Virus 'angel': S. Korean cobbler donates land to help others

A South Korean cobbler plans to donate about $500,000 worth of farmland so the funds could help people facing economic difficulties because of the coronavirus pandemic. "I've always thought I should one day become a person who helps others," said Kim Byung-rok. 

Ahn Young-joon/AP
Shoe repairman Kim Byung-rok and his wife Kwon Jeom-deuk work at their shop in Seoul, South Korea, March 25, 2020. Mr. Kim fixes castoff shoes and donates them, and gives free haircuts to older people. Now he wants to donate land to help those struggling financially.

Kim Byung-rok survived tuberculosis as a young man but in his work polishing and mending shoes the debris proved to be too much for his lungs.

So when he bought land on a small, quiet mountain in 2014, he wanted to heal, to do some farming – and to breathe fresh air.

But now Mr. Kim wants to donate a big chunk of his holdings to the local government. So many South Koreans are shutting their businesses and face declining incomes due to the coronavirus outbreak, which has hit the country hard; Mr. Kim thought the value of his land could be put to good use.

"I went through a rough childhood and I got help from others all the time. I've always thought I should one day become a person who helps others," Mr. Kim said at his Seoul shop, the thick grime under his nails testimony to how he spends his days.

"Wouldn't it be good if I give the people strength and courage?" he said.

It has had that effect. An online media story on his offer has garnered more than 2,100 comments. Some call him "an angel" or "a person who deserves a seat in heaven."

Mr. Kim's three plots of land are located in Paju, near the border with North Korea. He bought the land when its prices plummeted due to North Korean missile tests, before they rose again after inter-Korean relations improved in recent years. He's since planted ginseng, herbs, and other vegetables there.

He has pledged the largest parcel of about 10,000 pyeong (a bit more than 8 acres). Local officials value the gift at between 500 million and 700 million won, or between $400,000 and $570,000.

There are technicalities that must be worked out. Authorities are trying to make sure Mr. Kim will not face gift taxes, but he's adamant: "If I have to pay that, I would accept that."

Mr. Kim, a devout Christian who jokingly calls himself "a lamb," has led a turbulent life.

His father died when he was 6, and his mother later married a man who beat and abused him. Mr. Kim ran away from his home and began working as a shoeshine boy when he was 10.

Tormented by the separation from his family, Mr. Kim drank and smoked excessively. Then came the TB. When he survived, he found relief in his faith and in volunteer service.

For the past 25 years, he has fixed thousands of used or castoff shoes and donated them to poor people, and provided free haircuts to older people with dementia or other health problems.

Mr. Kim and his wife now work together and make about 2 million to 3 million won ($1,635-$2,450) a month, considerably less than South Korea's average household income of 4.8 million won. They live in a small, two-room apartment with two of their three adult children, one of them a 26-year-old son with Down syndrome.

Mr. Kim said that "what aches my heart the most" is the reaction of some friends and neighbors to his plan.

"They tell me things like, 'Hey, what the heck are you doing. ... Take care of your children first," Mr. Kim said. "But I've never had my kids go hungry and I've been living happily. ... I'm satisfied with my life and can't just ignore the poor and needy."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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