Children’s Rights and Public Space in South Korea

Dr Jenny Wood delivers a keynote on ‘Child Rights and Public Space’ at 1st Child Rights Forum in Seoul, South Korea

In June, I was fortunate to take a trip to Seoul, South Korea on the invitation of the International Child Rights Center (InCRC). The aim of the trip was to share my PhD research findings on children’s rights, town planning, and child friendly cities. I took part in a number of knowledge exchange opportunities with a presentation to graduate students of child psychology at Sungkyunkwan University; a workshop on a child’s right to play and rights-based play policy; and a keynote presentation at InCRC’s 2018 first child rights forum on ‘Child Rights and Public Space’. Like much of the rest of the world, the need to begin (re)integrating children into urban life is becoming ever apparent in South Korea. However, research and practice on child friendly cities remains sparse.

jenny wood
Dr Jenny Wood, Research Associate

My research was based around The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which sets out that all children have 42 internationally recognised rights. This aims to bring about the 3ps of Protection, Provision, and Participation which are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. There is wide recognition in the ‘rights’ circles, however, that the UK is most concerned with child protection, which is counterproductive in meeting the other two Ps and preventing the country from meeting its human rights commitments overall. For this reason, I looked at the relationship of the Scottish town planning system to these. I have blogged on this issue before, but the crux of my findings is that several common barriers exist for children’s participation, which I frame as both participation in everyday life (Article 31 of the UNCRC) and participation in the process of planning (Article 12 of the UNCRC). Most striking:


Much of this can be framed through the gaps in time, space and attitudes that would support children’s participation, conceptualised in figure 1. This shows how the attitudes of planners, and other professionals that influence planning practice, can affect, and be affected by existing space. Meanwhile, the space children have to roam can affect the attitudes that planners and other adults have toward their presence in it. With this, the time that children have for outdoor exploration can be indirectly reduced, but also the metaphorical time and space that planners have to consider children’s meaningful participation in the process. We can’t focus on one of these elements in isolation. Combining them allows us to produce child friendly spaces where participation is both process and outcome.

Figure 1 How time, space and attitudes affect children’s participation and how this links to planning (base Diagram from Wrexham County Borough Council, 2014)

Whilst I believe this to be broadly inclusive, context remains important. In South Korea, and more specifically Seoul, there are many of the same barriers to children’s participation as in the UK. These include parental fears, congested streets, and lack of child-friendly infrastructure (including, but not limited to parks and playgrounds). Yet, there are also distinct challenges. Primarily, education has long been the main resource for South Korea, and the reason for their rapid economic expansion in recent decades. Whilst good quality education is important, school days are significantly longer for Korean children than for British children, severely limiting the time they have for recreation. Educational demands also affect the amount of sleep a child gets, and a heavy educational-emphasis perpetuates a view of play and recreation as frivolous. There is now widespread concern about the workaholism entrenched in Korean work culture, with the government taking steps to reduce working hours and encourage employees to take more holidays. Equally threatening is increasing problems with smog, which is blown over the Korean Peninsula from China, and perpetuated by local fossil fuel production and consumption. This is making it unsafe for children to go outside for weeks at a time.

Figure 2 Parks in Seoul are mostly not aimed at children, and frequented most by elderly men

South Korea does have many advantages in terms of children’s rights over the UK. Accessibility and participation for disabled people is high on the agenda and evident across Seoul; free public toilets are available at regular intervals; cartoon characters adorn everything possible; and there are seats reserved on every underground carriage exclusively for pregnant women. Technology is also more advanced than in the UK, and crime is very low. It was also clear to me that things change fast in South Korea, and with such a thirst for knowledge, expertise, and action, I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation begins to change fast for children. This is perhaps more necessary that ever as rapidly declining fertility rates put the future of the country at risk.

Getting it right for children means getting it right for everyone. We think about the sustainable city, but this is not mutually exclusive from the child friendly city. By thinking about our very youngest and most vulnerable citizens and their rights, we can create truly inclusive spaces and processes that centre on people. No one country has all the answers and the more we share experiences across cultures and situations, the more we can move towards towns and cities that truly include children.