Since the Jan. 20, 2009 Yongsan tragedy, The Korea Herald has documented the lives of those that have come out on the losing end of the Yongsan District 4 gentrification plan. Over a dozen interviews were conducted over the past 12 months. This is their story. - Ed.
By Matthew Lamers and Hannah Chang
Choi Soon-kyung and Yu Young-sook aren`t after revenge. And justice isn`t their only priority. Their biggest concern since Choi`s restaurant was forcefully closed and Yu`s husband was killed during a police raid is to exercise their right to make a decent living.
On a mild Nov. 4, 2008 morning, Choi says sledgehammer-wielding "gangsters" hired by construction companies showed up at her restaurant as diners sat down to brunch and smashed to pieces everything they couldn`t carry away. This occurred even though the government had said she had until Nov. 28 to close shop and relocate. Her restaurant sat on land slated for redevelopment and the men, officially referred to as movers, were carrying out an eviction order issued by Seoul City.
Critics say Choi`s situation is illustrative of how the Yongsan District 4 redevelopment has been carried out. It involves hired "movers," intimidation and ultimately the killing of five protestors and one policeman.
Since its unveiling in 2007, the project has faced resistance from local communities. The tenant eviction process started in August 2008. Faced with few options, most accepted small amounts of compensation. Others fought.
Emotions reached boiling point on Jan. 20, 2009 when police raided a building that protestors had been holed up in since the previous day. Five protestors and one police officer were killed in the ensuing battle - including Yu`s husband - which pitted Molotov cocktail-armed resisters against aggressive SWAT police.
At the heart of the issue for the former residents is their ability to maintain their standard of living. Most urban planners agree that a smooth redevelopment project hinges on the concept of reciprocation: The end result should not leave tenants worse off than they were before. But friction has resulted from the fact that most of Seoul`s redevelopment projects over the past few decades have resulted in relatively small tenant compensation packages. After all is said and done, too many tenants say they are worse off post-redevelopment.
Also driving discontent on both sides of the debate are tactics employed by either side. Evictees say they face intense intimidation, inadequate representation and physical coercion. While those on the redevelopment side say evictees` demands are unreasonable and actions disproportionate.
The case of Choi Soon-kyung
Choi Soon-kyung lives in a tent with other evictees. In this interview, it has been just over two weeks since protestors were killed in the Yongsan raid. She speaks of justice, but she mostly wants to talk about her right as a Korean citizen to earn a living.
The interviews are conducted February 2009 to January 2010.
"If they were going to have an early eviction, they should have at least notified me at least once. Isn`t this a basic right? Isn`t this common sense?" she asks. "If they had evicted me on the day they had told me they would, I wouldn`t have had any other choice but to follow the law and leave. But they didn`t keep their end of the deal."
She takes us to the site of her once-bustling restaurant, Bokyung Shikdang. We find it enclosed behind a 3-meter-high metal fence.
The walk through the redevelopment zone is unreal. Picture Seoul, circa 1951 - indiscriminate destruction. A photo album lays open in the rubble showing once-happy times for newlyweds. Structures remain barely intact; most less so than others. "Leave your home or you will die," reads some graffiti. "Lee Myung-bak is a killer," reads its rebuttal. A homeless man sleeps in the storefront of a dilapidated building.
The limbo of the neighborhood is palpable. There`s no running water or electricity. But a few hardcore resisters still live here.
Walking through the unkempt streets, Choi further explains that her first priority in her struggle is to secure a livelihood. But over the course of the interviews, the desire for a full account of the Jan. 20 incident heightens. As evictees lose hope for fair compensation, calls for accountability become louder.
"Please take the tenants into consideration. Understand our stance and give us appropriate compensation. Give us the rights and means to live in another place. Afford us the chance to move and start a business in another place. They should give us the right to live and survive. This is all we need, more than the compensation," she says.
The core of Choi`s demands has been a call for the placement of a temporary building where she could live in and do business from while the redevelopment work goes forward. She is also sensitive of the negative image of her that has been propagated by some pro-development media outlets. In later interviews she voices the need for more compensation.
"I am very sorry to the citizens who are watching our miserable news. ... But we are not bad people. I want them to just understand that we are not terrorists. We are just innocent people who want to maintain our rights to live as citizens of the Republic of Korea," she pleads.
Choi was offered 2.9 million won as compensation, an amount she describes as so inadequate it wouldn`t be enough to operate a "pojangmacha," or a covered street wagon, to sell simple food.
"All I have now are these clothes I was wearing then."
In the next interview, a week later, Choi tells of the months between her eviction and the time she joined the National Evictee`s Alliance in January 2009. She describes this time as "the lowest of the low," because she had nowhere permanent to live. Some nights she`d stay in a small room in a closed-down billiard hall, another night she would make do in a shuttered cafe.
"I`ve been to many others` shops. One of them was (a friend`s) cafe, since there were no fences to keep us out. The fencing started in January. Though we couldn`t do business, we had been able to get inside, at least." The mammoth fences were erected to keep evictees out of their former homes and businesses.
"I kept visiting my neighbors, going around and around. I was very sorry they had to put up with me. ... But tears of blood flowed from my heart. I didn`t want others to notice," Choi admits.
Since moving into the tent with the other evictees in January, she says she has been much less desperate. It`s much better, she says, now that they can make meals together in this tent. Eating had been her biggest concern.
The tent is cold - it being the second week of February at the time of the interview - but it has a small fridge, heater, and kitchen supplies. It`s adequate, but nothing more. She does laundry at a friend`s house. But sometimes she has to clean her clothes at a "mokyoktang," or bathing house.
"I often hear many critical words from other customers when I do my laundry there because it smells when I keep them there to dry," she says. "This life as it is, is the lowest of the low. I have no money."
In the next interview in late February, Choi explains how she came to call Yongsan home.
At the time Park Chung-hee was president in the 1960s and 1970s, Choi ran a Japanese restaurant in Jeolla Province. She says she eventually closed the business because of her hard economic situation. Later, she moved back to Yongsan.
She started a shop (next to the tent she now lives in). After selling it, she founded Bokyung Shikdang in 1993 with a loan of 40 million won from the bank. The business was successful and she was able to repay her debts.
But during the IMF crisis in 1997 she was forced to borrow 30 million won from the bank to keep Bokyung Shikdang afloat.
In July 2008, Choi received notice from the district court that her area was due to be redeveloped. She was given three notices saying her eviction date would be Nov. 28. The "movers" showed up on Nov. 4.
In an interview in March, Choi talks at length about finally being granted low-income assistance from the government.
Two days after her restaurant was closed, Choi made a trip to the district office on Nov. 6, 2008 to apply for government support for basic living expenses. She did not receive anything until February. The delay, she says, was attributed to her not having a mailing address, so the district office told her to move. But she says if she followed their instructions, it would have made her ineligible for redevelopment compensation, since she would no longer have been a resident of Yongsan District 4.
Her solution was to make the tent she had been living in for two months her home address. The district office accepted the application and has been issuing low-income assistance checks worth 400,000 won.
In the next interview in August, Choi describes a less precarious position. She says she is generally happier, but justice still has not been carried out. Five evictees were sentenced to terms in prison. It is Choi`s position that the public prosecutors have been concealing thousands of pages of the 10,000 page investigation into the Jan. 20 fire.
The living conditions have improved since they moved out of the tent and into an abandoned, adjoining building. It is a former bar owned by a man killed in the Jan. 20 fire.
For the first time, she speaks of forgiveness. But although Choi admits she is ready to forgive, she is still pursuing justice. "Now I feel calmer than before. I think I am ready to forgive, but I still believe the government should admit their faults and apologize to the citizens."
She also responds to criticism that the evictees are blowing the Jan. 20 deaths out of proportion. As the months have passed, some have said they should focus more on an amicable resolution.
"It`s a matter of perspective. Among the people who passed away during the fire in January include two people from our district, and three from other places. Those people had come to our aid to help the evictees here - we`re all in it together. And I think we are almost at the finishing line."
As it turns out, they aren`t almost at the finishing line. Developments over the next five months are few and far between. Evictees waited until the second-last day of 2009 to hear that a settlement had been reached.
But the deal Seoul strikes with the Yongsan Coalition doesn`t seem to sit well with all of the remaining evictees.
The evictee coalition said the settlement has three parts. 1) Prime Minister Chung Un-chan will show remorse to the families of the killed protestors. He will acknowledge the government`s responsibility in the Jan. 20 incident; 2) The redevelopment association will allocate the Yongsan Coalition money to distribute among families of the deceased protestors and the remaining evictees. The cash will also be used to pay for the funeral; 3) Intermediaries from different religious groups will monitor the implementation of the settlement.
But Choi said she? still waiting for the prime minister? apology.
"We feel this is very ridiculous. The only thing revealed was the compensation for the funeral and nothing else. How could they possibly not have come up with any resolutions for the other conditions that we have been demanding?" she asks.
She says they are waiting for 1) more compensation for the eviction; 2) the right to purchase rental apartments; 3) a temporary container or a building to continue business during the construction.
"Although the funeral is over, my heart cannot be at ease. I feel I have been deceived by the city government and the related redevelopment companies. These are the feelings and thoughts that we evictees all share," she explains.
Choi said she expects the Yongsan Coalition to make an announcement on Jan. 26 regarding the distribution of the settlement.
"Everyone anticipated that everything would come to a conclusion with the funeral. However, this wasn`t the case at all. None of the other demands we have been making to the city-government were addressed and are pending. ...
"We are all waiting for that day."
On Wednesday we will take a look at the issue from the city`s perspective. We will also include more interviews with former tenants. - Ed.