Seoul pushes to legalise street vendors for better control

Trying out diverse types of street food may be tempting, especially for tourists who wish to experience Korea's unique food culture.

About 8,000 street vendors operate in Seoul, mostly food vendors, attracting visitors with a wide variety of offerings ranging from Korean traditional desserts to hot meals.

Most of them, however, are illegal, as occupying streets with unauthorized facilities is officially banned in Korea.

Acknowledging the public's complaints over the overcrowding of the city's major streets, Seoul Metropolitan Government has attempted to reduce the number of vendors. However, the city has yet to really crack down on the illegal vendors due to resistance from stall keepers who claim their "right to make a living."

The illegal nature of the vendors, consequently, has led to no hygiene inspections of vendor food.

"Since they are illegal in nature, the hygiene monitoring rule cannot be applied," said city official Park Moon-hee who is in charge of vendor control. Even if they are legal, the food hygiene control is not applicable as the current regulation applies only to food sold in "buildings or constructions."

Rather than attempting to root out the vendors, the city has expanded efforts to legalize them in order to bring them under control.

In 2007, Seoul Metropolitan Government designated a number of "specialised streets" in the city and allowed about 700 street vendors who must follow vendor design and operation rules.

District offices have also carried out their own initiatives to better control the street vendors.

In the case of Jung-gu in the city centre, the district office vowed last year to adopt a real-name system for stall keepers to allow only one stall per person and prevent them from illegally buying and selling stalls.

Public concerns remain over illegal practices of "quasi-conglomerate vendors" who own multiple stalls and sell the spots for high price.

"The new scheme aims at attracting the illegal vendors to be in the legal fold so that (the office) can actually control them," Jung-gu Office official Song Hye-jung told The Korea Herald.

Dongjak-gu also took a new move last year to better control the vendors while reducing public complaints over overcrowded streets. More than 30 vendors had occupied one of the most crowded streets in the area.

In October, the district office relocated the illegal vendors to a designated vendor-only street.

"The new move was a win-win measure as the stall keepers were allowed to run their business in the authorised spot while the public complaints lessened," Dongjak-gu official Lee Hyun-kang said.

As part of the efforts to legalize the vendors and regulate them, the city government is seeking to change the current city ordinance, which does not provide any legal framework for vendor license.

The ordinance change has been made possible as the central government revised the relevant law in 2014 to legalize food trucks.

"Including the street vendors in the ordinance will allow the (city) to come up with concrete criteria for the street vendor license, ranging from size of the stall to items they can sell. This will help the city limit the number of vendors and better control them," Park added.