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[Editorial] Guryong Village

Guryong Village in the Gangnam district of Seoul represents some of the absurdities in present-day Korea. Many of the people who live in about 1,200 shacks at Guryong Village, located near the plush Tower Palace high-rise block, moved in from other parts of Seoul when they were evicted by city authorities for redevelopment projects in the 1980s. The urban migrants settled at the foot of Guryong Hill, which was a part of the “Green Belt” around Seoul, designated to restrict urban development.

They erected huts on land owned by others. As the authorities were busy with other businesses, the shanty town grew, joined by people who were aiming at “compensation” at the time of their eventual eviction. Occasional attempts by city officials to remove the squatters at the request of landowners failed in the face of collective resistance by residents claiming their right to survive.

A developer began purchasing plots in the 70-acre area from frustrated landowners. He plans to build some 2,700 units of apartments and lease 1,200 of them to present Guryong Village residents at low rents and later give them ownership for a set price. Gangnam district authorities, however, turned down the private development project and announced its own plan to provide 2,793 apartment units, including 1,200 permanent rental apartments for the present residents.

Villagers are divided in two groups, one in support of the private development plan attracted by the assurance of apartment ownership in the future and the other in favor of the district office plan which carries an official guarantee. Residents with differing opinions are quarreling over which would be more beneficial.

While the authorities racked their brains on how to eliminate the eyesore in Gangnam in the least troublesome way, the rights of the landowners were ignored for decades. The district office offers to take over the land at officially-assessed prices but the authorities are considering no compensation for their failure to protect the landowners’ rights for such a long time.

Collective resistance has become one of the most powerful social weapons in this country to thwart government programs or to deter the exercise of private property rights, as in the case of Guryong Village. At the moment, what the authorities fear most is a repetition of the tragic Yongsan incident in January 2009 in which five citizens and a riot policeman were killed during a violent clash over relocating tenants from a commercial building for a redevelopment project.

Officials assert that Guryong Village is different from the case of Yongsan as the latter involved small-business owners who refused to leave their places of work, while the former represents the problem of illegal occupation. Whatever the differences, the residents are feared to resort to “extreme struggles” until they come to a satisfactory settlement.

Gangnam is now to face a grave test with its Guryong Village project. It is about the authorities’ determination to carry out what they believe is in the best interest of the community and their ability to achieve it through the exercise of legal power as well as reasonable dialogue with those concerned.