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Deadly Disruption

South Korea's Taxi Drivers Keep Setting Themselves On Fire to Protest a New Ridehailing Service

There's a dark side to the on-demand industry.
Seoul taxi protests
Photo by Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

By the time firefighters arrived, the front seat of the 62-year-old taxi driver's car was already in flames. The man, identified only by his surname Kim in local press, set himself alight earlier this month in a desperate protest against a multi-billion tech company trying to push into South Korea's ridehailing industry, positioning itself as something like Korea's answer to WeChat—the ubiquitous messaging app that, in China, now handles everything from talking to your friends and family to ordering food or scheduling an appointment for a manicure while letting you pay for all of it.


It was a shocking scene, made no less disturbing by the fact that it was only the latest instance of a cab driver self-immolating in protest in South Korea. In the last two months, three drivers have set themselves on fire as part of a wider protest and legal challenge being mounted against Kakao Corp—the same company that runs the cute messaging app Kakao Talk that lets you send adorable stickers to your friends and is backed by all your favorite K-wave celebs.

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Two of the driver died. Kim was the third driver to self immolate, but the first to survive the suicide attempt.

For months, tens of thousands of taxi drivers have taken to the streets to protest against the proposed launch of Kakao Corp's new Uber-like service, dubbed "Kakao T Carpool". The company initially announced plans to move into the ridehailing business last year when it said it would be recruiting drivers for its new service. The announcement as met with immediate backlash as 60 percent of Seoul's registered taxi drivers hit the streets in protest.

Kakao Corp already has a taxi booking service, called Kakao Taxi, but this new "carpooling" service would allow riders to cut out the taxis entirely—much like how Uber cut out New York's yellow cab operators.

The battle over the future of this new ridehailing service has now exposed the deep rift between tech companies and entrepreneurs and the people who work in the industries they are so proudly "disrupting." A coalition of taxi operators filed a complaint against a different, but similar, company that operates a ridehaling minivan service called Tada earlier this month, alleging that Korean law forbids the use of private vehicles for commercial use outside a few very specific circumstances.


The tech industry shot back in the press, accusing the taxi unions of stifling growth, with an exec at the company which owns Tada writing: "I think it’s probably just some taxi drivers, but please stop harassing companies in a new industry with different standards… We have no intention of stealing the taxi market. Our goal is to create a new mobility market by decreasing car ownership."

That exec, Lee-Jae Wong of VCNC, which owns Tada, later threatened to file a countersuit on Tuesday for "business obstruction and false accusation."

A portrait of a taxi driver who died by setting himself on fire is seen as tens of thousands of taxi drivers take part in a protest against a carpool service application launched by Kakao Corp in Seoul, South Korea, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Protesters carry a portrait of a taxi driver who set himself on fire in protest of Kakao Corp. Photo by Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters

The Seoul taxi union has accused the ridehailing industry of attempting to strangle their business and kill their livelihoods with apps that offer riders an alternative to licensed official taxis while also forcing cab drivers into working with the same companies themselves in order to stay financially afloat. It said that the use of private cars for commercial reasons was illegal and it urged the police to punish the companies involved.

“Despite the sacrifice of two taxi drivers, illegal taxi-like services… are still in business," the drivers said in a joint statement issued to the press. "We urge the government to immediately punish them."

Pushback from the taxi industry began shortly after Kakao Corp announced its plans (the first protest was a mere two days later), but it took a dark turn in early December when the first taxi driver doused himself in a flammable liquid and fatally set himself alight outside the parliament building in Seoul. An estimated 100,000 drivers then hit the streets in a mournful protest where they all wore black headbands and tied black ribbons to their cars.

In January, it happened again. with another driver self-immolating. He died as well. Then only a few weeks ago was this latest instance involving the man identified as Kim. He was pulled from his car by rescue crews and survived with burns on his face.

The ridehailing industry operates in a legal gray area in Korea, where private cars are not allowed to be used as taxis and existing regulations caused US ridehailing giant Uber to pull out of the country.The National Assembly then relented, opening the door to Uber-like apps, as long as they only operated during "commuter hours." But Tada, the company mentioned above, found a shortcut through the regulation and hit the market thanks to a loophole that allows the use of 11-seater vans, but banned cars.

Kakao Corp, for its role in this controversy, responded to the protests by putting their new ridehailing plans on ice. And, for now, the fires have stopped in Seoul as well. But the court battle continues.