors such as access to public transportation, proximity to residential or corporate buildings, and the flow of the lunch crowd. To the ordinary wage earners that these books target, ownership of real estate property is pitched as fallback when one's primary source of income runs dry. Evidence that this pitch is resonating with the increasingly precarious middle class is on full display when celebrities in Korea openly discuss their real estate investment portfolios when appearing on talk shows, a sight that is not uncommon in Korea. Acquiring real estate, a shiny symbol of financial security and success, is an accomplishment for which one is to be congratulated, revered, and envied.

All in all, this capital accumulation strategy that turns laymen into petit rentier capitalists searching for quick and easy profits is key to understanding the shifting terrains of exploitation. Individuals-turned-speculators are willing to take significant financial risks and assume large debts so as to acquire promising real estate properties while betting on the myth of everlasting rise of property values.

Coda

In this article, I extend the theory of exploitation to apply it to surplus extraction that takes place outside the traditional employer-employee relationship. The Marxist category of petit bourgeois highlights the self-employed—including tenant shopkeepers—as those who serve as their own bosses and enjoy control over their means of production. There is no denying that tenant shopkeepers as petit bourgeois have control over their day-to-day work schedules, can for a large part be connected directly to the market (customers) without the mediation of others, and can even avoid to some degree of alienation from their final product—their business—by having considerable control over its making and destination. Yet, I show that when urban spaces emerge as coveted speculative commodities, the condition is ripe for the tenant shopkeepers’ place-making “work,” or what I refer to as “livelihood activities,” to be appropriated by individual landlords for capital accumulation. One can say that individual commercial landlords in such instances are in fact acting like petit rentier capitalists. Therefore, such well-known attributes of tenant shopkeepers’ autonomy—the very lack of dependency to industrial capitalists to make a livelihood—does not shield tenant shopkeepers from speculative landlords’ exploitation. In fact, identifying the exploitation exercised by those who possess a crucial means of production for tenant shopkeepers—that is, commercial property—calls for analysis that goes beyond a narrow focus on exploitation in employment or employment-like relationships. By locating exploitation in relationships that operate outside the employment relationship, we can shift the focus of investigation to how different livelihood activities remain imbricated in the capitalist logic of surplus extraction, even when these livelihoods are not directly part of industrial capital's production chain. Conceptually relocating exploitation, as such, allows us to interrogate the varying “insides” of capitalism that are made to look superfluous to the needs of capitalists.

At the same time, in agreement with the central argument made in the introduction of this Theme Section, I emphasize that highlighting the varying insides of capitalism is different from concluding that exploitative relations in capitalism have no outside and leave no room for escape. In fact, one focus of the article is to uncover the conditions that tip the balance of power in the rental relationship toward landlords, emboldening them to exploit their tenant shopkeepers. Such analysis indicates that, conversely, by regulating the conditions in which tenant shopkeepers operate, exploitation can be mitigated or even halted. In addition, although beyond the scope of this article, my broader ethnographic research documents the resilience of tenant shopkeepers to strike back to defend their modes of livelihood against exploitation. Surplus populations, time and again, have demonstrated their ability to mobilize based on a sense of entitlement and pride over their modes of making a living. The informality literature has fundamentally changed labor scholarship by shedding light on the very on-the-ground organizing led by informal workers that critically reconfigured the social imagination of who can organize as “workers” (Agarwala 2013, 2016; Andrae and Beckman 2013; Chun 2009; Cranford et al. 2005; Rosaldo 2016). The efforts of tenant shopkeepers and other non-wage workers to counter what they see as the exploitation of their livelihoods deserve similar analytical attention.

As with those of informal workers, the demands of the urban non-wage surplus population will not take on conventional forms of workers’ struggles. The informality literature provides ample insights into what such struggles might look like for those who are making a livelihood outside of employment relationships. For example, for informal workers, rights claims are not always directed toward employers, or to industrial capitalists more broadly. Rina Agarwala (2013, 2016) shows how well-organized informal workers in India—many of whom are female, home-based, and from the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy—have demanded recognition of their livelihoods by targeting local states rather than their elusive employers. In addition, the demands of these informal workers, rather than focusing on narrowly regulating employment relationships, aim to meet workers’ reproductive needs. In Agarwala's study (2013, 2016), these include calls for the local state to provide for housing, health care, and education for workers’ children. Similarly, tenant shopkeepers organizing to oppose their exploitation in Korea have also set new targets for their organizing—exploitative landlords, to be sure, but also the rule of law of liberal democracy that protects the sanctity of property rights at the expense of livelihoods. Tenant shopkeepers have challenged laws that profit property owners—through quick and easy speculative capital gain—while allowing the have-nots to be used, dispossessed, and “let die.” Therefore, the tenant shopkeepers’ articulation of their demands, which center on their right to make a living in the city, frequently taps into the popular slogan “let's live together” (hamkkesalja) that is invoked by a broad range of social movements in Korea (see Park 2022). One could argue that organizing efforts of these varied non-wage surplus populations is together building a new vocabulary of rights that restores the sensibility of co-existence and mutual care against exploitative capitalism. Conceptually relocating exploitation among the multilayered power relationships surrounding non-wage surplus population provides an analytical lens to examine both the potentials and limitations of struggles by those who have been brushed aside as inherently unrevolutionary and individualistic.

This article follows a long tradition of critical scholarship that tackles the facile prescription of promoting self-employment or petty commodity production as a panacea to the wageless world, as an escape from the exploitation-ridden wage sector. Extraordinary scholarship has collectively unveiled, for example, how highly lauded micro-financing schemes proposing to nurture and assist self-employed micro-entrepreneurs can turn into profit-making enterprises that take advantage of and extract from the desperate (Elyachar 2005; Federici 2004; Karim 2011). This cautionary tale warns that well-intentioned policy interventions can become tools of capitalists to ensnare and “interlock” the surplus population into exploitative relationships. Therefore, advocating for conceptually relocating exploitation beyond the employment relationship is driven by the necessity to be clear-eyed about the variegated ways the livelihood activities of the self-employed can be subject of exploitation.

Acknowledgments

I would like to express my deep gratitude to the organizers and participants of the Rethinking Surplus Population Workshop for providing critical feedback on an earlier draft of this article as well as much-needed encouragement. Among them, I express my special thanks to Alessandra Mezzadri and Stephen Campbell from whose intellectual support the article greatly benefited. I also thank the anonymous reviewers of the article.

Notes

1

Levien (2018) provides a rich analysis of how dispossession of land from those who subsist on it is often enacted through, not necessarily offering new jobs but more so a promise of a share in the anticipated post-development local real estate boom. Therefore, the proposed transition is not from peasant to wage worker but into an altogether different class of rent collectors. Levien demonstrates how this promise of a share in the economic upturn is differently materialized for local populations in ways that deepen preexisting inequalities.

2

Decent wage work is increasingly difficult to obtain even for those who possess a college degree. Hagen Koo (2022: 29–30) describes millennials in Korea as those “who represent the best- educated generation in Korea” yet who find the “grimmest job market waiting for them.”

3

According to government statistics, more than half of the self-employed population, since 2009, was surveyed to be over the age of 50 (Statistics Korea 2015). Behind this phenomenon is a trend toward earlier retirement among those who formally occupied formal-sector wage jobs—in which, the retiring managerial workers who still have school-aged children to support are sliding into “marginal middle-class” or “low-class position” (Koo 2022: 29–30).

4

The Seoul City government conducted a survey in 2015, which found the average right-money exchange to be approximately 66,824 USD (Korea Appraisal Board 2015)—more than three times Korea's average annual net-adjusted disposable household income per capita (19,372 USD) (Lee 2020: 827). Right-money is at times raised from the pensions of wageworkers after retirement or by taking out loans with the anticipation of being able to pay back over the following years when a business stabilizes.

References

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  • Agarwala, Rina. 2016. “Redefining exploitation: Self- employed workers’ movements in India's garments and trash collection industries.International Labor and Working-Class History 89: 107130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Amsden, Alice. 1989. Asia's next giant: South Korea and late industrialization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Andrae, Gunilla, and Björn Beckman. 2013. “Lagos tailors, trade unions, and organizations in the informal economy.African Studies Review 56 (3): 191208.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bharadwaj, Krishna. 1985. “A view on commercialisation in Indian agriculture and the development of capitalism.The Journal of Peasant Studies 12 (4): 725.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Breman, Jan. 1990. Labour migration and rural transformation in colonial Asia. Amsterdam: Free University Press.

  • Campbell, Stephen. 2018. “Migrant waste collectors in Thailand's informal economy: Mapping class relations.European Journal of East Asian Studies 17 (2): 263288.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chang Ha-sŏng. 2015. Wae punnohaeya hanŭn'ga: Punbaeŭi silp'aega mandŭn han'gugŭi pulp'yŏngdŭng [Why the need to be angry: Korea's inequality created by failure of redistribution]. Seoul: Hei Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Chibber, Vivek. 2003. Locked in place: State-building and late industrialization in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cranford, Cynthia J., Judy Fudge, Eric Tucker, and Leah F. Vosko, eds. 2005. Self-employed workers organize: Law, policy, and unions. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cumings, Bruce. 1984. “The origins and development of the northeast Asian political economy: Industrial sectors, product cycles, and political consequences.Industrial Organization XXXVIII: 140.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Denning, Michael. 2010. “Wageless Life.New Left Review 66: 7997.

  • Elyachar, Julia. 2005. Markets of dispossession: NGOs, economic development, and the state in Cairo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kim, Hyemin. 2019. “Changsa toenda sip’ŭmyŏn imdaeryo kkŏngch'ung. . .hwenghaejin ‘in'gisanggwŏn[“As soon as the business is good the rent skyrockets… ‘popular commercial spots’ becoming desolate”]. SBS News. 6 February.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kim, Myongji. 2012. “KB kyŏngyŏngyŏn'gu “chayŏngŏpcha chŏlban, ch'angŏphu 3 nyŏndo motpŏt'yŏ” [“Korea Bank Business Research, Half of the self-employed, cannot last more than 3 years after opening their business”]. ChosunBiz. 9 October.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koo, Hagen. 2022. Privilege and anxiety: The Korean middle class in the global era. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Korea Appraisal Board. 2015. Seoult’ŭkpyŏlssi sangga imdaech'a chŏngbo mit kwŏlligŭm silt'aejosa [Seoul's commercial building leasing information & right-money survey], Seoul.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lee, Yewon. 2020. “Reframing gentrification: How tenant shopkeepers’ activism in Seoul radically reframed gentrification.Critical Sociology 46 (6): 819834.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Levien, Michael. 2018. Dispossession without development: Land grabs in neoliberal India. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Li, Tania Murray. 2010. “To make live or let die? Rural dispossession and the protection of surplus populations.Antipode 41: 6693.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marx, Karl. (1972) 1978. The Marx-Engels reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Mezzadri, Alessandra. 2016. “The informalization of capital and interlocking in labour contracting networks.Progress in Development Studies 16 (2): 124139.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Monteith, William, and Dora-Olivia Vicol, eds. 2021. Beyond the wage: Ordinary work in diverse economies. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • OECD Labor Force Statistics. 2021. “Self-employment rate.https://data.oecd.org/emp/self-employment-rate.htm.

  • Oh, Min Jun. 2020. Chasan pulp'yŏngdŭngesŏ chut'aegŭi yŏkhal [The role of housing in asset inequality], Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements WP 20-08, Sejong.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Park, Bae-Gyoon. 1998. “Where do tigers sleep at night? The state's role in housing policy in South Korea and Singapore.Economic Geography 74 (3): 272288.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Park, Hyun Ok. 2022. “The politics of time: The Sewŏl ferry disaster and the disaster of democracy.The Journal of Asian Studies 81 (1): 131144.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosaldo, Manuel. 2016. “Revolution in the garbage dump: The political and economic foundations of the Colombian recycler movement, 1986–2011.Social Problems 63: 351372.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosaldo, Manuel. 2022. “The antinomies of successful mobilization: Colombian recyclers maneuver between dispossession and exploitation.Development and Change 52 (2): 251278.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roseberry, William. 1976. “Rent, differentiation, and the development of capitalism among peasants.American Anthropologist 78 (1): 4558.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Son, Nak-Gu, 2008. Pudongsan kyegŭp sahoe [Real estate class society]. Seoul: Humanitas.

  • Srivastava, Ravi. 1989. “Interlinked modes of exploitation in Indian agriculture during transition: A case study.The Journal of Peasant Studies 16 (4): 493522.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Statistics Korea. 2015. Kyŏngje hwaldong in'gujosa [Report on economically active population].

  • Wade, Robert. 1990. Governing the market: Economic theory and the role of government in east Asian industrialization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Woo, Jung-en. 1991. Race to the swift: State and finance in Korean industrialization. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Yang, Myungji. 2018. From miracle to mirage: The making and unmaking of the Korean middle class 1960-2015. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yim, Dongkun and Kim Jongbae. 2015. Met’ŭrop'ollisŭ sŏurŭi t'ansaeng [The birth of metropolis Seoul]. Seoul: Banbi Press.

  • Yoon, Jiyon. 2018. “Nanŭn p’ŭraench'aijŭ ppangjip sajangniimnida” [“I am a franchise bakery owner”]. KBS News, 26 September.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Contributor Notes

Yewon Andrea Lee is a junior professor at the Department of Korean Studies at University of Tübingen, Germany. As a political and labor sociologist and urban ethnographer, Yewon is broadly interested in how speculative real estate interests increasingly dictate the shape and character of urban landscapes and urban livelihoods. Currently, Yewon is preparing a monograph that examines a fascinating case in which tenant shopkeepers in South Korea are revealing the urban inequalities that are driven by rentier capitalism and thereby challenging the formidable power of property-ownership-based citizenship. E-mail: yewon.lee@uni-tuebingen.de ORCID: 0000-0002-1262-7439

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Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Agarwala, Rina. 2013. Informal labor, formal politics, and dignified discontent in India. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Agarwala, Rina. 2016. “Redefining exploitation: Self- employed workers’ movements in India's garments and trash collection industries.International Labor and Working-Class History 89: 107130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Amsden, Alice. 1989. Asia's next giant: South Korea and late industrialization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Andrae, Gunilla, and Björn Beckman. 2013. “Lagos tailors, trade unions, and organizations in the informal economy.African Studies Review 56 (3): 191208.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bharadwaj, Krishna. 1985. “A view on commercialisation in Indian agriculture and the development of capitalism.The Journal of Peasant Studies 12 (4): 725.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Breman, Jan. 1990. Labour migration and rural transformation in colonial Asia. Amsterdam: Free University Press.

  • Campbell, Stephen. 2018. “Migrant waste collectors in Thailand's informal economy: Mapping class relations.European Journal of East Asian Studies 17 (2): 263288.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chang Ha-sŏng. 2015. Wae punnohaeya hanŭn'ga: Punbaeŭi silp'aega mandŭn han'gugŭi pulp'yŏngdŭng [Why the need to be angry: Korea's inequality created by failure of redistribution]. Seoul: Hei Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chibber, Vivek. 1999. “Building a developmental state: The Korean case reconsidered.Politics & Society, XXVII (3): 309346.

  • Chibber, Vivek. 2003. Locked in place: State-building and late industrialization in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Chun, Jennifer Jihye. 2009. Organizing at the margins: The symbolic politics of labor in South Korea and the United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cranford, Cynthia J., Judy Fudge, Eric Tucker, and Leah F. Vosko, eds. 2005. Self-employed workers organize: Law, policy, and unions. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cumings, Bruce. 1984. “The origins and development of the northeast Asian political economy: Industrial sectors, product cycles, and political consequences.Industrial Organization XXXVIII: 140.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Denning, Michael. 2010. “Wageless Life.New Left Review 66: 7997.

  • Elyachar, Julia. 2005. Markets of dispossession: NGOs, economic development, and the state in Cairo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Evans, Peter 1995. Embedded autonomy: States and industrial transformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the witch. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

  • Gum, Joonkyunh. 2019. “P'yŏnŭijŏm sajangdo nodongjailkka” [“Is franchise convenient store owner, too, a laborer”]. Mediatoday, 5 April. http://www.mediatoday.co.kr/news/articleViewhtml?mod=news&act=articleView&idxno=147690.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harriss-White, Barbara. 2014. “Labour and petty production.Development and Change 45 (5): 9811000.

  • Jeffrey, Craig. 2010. Timepass: Youth, class, and the politics of waiting in India. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  • Karim, Lamia. 2011. Microfinance and its discontents: Women in debt in Bangladesh. Minnea- polis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kim, Hyemin. 2019. “Changsa toenda sip’ŭmyŏn imdaeryo kkŏngch'ung. . .hwenghaejin ‘in'gisanggwŏn[“As soon as the business is good the rent skyrockets… ‘popular commercial spots’ becoming desolate”]. SBS News. 6 February.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kim, Myongji. 2012. “KB kyŏngyŏngyŏn'gu “chayŏngŏpcha chŏlban, ch'angŏphu 3 nyŏndo motpŏt'yŏ” [“Korea Bank Business Research, Half of the self-employed, cannot last more than 3 years after opening their business”]. ChosunBiz. 9 October.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koo, Hagen. 2022. Privilege and anxiety: The Korean middle class in the global era. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Korea Appraisal Board. 2015. Seoult’ŭkpyŏlssi sangga imdaech'a chŏngbo mit kwŏlligŭm silt'aejosa [Seoul's commercial building leasing information & right-money survey], Seoul.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lee, Yewon. 2020. “Reframing gentrification: How tenant shopkeepers’ activism in Seoul radically reframed gentrification.Critical Sociology 46 (6): 819834.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Levien, Michael. 2018. Dispossession without development: Land grabs in neoliberal India. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Li, Tania Murray. 2010. “To make live or let die? Rural dispossession and the protection of surplus populations.Antipode 41: 6693.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marx, Karl. (1972) 1978. The Marx-Engels reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Mezzadri, Alessandra. 2016. “The informalization of capital and interlocking in labour contracting networks.Progress in Development Studies 16 (2): 124139.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Monteith, William, and Dora-Olivia Vicol, eds. 2021. Beyond the wage: Ordinary work in diverse economies. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • OECD Labor Force Statistics. 2021. “Self-employment rate.https://data.oecd.org/emp/self-employment-rate.htm.

  • Oh, Min Jun. 2020. Chasan pulp'yŏngdŭngesŏ chut'aegŭi yŏkhal [The role of housing in asset inequality], Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements WP 20-08, Sejong.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Park, Bae-Gyoon. 1998. “Where do tigers sleep at night? The state's role in housing policy in South Korea and Singapore.Economic Geography 74 (3): 272288.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Park, Hyun Ok. 2022. “The politics of time: The Sewŏl ferry disaster and the disaster of democracy.The Journal of Asian Studies 81 (1): 131144.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosaldo, Manuel. 2016. “Revolution in the garbage dump: The political and economic foundations of the Colombian recycler movement, 1986–2011.Social Problems 63: 351372.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rosaldo, Manuel. 2022. “The antinomies of successful mobilization: Colombian recyclers maneuver between dispossession and exploitation.Development and Change 52 (2): 251278.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roseberry, William. 1976. “Rent, differentiation, and the development of capitalism among peasants.American Anthropologist 78 (1): 4558.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Son, Nak-Gu, 2008. Pudongsan kyegŭp sahoe [Real estate class society]. Seoul: Humanitas.

  • Srivastava, Ravi. 1989. “Interlinked modes of exploitation in Indian agriculture during transition: A case study.The Journal of Peasant Studies 16 (4): 493522.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Statistics Korea. 2015. Kyŏngje hwaldong in'gujosa [Report on economically active population].

  • Wade, Robert. 1990. Governing the market: Economic theory and the role of government in east Asian industrialization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Woo, Jung-en. 1991. Race to the swift: State and finance in Korean industrialization. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Yang, Myungji. 2018. From miracle to mirage: The making and unmaking of the Korean middle class 1960-2015. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yim, Dongkun and Kim Jongbae. 2015. Met’ŭrop'ollisŭ sŏurŭi t'ansaeng [The birth of metropolis Seoul]. Seoul: Banbi Press.

  • Yoon, Jiyon. 2018. “Nanŭn p’ŭraench'aijŭ ppangjip sajangniimnida” [“I am a franchise bakery owner”]. KBS News, 26 September.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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