Header: KOREA: EVICTION STRUGGLE
Title: The Deadly Face of Development: Struggle Against Evictions in Korea
On January 20th, an illegally and incompetently conducted raid on activists and tenants protesting their forced eviction from central Seoul left 6 dead. This incident ignited immediate and continuing demonstrations against police violence, massive redevelopment, and the administration that has exacerbated both of these issues. South Korea’s redevelopment projects have always met with fierce resistance, as landless poor were sacrificed for the profits of wealthy conglomerates. This violent crackdown in Yongsan neighborhood, however, has lead to an unprecedented show of support among diverse populations in solidarity with those struggling for housing and survival.
On Monday, January 19th, evictee-protesters members from Jun Chul Yun, or the Federation Against House Demolition, including tenants from the neighborhood as well as other areas, occupied a five story building in Yongsan4ga neighborhood and assembled a defensive shelter on the roof. Roof-top access was blocked to prevent the police from removing them. The evictee-protesters prepared themselves for an occupation and struggle, supplied with, among other items, paint thinner and molotov cocktails.
A 1,500 strong police force was dispatched to disperse about 50 protesters. At 10pm, the night before the police raid, “contract workers” hired by the landowners, referred to by many as “construction thugs” for their traditional role in threatening and attacking evictees, gathered on the second floor of the building. The police threatened to use force against the protestors unless they ended their sit-in. In an apparent attempt to intimidate the protesters, the construction thugs set fire to used tires on the third floor of the building.
At 6am, Tuesday the 20th, the police sent a SWAT team into the building, and mobilized three water trucks to spray the roof with water. In an unprecedentedly short period of time for dealing with protests and sit-ins, a SWAT team was deployed in an “anti-terror” operation. According to Yongsan District police chief Baek Dong-san, they took such swift action because the protesters continued hurling cocktails, bricks and golf balls and spraying acid at officers and passers-by. There were 42 activists on the roof. Access to the roof being blocked off from inside the building, the police used a crane to lift the SWAT team above the roof in a metal storage container unit. The police sprayed the roof from the container box with a water hose, while the protesters resisted, throwing molotov cocktails. At 7:30, a fire, of unknown origins broke out within the makeshift fort. The police continued to spray water cannons and hoses at the roof, the water mixing with paint thinner and spreading the fire throughout the
building. The smoke grew thicker and flames bigger, and protesters struggled to evacuate the shed. As the shed filled with water, the paint-thinner, being lighter than water, floated on the surface and prevented the fire from being extinguished. Cans of paint thinner were seen being frantically thrown out of small windows in the shed, in an attempt to prevent the growth of the fire. One protester, seeking to flee the flames, hung from a window, eventually falling four floors to the ground. He suffered severe injuries from the fall, as the police had not prepared any mattresses around the building. The fire was ultimately extinguished by 8am. Five protesters and a police officer died. The cause of death of all six individuals is under investigation.
Lies and Crimes
Since the incident, numerous accusations have been made against Kim Seok-ki, the Seoul police commissioner, including allegations of excessive police force, tactical errors and lying to the public about the operation.
In initial statements following the attack, the Seoul police station denied the involvement of private security personnel, “construction thugs”, in the operation. According to recordings of police radio transmissions, officers communicated directly with the construction thugs, providing them with shields, permitting them to light fires, and directing them to remove obstacles from the building’s floors to facilitate access to the roof.
The police claimed to have taken all safety precautions during the deadly raid, but numerous facts suggest to the contrary. According to some observers, the police used the container to ram the shelter, shaking the structure and spreading the fire throughout. Police radio transmissions also revealed that when some officers warned that the water cannons were exacerbating the fire, they were ordered to continue spraying. The nonstop blasting of water hoses both intensified the fire as well as making it difficult for the protesters to escape.
In a report to the national assembly the police department claimed that they had nine fire trucks, two chemical fire trucks, and five ambulances prepared at the scene. But the fire department reported that there were only two fire engines at the scene in advance, and that they sent chemical fire trucks without police request after the fire had started.
Family members also condemn the police for conducting autopsies without their consent, contending that they cannot trust a biased police autopsy conducted in secret.
The evening of the 20th saw intense confrontations between the police and protesters demanding that justice be done. Members from anti-eviction groups struggled along-side students and activists who had been active during 2008’s candlelight protest movement. Violence broke out as protesters threw rocks and bricks at the police.
Since then, there have been vigils and marches on a daily basis, including the lunar new year holidays. The 23rd of January saw around 3,000 people gather at Seoul Station, who, breaking through the police line, marched through central Seoul. The 31st saw over 8 thousand people gather in a plaza, surrounded
by 10 thousand riot police. Five people were arrested during clashes
with the police, when the crowd attempted to march to another part of
Yong-san4ga is a neighborhood located in central Seoul, nestled between the Han river to the south and a US army base to the north. Real estate anywhere around central Seoul is very high, and the land speculation caused by the anticipated US base relocation has made the area especially attractive to investors.
Samsung, Posco, and Daelim, three of Korea’s powerful “chaebols”, or international conglomerates, received the development rights to “Yongsan Newtown”. They will make an expected 4 billion US dollars in profits from the redevelopment and sale of the land, while the compensation given to most shop owners wasn’t enough to relocate their business an start anew.
“Those who come to the District Office demanding the ridiculous won’t be treated as democratic citizens, please have some restraint.” (banner hung by the Yongsan District Chairman criticizing the residents protesting their eviction)
For over a year, tenants living in the re-development area requested the Yongsan District Office to provide the temporary housing and appropriate protection, but were denied opportunities for discussion or negotiation. During this process, private security personnel hired by the redevelopment cooperative threatened residents, vandalizing stores and homes, even sexually harassing them.
One business owner lost his customers after rotten fish was repeatedly placed near his restaurant. However, the police took no action against the construction thugs. Out of the original 890 tenants, 763 abandoned their homes or businesses due to the thugs’ violence and pressure from the Redevelopment Cooperative.
The process of redevelopment in present day South Korea involves a complex web of relationships, some open and some obscure, between giant business conglomerates and government, wealthy landowners and hired thugs, low-income tenants and the police.
From the 1950’s to the 70’s the Seoul Metropolitan Government utilized eviction-centered-redevelopment policies, where the government removed residents directly by force. The strong reaction against redevelopment and the growing anti-eviction movement pressed the government to resort to more sophisticated methods. The joint-redevelopment policy appeared in the 1980’s as a strategy to disengage the government, superficially, from the eviction and redevelopment process. Likewise, the new system pit poor tenants and owners against each other, thereby diminishing the potential for an urban social movement that threatened the government’s legitimacy.
Land owners within the redevelopment zone are persuaded to form a Redevelopment Cooperative. This cooperative run by land owners chooses a construction company to carry out the compensation of households and take responsibility of vacating the land of all residents. This “privatized redevelopment” decreases government involvement and encourages profit-making by the construction
Current President Lee Myung-bak, whose nickname is “The Bulldozer”, is a former CEO of Hyudae and was the political architect of the “revitalization” of the Cheongyae river, which included the violent removal of poor residents and vendors. Lee changed the city’s redevelopment policy while mayor of Seoul, easing regulation so that now in Seoul alone, there are around 200 redevelopment projects underway in areas that house around 400,000 people.
New Policy of Swift Retaliation against Dissent
Kim Seok-ki, the Seoul Metropolitan police commissioner responsible for the operation, was recently appointed by president Lee Myung-bak as the next commissioner general of the National Police Agency. Like Myung-bak, who is known for manufacturing politically strategic spectacles of power, many see this unprecedentedly harsh and swift crackdown as an attempt to bolster his status as he ascends to the nation’s highest police rank. That the raid happened within 25 hours after the sit-in began reflects the Lee Administration’s policy towards dissent. Lee Myung-bak’s Grand National Party, or “Han Nara Dang”, has been described as pushing the clock back in its approach to handling civil unrest. The major themes of this policy: no negotiation and swift, oppressive action. Other examples of this impatience and immediate retaliation against dissenting voices include Minerva, an online economic analyst who grew famous due to his accurate economic predictions and criticism of government’s economic policy. He was arrested on Jan. 7th, accused of spreading false rumors of government intervention in the exchange market.
During the summer of 2008, frustration with the Lee administration was unleashed during the so-called candle light protests, where massive grassroots mobilization met with equally great repression.
South Korea was requested twice by the Committee on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to provide protection to victims of forced evictions.