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PhD defence

Taking Up Space: Waste and Waste Labor in Developing South Korea

  • H.J. Pak
Thursday 25 January 2024
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden


  • Prof.dr. N. Wickramasinghe
  • dr. K. de Ceuster
  • Prof.dr. A. Murcott (University Of Nottingham)


“Taking Up Space: Waste and Waste Labor in Developing South Korea” examines South Korean development experiences through the remnants of its industrialization and modernization processes, including material waste, excess labor, or surplus population. I juxtapose the history of informal waste pickers with the transformation of waste management and the reconfiguration of its labor during the period from the 1960s to the early 1990s. By connecting the material, social, and symbolic dimensions of waste, I demonstrate how waste shaped their stigma and social position, degraded the urban environment as much as it deteriorated their living and working conditions, and brought social and environmental forces that further drove their marginalization. The case studies—waste picker camps and Seoul’s Nanjido Landfill—illustrate how concepts such as informality, precarity, and societal marginalization have been historically mediated and grounded in individuals’ lives during the country’s compressed development process.
This study demonstrates how the production of marginalized populations and the disregard for their labor practices served to consolidate the developing nation-state and its middle-class citizens. It argues that the informal labor at the urban periphery was instrumental in the development process and should be recognized as legitimate labor rather than mere subsistence activities. Waste pickers not only served as agents of development but also as a precedent for precarious workers in modern Korea. The prevalence of waste pickers in contemporary South Korea indicates a diachronic implication of this dissertation, as their labor remains crucial for urban conditions while simultaneously establishing an urban form of precarity.

PhD dissertations

Approximately one week after the defence, PhD dissertations by Leiden PhD students are available digitally through the Leiden Repository, that offers free access to these PhD dissertations. Please note that in some cases a dissertation may be under embargo temporarily and access to its full-text version will only be granted later.

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