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Bustling Jongno pocha street is a regulatory minefield

Pubs, tented stalls illegally encroaching upon sidewalks contribute to alley's charm

By Moon Joon-hyun

Published : June 18, 2023 - 11:44

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The street in front of Jongno 3-ga Station's Exit 6, central Seoul, bustles with people enjoying the vibrant outdoor ambiance in this photo taken on June 8. (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald) The street in front of Jongno 3-ga Station's Exit 6, central Seoul, bustles with people enjoying the vibrant outdoor ambiance in this photo taken on June 8. (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald)

For avid viewers of Korean dramas, the sight of a lead character nursing a bottle of soju at a "pojangmacha," a makeshift roadside eatery, is a familiar trope.

Venture beyond this well-worn cliche, and you will find that the Jongno 3-ga Pojangmacha Street pulses with a more vibrant atmosphere.

The 200-meter stretch from Exit 5 to Exit 6 of Jongno 3-ga Station transforms from daily calm into a lively nighttime spectacle, with plastic tables and stools overflowing onto the pavements from adjacent pubs.

The rarity of such animated streets amidst Seoul's swift urban redevelopment, coupled with the impending disappearance of the nearby Euljiro Nogari Alley, another street famous for al-fresco drinking, bolsters Jongno 3-ga's appeal.

“This feels like one of the exclusive experiences in Korea. You just can’t miss it," said Lukas, a tourist from Poland. He was content to wait more than an hour to secure an outdoor seat at Pajeonjip, a pub nestled in the middle of the street.

Yet beneath this lively scene lies an undercurrent of conflict between business owners and regulatory bodies: Those stalls, with their tables and seats sprawled out in the fresh air are technically illegal.

Illegal occupants

During a recent visit, it was easy to spot what was wrong. As vendors encroached upon sidewalks, even spilling onto parts of the road, the line between the road and sidewalk became blurred, resulting in a situation where most pedestrians walked on the road alongside vehicles.

The line between the road and sidewalks becomes blurred as the stalls occupy the sidewalks on Jongno 3-ga Pojangmacha Street in Seoul on June 8. (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald) The line between the road and sidewalks becomes blurred as the stalls occupy the sidewalks on Jongno 3-ga Pojangmacha Street in Seoul on June 8. (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald)

"We regularly receive complaints about sidewalk blockages,” Choi Je-hoon, an official of Jongno-gu district responsible for road inspections, told The Korea Herald.

“During peak season, particularly in the summer, we get over 100 calls a month.”

Instead of implementing an outright crackdown, the district office opts to manage the illegal businesses so that they don't become too unruly and dangerous for pedestrians.

“(We try to) manage the stores with guidelines such as limiting the number of seats. However, when sidewalk blockage becomes too severe, we charge fines or even business suspension for half a month,” he explained.

For business owners, this means they need to navigate the fine line between what is deemed acceptable and what is not, while catering to the influx of tourists seeking an authentic, firsthand experience of the lively Korean street drinking scene.

"There were times when public officers barged in and demanded to curb the number of outdoor seats when there were tourists right in front waiting for almost an hour to get a seat,” said Kim, the owner of Pajeonjip.

Lisa Lee, a tourist from Singapore, mentioned how tables and stools were left folded and unused, while she was waiting for nearly an hour to get a seat.

"The stall owner told me she's limited by regulatory guidelines in how many tables she can use," she said.

Pojangmacha vs. pocha

Unbeknownst to many patrons like Lee, there exists another layer of tension between business owners here -- between the authentic, tented pojangmacha and semi-indoor establishments dubbed “pocha.”

From one perspective, they are the same -- both illegally occupy the sidewalk.

But while indoor pocha are legal establishments, pojangmacha, which cook their wares right on the street, exist outside the boundaries of laws and regulations.

This means they are unlikely to have proper business licenses, comply with tax obligations, or undergo regular monitoring and supervision concerning food safety and hygiene. That is also why these vendors typically don’t accept credit card payments.

“These tented pojangmacha are illegal. But they enjoy an off-the-record, exclusive privilege that exempts them from legal inspections and even taxation,” said Cho Seong-ok, president of the merchant association of the Jongno 3-ga Pojangmacha Street, speaking on behalf of licensed business owners.

Cho, who also owns "Dragon Pocha," a legal establishment, added it was normal businesses like his that bore the brunt of strict regulations and recurrent penalties.

"There were times when the officials were warning me about outdoor seating when the tented stalls were operating as usual right in front of our eyes," he recounted.

The complaints stem largely from what they perceive as the unequal leniency granted to pojangmacha.

Customers are served straight from the stove in tented street stalls, known as pojangmacha. (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald) Customers are served straight from the stove in tented street stalls, known as pojangmacha. (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald)

The story is that pojangmacha, once a common sight in ordinary neighborhoods, have a history of displacement in South Korea, due to urban redevelopment. The remaining stalls have persisted in asserting their “right to livelihood,” while many Koreans view them with fond nostalgia and foreigners see them as a unique aspect of Korean culture.

“The pojangmacha are the real deal, because they serve you food right from the stoves. The other pocha stores are just piggybacking on the legacy of tented ones,” said Kim Na-yeong, a Korean local college student waiting for a seat near Exit 5.

Licensed merchants, although they sometimes complain, are aware that it is the illegal use of the sidewalks that keeps this alley special.

"We can't give up outdoor seating. That's what the Jongno 3-ga Pojangmacha Street street is all about," said the merchant association's Cho.