Our vendors: Mr Oh “Killer Smile” – The Big Issue Korea

By Patrick Witton, The Big Issue Australia

In less than five years, The Big Issue Korea has not only built a solid readership. It has changed the lives of its vendors across South Korea – a nation that has rapidly become an economic powerhouse, yet remains beset by homelessness and unemployment.

Mr Oh – also known as ‘Killer Smile’ – is one of the many vendors in Seoul, the country’s capital, who has benefited from this support. He became homeless after his family business failed, stripping him of his income.

“One day I was wandering around the street trying to get a meal. There’s a place that provides food and someone was there giving out leaflets about The Big Issue and how it can help get you back on track. This really interested me, so I called the office.”

Mr Oh has now been selling the magazine at his pitch at Exit 8 of Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal for four years. “On average I sell 30, starting around 5pm when people finish work,” he says. “Some people already know about The Big Issue and buy it frequently. They ask how selling is going, and sometimes also offer me a snack – when that happens it’s really nice.”

As well as earning a steady income, the street paper has helped him find a home. In South Korea, vendors who sell The Big Issue for more than six months and save more than SKW1.5 million [$1580] can apply for rental support via a government-sponsored program.

Thanks to this scheme, Mr Oh is now able to rent an apartment in the western part of Seoul. He says that having stable shelter has changed his life. “I have my own things in my house, can buy things I need and when I go to sleep I can think about the future. In the past I didn’t, because I had no hope. It has made a big difference.”

Selling a street paper also reconnected Mr Oh with his family: “I live alone, but had a chance to be on TV because of The Big Issue, and my brothers noticed me and found me. I had become disconnected from my family for a long time. I met my brothers and my mother – it was fantastic.”

Patrick Witton is The Big Issue Australia‘s Contributing Editor. He travelled to South Korea with the Walkley Foundation Australia-Korea Journalism Exchange, with support from Australia-Korea Foundation and Korea Press Foundation. Original interview translated by Claire Kang.