I’m a ropeman, flying the sky
According to the Korean Standard Classification of Occupations that South Korea’s National Statistical Office established for the purpose of statistical research, as of the end of 2018, the number of ropeman jobs in Korea reached 12,145. This statistic added the jobs and related jobs, but if you add similar jobs, the number is 16,442.
Of all the jobs, why a ropeman?
After coming to Korea in August, 2008, Kim Yeonggeun faced the same difficulty as everyone else of settling down. The first job he had was in trade. However, overnight he ended up with nothing when the company he had been dealing with for several years disappeared like smoke. At first, everything seemed bleak and there was nothing he could think of.
Then one day, he was in a state of desperation when he passed under a building near Dongdaemun, and suddenly felt water dripping onto his head.
It was a boiling hot summer so out of curiosity, he looked up to see people cleaning the outer walls of a building several hundred meters high up in the air.
This was not a sight he could’ve seen in China or North Korea, so he kept staring for 30 minutes and waited until the men finished their tasks and came down, and asked them how one could do such work. There he learned that people who did this work were called ‘ropemen’, and was informed that anyone with a chair and rope could do the job.
Since he had been worried about making a living right away, he was grateful for the ropeman. After going separate ways, he was walking toward Toegye-ro when he entered a tool shop.
A strange object caught his eye, so he asked the store owner what it was, and found out that it was a chair (bosun’s chair), something ropemen used for work. In that moment, like a bolt of lightning flashing through his mind, he wondered if this was a sign and revelation for him to become a ropeman.
After hearing from the store owner how to use the bosun’s chair (a construction term, exterior finishing – exterior cleaning – chair used for cleaning high-rise buildings), he bought an 18 millimeter thick rope and practiced alone at home.
The next morning, he went to a nearby job center and was lucky enough to get a job. When he thinks back on it now, it seems ridiculous, but it was a great day when he got paid 70,000 KRW for the day, something he had only heard and seen of before.
‘Rope Corps’, celebrating its 8th anniversary of establishment
This April marks the 8th year since representative Kim Yeonggeun established a company called ‘Rope Corps’. In April 2014, when he first registered his business, he named his company after his dream of making a team of North Korean refugees ropemen, and help them each start their own business.
However, being a ropeman is not an easy thing, no matter how much help you get. It is a difficult job, requiring you to rely on a single 18-22 mm rope, hanging for over half a day as you work hundreds of meters up in the air above the ground.
It’s common for unexpected things to happen. There are times when you encounter unpredictable bad weather during work. He recalls a time he was blown over 4 meters away while he was still hanging on the rope, so being a ropeman is a job that even the lion-hearted would find difficult.
However, it is not like on land where you can easily take care of everything, but tens to hundreds of meters up in the air. Even if you want to come down, you can’t glide down like with a parachute or get help from other colleagues, but you have to untie the rope yourself. He recalled a time when he had to watch with his heart in his hand as a colleague with a high-fever suddenly lost his center of gravity.
It is by all means an extreme job. There were more than 10 North Korean refugees who started off with high aspirations but couldn’t endure and left. He had to fold on his dream of working together with North Korean refugees. Still, he had colleagues that had been with him from the start, so he comments and laughs that it is not a ‘corps’, but a ‘division’ level.
Ropeman, the last job in my life
Being a ropeman is not just about doing work in the air on a rope. There is work on skyscrapers around the country, including the 123-story Lotte Tower which is the tallest building in Korea, and also tight places where equipment can’t enter or 3-4 story buildings. But the work of a ropeman also includes commercial buildings, paint on high-rise buildings, silicon, exterior cleaning, panel coating, exterior wall crack reinforcement, tile construction reinforcement, signs and lighting installation, banner installation and removal, exterior wall facility management, and more.
He said that when he first started as a ropeman, he didn’t have enough money to buy a car so he had to carry all the various equipment, including his rope and chair, while taking the subway or bus. But now he has space in the basement of his apartment to store his work equipment and tools.
He also made a social gathering for rope workers in the metropolitan area. Kim emphasizes that ‘safety is the top priority’ in industrial fields, so he was the first to stop drinking, and he exercises on his days off. This is because stamina and courage are the basics for ropemen.
He is known as a ‘man of loyalty’ to his colleagues. It’s rare, but there are times when they don’t receive payment on time after their work has been completed. However, Kim has never once delayed the wages of the ropemen. He knows the joys and sorrows of ropemen more than anyone, so it is his belief that he can’t betray them.
Before getting started with work, he meticulously studies the structure of the building and characteristics of the exterior walls, personally checks the safety of his colleagues when on-site, and starts work last. Because of Kim’s efforts, his colleagues faithfully trust and rely on him. Among his coworkers, there’s a female ropeman and an expert ropeman who has been working in the field since he was in his 20s.
Kim considers being a ropeman his calling for as long as his abilities and stamina will allow it, and he continues to look up at the sky even today.