Mayor of Seoul Announces Half-Price Government Restaurants


Last week, self-styled ‘social designer’ Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon unveiled a plan for ‘half-price restaurants’, similar to his ‘half-price tuition’ plans for universities. The phrase ‘half-price’ has become a rallying cry for Koreans furious at the steady increase in cost of living and economic difficulties. The plan calls for opening special restaurants which would sell food at heavily subsidised prices, in addition to offering employment and savings accounts for low income residents of Seoul.

While some press accounts have pointed out the potential unfair competition between private restaurants located near the half-price restaurants, the reaction in online comments has been overwhelmingly positive. NGOs have weighed in on both sides of the debate; the most famous commentator was Oh Se-hoon, Park’s predecessor in the mayor’s office, who sympathised with the goal of the restaurants but warned that they could cause economic problems.

As covered by koreaBANG here, South Korea continues to be divided between those who argue for more social welfare benefits to match the nation’s new wealth and those who claim policies like free school lunches and half-price discounts are ‘populism’, a term which carries a strongly negative connotation.

Article from Segye Ilbo:

Park Announces ‘Half-Price Restaurants’, but what about the family-run restaurants…

Park Won-soon, Mayor of Seoul, has started an uproar after announcing his intention to start ‘Half-Price Restaurants’ to follow up his policy of cutting the tuition at the University of Seoul in half. The move follows his promise when he initially took office to ‘make a Seoul where no one goes hungry.’ His announcement outlined plans for restaurants with an average price of ₩2500-3000 (conversion USD), which could be used by low income customers as well as anyone else.’ However, some have raised their voices in protest over the proposed restaurants, which could unfairly compete with nearby family-run establishments.

On February 8th, Mayor Park uploaded an announcement to his Facebook account, stating ‘following in the footsteps of half-price tuition, we are preparing a half-price series…we are planning to roll out ‘Half-Price Restaurants’ which will sell meals for ₩2500-3000.’

Park went on to describe the specific implementation plans for the half-price restaurants. ‘Our plan is to first have the community organizations in areas with a high proportion of low-income residents operate the restaurants.’ He added, ‘we will be borrowing some of the inner courtyards from apartment complexes, where we will set up ‘Half-Price Restaurants’ in cooperation with well-known restaurant chains and sell meals for free or at a cheap price.’

According to Park’s plan, low-income residents will also be able to use the restaurants as a type of savings bank, so that a portion of their bill is saved and added to an account every time they visit. For example, if a meal at the restaurants cost ₩5000, the customer would pay that amount, but they would be able to recover ₩2000 at a later time. Park stated that they already had a commercial partner for the ‘savings restaurants’ and the first one would open in a rundown area of the district of Yeongdeungpo in April. The city government will provide the funds to pay rent and wages for the kitchen staff, while the restaurant will be able to cover its capital expenses and other labor costs through the revenues it will collect.

Park also promised to expand up the concept introduced by the ‘Open Door Kitchen’ in Mapo’s Seogyo district. At the Kitchen, customers take as much food as they need from the counter and pay as much as they are able after eating.

The response on Twitter and Facebook to Park’s policies has been critical. Many commenters are claiming that ‘these policies do not take into account the concerns of family-run stores and are only intended to boost Park’s popularity.’ Twitter user ‘sh*****’ said, ‘If Seoul goes forward with these half-price restaurants intended to feed citizens then all of the surrounding restaurants will go out of business.’ ‘sb******’ pointed out the unrealistic nature of the restaurant plan, saying ‘As it currently stands, the ₩7000 that a restaurant charges for a bowl of kimchi stew leaves only 20% profit after the cost of rent, wages, ingredients, and gas are taken out. Reducing the portion size of side dishes could increase profits, but doing so will drive away customers. Despite all this they say they are going to make half-price restaurants?

In response, a city government representative said, ‘Due to possibility of half-price restaurants affecting the business of nearby family-run restaurants, we are taking great care in selecting the locations…as we are still in the early planning phase, we are listening to all opinions and will make specific plans for implementation accordingly.’

Comments from Daum:


For the sake of the family-run restaurants you would deprive our mothers and fathers of food?


Too much of my money goes to saving business owners..let’s have the little guy do well for lots of these restaurants..!!


Just go forward with the plan


You call people selling a meal for ₩7000-8000 family-run stores? I don’t think so…A failing restaurant can’t just jack up prices like that…if there is quality and flavor to match that price then customers will follow.


What the hell is this reporter talking about?! No one is going to go out of business due to the half-price restaurants. How’s your living situation, reporter? You can’t cover up the truth here.


The bias at the Segye Ilbo is unbelievable ke ke ke Since when have you cared about family-run stores? What the hell is this ke ke ke


So you shouldn’t put out poison because you’re afraid of harming the bedbugs?Mr. Mayor! I fully support this for the truly unfortunate people of Seoul!!


Park Won-soon for President..Onwards!!!


Since when has this paper cared about family-run stores….


You say half-price restaurants would disrupt the market? Then shall we start investigating the free soup kitchens as well? You call this violation of market freedom? ke ke ke


If the restaurants are for lower income residents then it only makes sense that it would be lower income residents who operate the establishment. The issue is not that these people are refusing to pay a fair price for food, it’s that they lack the funds to do so. I don’t see this policy as leading to problems.


This paper’s bias is clear: Park Won-soon is always to be attacked, Lee Myung-bak is always to be praised.


When it comes to food, people will always pay the menu price if it is good, but if the food isn’t good then even prices like ₩2000 won’t bring in customers..I don’t know if restaurants these days have any right to be charging more than ₩5000..


A surprisingly praiseworthy announcement from the mayor


Of course there are always people who will criticize a something no matter what, they only care about themselves


Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth…


It’s worth at least starting on a trial basis, they can always cancel the project if area restaurants start to go out of business


Looks like the reporter threw his conscience into his bowl before he mixed it up and ate it.. They are talking about a half-price restaurant for the homeless and low income families…how exactly would that harm area restaurants??.. And since when have they cared about family-run stores… how much of an issue would it be if people with money instead chose to go to half price restaurants… does the reporter even listen to himself??


Hahaha so the better solution would be to only have expensive restaurants? family-run stores oppose any drop in the price of food. ke ke keso the reporter prefers to pay ₩10,000 every day for his meal?


Wow, so now they are selling kimchi stew for ₩7000 a bowl.. that should just be another reason for the half-price restaurants. Tsk tsk if you turn it around, isn’t it the business owners who brought about this situation in the first place?

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  • commander

    Given low income people cannot afford to pay for meals at a restarunt, the fear that the proposed food offering at half the price will be unlikely to have reduce customers to neighboring eateries.

    Unlike what many critics think, the half-priced restaruants will be harldy usedcby midle class people except for targeted low income earners or welfare recipients. The reason is clear. Those places will be designed for those in need but alienated so far by society. Many financially affodable Seoulites hardly go there as they may feel it hurt their self esteem.

    In addition, the envisioned bistro s are now called resturants, but more thought about the proposal’s aim will allow you to discern the envisaged resturants amount to an extension of welfare service that has provided food to the homeless and unemployed. This implies that food at the planned facilities will not bad but never better than food at other private resturants.

    I think that Mayor Park should have launch a campaign to promote the understanding of his new proposal in a bid to stem predictable backlashes from skeptics.

    For their part, antagonists against any welfare expansions would do well to think welfare’s ultimate aim is not to make the needy complacent but make them enjoy the basic human rights, though welfare policy planners should give serious consideration to reduce welfare recipients in the long term because the best welfare is prevent people from becoming welfare beneficiaries to encourage them to economically active thus self reliant.

    • dim mak

      lucid analysis

      although i’m not sure ‘self-esteem’ overcomes market force

      the government restaurants would have to be offering some pretty shitty food

      • commander

        The crucial point, missing in the welfare debate, is the need to build up weelfare culture in which those in need are assissted but are encouraged to find work and fell true self in it.

        The debate centering upon cost-benefit effects in expanding welfare programs is bound to come to an impasse.

  • Aren’t there already korean restaurants where you can get full set meals from 1,500-5,500? Thats already pretty damn cheap.

    If they want to keep people’s stomachs filled, they should invest in soup kitchens for the homeless, and subsidize healthy groceries for the masses.

    • Brett

      A lot of churches have establishments for 1,500-2,000 won a person. I used to frequent one because they actually make good food and the people there are friendly.

    • commander

      The blind spot for the current welfare systems is that some desperately needy are outside the systems because of their failures to meet some requirements in paper for benefits.

      This is manifestly illustrated by the rise in elderly suicide, as reported in the New York Times article titled “In Korea, Changes in Society and Family Dynamics Drive Rise in Elderly Suicide”. (I dont know how to make a link allowing you to click into where the article is)

      With still too many people suffering from hunger living alone, the increased but well crafted welfare design is inevitable for the nation’s co-prosperity between the rich and the poor.

      • Well where i live, anyone can go to a soup kitchen, even people who are not needy. (of course not many people do that)

      • chucky3176

        So desperately needy has enough money to go out to restaurants (even if they’re subsidized cheap). Right.

        This scheme is little more than another form of populism. If South Korea wants real social welfare state, then its taxes should be raised drastically to levels of social welfare state countries. Yet you ask the same people who are calling for free everything, they’re not willing to pay a dime more on taxes. That’s how stupid they are, almost as bad as the Greeks.

        • commander

          Are you really confident that all of those in need are cared for by the present welfare systemd?

          There are always people who take advantage of the systems’ loophole. But there still many people left out cold from the safety net. These people are inconspicuous because they are really struggling for a living and have manh bad memories of being alienated by prejudiced people thus making them dithering to walk out into the bright world.

          Haven’t you ever seen an aged woman who push her cart to collect some recyclables for a living in the biting cold winter? The first thing to do is to exclude those exploiting the systems and reach out to those living alone and struggling for their livlihoods.

          If any welfare expansion to finance this goals, including recruiting caregivers for senior loners, is read as a populist move, then we’d better agree to disagree. But please never make a generalization from piecemeal experiences you went through. There is still a world you never know.

  • Kevin Miles

    Seoul City already has a massive debt and a rising defecit, now they want to open lots of unprofitable restaurants to compete with already hard pressed small business owners.

    Sounds like just another wonderful government initiative.

  • Yu Bum Suk

    How much does a roll of kimbab cost at a regular restaurant? W1,500? Why not just subsidise the restaurants that are barely staying afloat?

  • RegisterToPost

    Glad to see the money they got from firing native EFL teachers is being put to good use!

  • Paul M

    I’ve always noticed how eating out is a big part of daily life in Korea. I’ve never frequented restaurants as much in my life as I do now. I can understand why people are getting pissed at the rising cost of food as back home people get in a stink about the rising cost of beer.

    Rather than having government subsidised restaurants, how about addressing the real economic issues so that small family owned businesses don’t suffer and lose out.

  • This is an evil idea. Low-priced restaurants now have to compete against restaurants that their taxes pay for and will never go out of business, since it won’t matter if they lose money. With all this talk about fairness, where’s the fairness in being forced to give money to your competition?
    One netizen compared it to soup kitchens, but that’s different because churches pay for them with their own money, not other restaurants’ money.

  • Price controls are pointless without population controls. It’s not sustainable and eventually there will be too many people to feed at prices that can’t be maintained.

    “Food security” is starting to become a problem and other countries are openly talking about it. One of three things will eventually happen:

    (1) Countries start reducing populations via birth control

    (2) Wars and invasions to “acquire” food that other countries won’t sell

    (3) Millions of people in “rich” countries starve to death

    You can’t have infinite population growth on a finite planet with finite resources. Something WILL break down eventually, the only question is how. Do we do it the hard way be restraining ourselves, or do it the easy way by doing nothing and letting nature take its course?

    • …but no one takes into the account of how much food the world really produces and throws it away due to ‘health violations’ from commercial businesses. But it’s not quite infinite if people still die….

    • Ruaraidh

      You should be called Thomas Malthus rather than John Smith. The scenario of energy and food scarcity compounding each other in the future is pretty frightening though.

      • Hongwu Emperor

        and unfortunately, realistic :X

      • When Malthus wrote, he was living before oil production. The human population more than tripled in the last 100 years because of oil – specifically, artificial fertilizers, which are made from oil. There were starving people a century ago before the Haber–Bosch process was invented.

        Food prices increased in 2008 when oil hit $150 per barrel. Most people wrongly think that price increase was due to transportation costs. Food prices went up because fertilizer prices went up. Now that we’ve hit peak oil and oil supplies will begin to decline, food prices will rise again permanently. My advice? Start planing your own garden and learn how to grow food and harvest seeds before you have no choice.

        If you think it’s tough on South Korea, just think about island nations (no way to reach continents) that don’t have oil but do have large populations and little agricultural land, like Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines (almost 100 million), or Indonesia (over 240 million) after their oil runs out. They won’t have enough to feed themselves and the world won’t help them, no “Live Aid” this time. We’ll see a repeat of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, thousands trying to escape across the ocean and most drowning in the attempt.

        • Hongwu Emperor

          Basically, the world population, and everything around it such as society,economy,etc has out-grown itself and its ill-prepared for when the s*** hits the fan.

          And we all know that the mix between lack of resources,starvation and civil chaos is a great catalyst for a war, which can put things even more down the gutter.

  • chucky3176

    Socialism always fails.

    • Brett

      Actually, socialism was prominent throughout history. It’s greed and mismanagement that causes socialism to fail.

      Socialism has worked fine in the past, is working well in many places today, and could continue working for us tomorrow, but not on a large scale across an entire country. Socialism tends to work better in isolated communities. Applying these ideals across 50 million Koreans is a ridiculous idea.

      Socialism should be limited to within communities or districts to make sure that people are helping each other in the correct ways. This way it would be harder for some to cheat the system but easier to get the appropriate help to the ones in need.

      I feel like individuals would be more willing to accept socialistic principles if they knew the people and the causes that their money was going towards.

  • chucky3176

    Almost half of Korean workers do not pay any tax, as many Koreans evade taxes.

    How you’re going to pay for such Seoul’s schemes or any other social welfare programs that many Koreans are clamoring for when half of the working population refuse to pay any tax? And furthermore, gets away with this.

    The more you think about Korean people’s expectations, the more funnier it gets.

  • A Gawd Dang Mongolian

    This whole thing smells of ‘Great Society’.

    Noble aims. Noble ambitions. Unfortunately the plan will flop as there is very little stopping exploitation.

  • Kate

    This is an insidious plan and I can’t believe Koreans would allow the mayor to do this to small business people. It seems like a plan to eradicate some small businesses from Seoul. A restaurant guaranteed to not fail with the competitors money and I bet the government only sees dollar signs.

  • Hongwu Emperor

    Like many said before, instead of inducing a state-generated catastrophe that could wreck in smaller stablishments, how about a subside on small, family-run restaurants?

    It’s the only way to offer some decent food at better prices without capsizing to giant food chains…

  • geronl

    People are dumb. They hear it’s “half-price” but don’t know this is a lie, they will pay high taxes to cover the difference.

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