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[From the scene] Traders dig in heels at Noryangjin Fish Market

On a Sunday afternoon, fishmongers cheerfully call out to customers in several languages to lure them into buying seafood displayed in their small tanks and baskets lined up at the front -- a typical scene at the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market located in western Seoul.

(Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
(Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

But in what is a usually vibrant and lively fish market drawing some 30,000 customers a day, tension is running high. Red ribbons reading “Opposition to relocation of fish market” or “Please save the Noryangjin Fish Market” flutter above the fish stalls. 

(Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
(Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

On the second floor, all the restaurants to which customers could bring their purchase to cook and eat are shut, with a big X sign and “demolition” in red spray paint on their glass doors.

Seoul’s oldest and largest fish market is currently witnessing a fierce battle between its fish vendors and managing company National Federation of Fisheries Cooperation, or Suhyup in Korean.
Merchants continue their business at the old Noryangjun Market in Seoul on April 4. (Yonhap)
Merchants continue their business at the old Noryangjun Market in Seoul on April 4. (Yonhap)
Citing the decaying and structurally dangerous facility, Suhyup’s management opened a new state-of-the-art facility on March 12 and asked the fishmongers to move in. It plans to demolish the original building and develop the real estate into a resort.

The majority of the seafood vendors, however, have protested the relocation plan, claiming that the stalls allotted to each vendor in the new building are too small and expensive. They said the move will also destroy “a tradition” that they have built in the current site over the past 89 years. Instead of moving to the new location, the vendors want the old market to be refurbished.

“A market should be like a market, not a department store,” said a 52-year-old fishmonger in the old market, who wished to be identified by only his surname Kim. “Yes, the facility is in a bad condition, but we can improve it by renovating this place. Would you clear out Gyeongbokgung Palace just because it is old?”

“This place has served as a historic market for decades and the value of the market cannot be calculated with money,” Kim said, donning a red vest with a slogan “Fight for rights for living.” “We built a tradition that cannot be replaced elsewhere.”

Kim also cited practical issues, such as narrower space, low ceiling and higher rent at the new facility. “If rental fees go up for a stall in the new building, we will have to raise fish prices and restaurant owners will have to raise the price of soju. It is loss for customers, too.”

The Noryangjin Fish Market, which has been in operation since 1927, has become an iconic landmark in Seoul, offering over 800 seafood varieties at wholesale prices around-the-clock. South Koreans as well as some 200,000 foreigners visit the market each year, with TripAdvisor placing it at No. 38 out of 678 tourist attractions in Korea.

Suhyup, which has managed the fish market since 2002, reached an agreement to modernize the run-down facility with vendors through 23 rounds of negotiations in 2009. The eight-story building, which cost Suhyup a whopping 523 billion won ($455 million), was completed in October and opened on March 16.

A month after its opening, however, only 200 of the 680 vendors moved to the new building, with tourists and customers still flocking to the old market. 

Most of the spaces in the new Noryangjin Market building remain unoccupied as of April 4. (Yonhap)
Most of the spaces in the new Noryangjin Market building remain unoccupied as of April 4. (Yonhap)
A handful of vendors were doing business on the first floor of the new market, displaying clams, crabs, and salmon, as well as fresh fish in their small tanks. They seemed to be unfazed by the ongoing wrangling in the old market, welcoming new changes.

“The old marketplace is so dirty and smells like a sewer. I had to live with rats there,” said Chung Jin-suk, chattering with a group of vendors at a corner of the market. “This building is well polished and equipped with parking facilities and escalators, which my customers like a lot.”

Park Tae-jin, 50, who sold fish for 23 years in the old market, said that everything in the new market was satisfactory. “The space is a bit smaller, but facilities are advanced and it is clean here. If I have to pay more as rent, I don’t mind.”

(Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
(Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

Conflicting interests have divided the vendors as well, according to a 58-year-old fish retailer, who wanted to be identified by her surname Lee.

Lee speculated that most of the vendors against moving to the new facility are those reaping benefits from the current location of their stalls in the old market.

“In the market, the location of each stall makes a huge difference in sales. Those who could not make profits in the old market quickly moved into the new facility to choose a spot they wanted.”

“I also opposed the relocation plan at first, but the conditions here turned out to be much better than expected. The remaining merchants in the old market keep complaining without trying,” she said. “They even call me a betrayer.”

In the midst of conflicting interests, accusations and stepped-up moves to relocate the old vendors, things have turned radical in recent weeks.

On April 1, a vendor was arrested for attempted murder after stabbing a Suhyup official with a knife. Earlier in March, violence erupted when guards hired by an agency attempted to block a parking lot and tear down makeshift restaurants in the old market.

On Monday last week, Suhyup partially cut off the water and power supply, which prompted outrage among the remaining vendors.

Lee Chae-ho, secretary general of the emergency committee representing vendors, blasted the agency for “unilaterally” and “forcibly” pushing for the plan without sufficiently consulting vendors.

“Only a few merchants approved of the new plan, with most of the vendors having no idea of the details of the relocation,” Lee said in his office in the old market. “We were all shocked about how small the space was and how our requests were dismissed when Suhyup first revealed the new building to the public.”

A Suhyup official, who requested not to be named, accused the vendors of “illegally” occupying the current site and misleading the public to defend their own interests.

“We provided them with a design map and they signed all the documents indicating rent and location of stalls,” an official from Suhyup said, refusing to be named. “We spent extra budget to extend the construction period to meet their demands.”

“In the new building, we allocated exactly the same size to each vendor. But vendors are complaining because they cannot use corridors and passages, which is illegal, to display their stuff any longer,” he said. “We also settled the dispute over rental fees in previous negotiations.”

The Suhyup official also refuted the vendors’ claims that the company is pushing ahead with the relocation plan to make money from real estate development. “All the vendors agreed to revitalize the neighborhood to draw more customers to the market.”

Suhyup applied for a license last year to establish a commercial resort including a casino after demolishing the old market. It aims to make the neighborhood a tourism hub by 2018.

Unaware of the fierce behind-the-scenes bickering, scores of customers interviewed by The Korea Herald were generally happy with the new facility.

“As a customer, I like the new market more because it is more convenient to shop and park,” said Hwang Jin-tae, a 55-year-old retiree, while checking out the new market with his wife. “Tradition is important, but I will go where it is convenient.”

Song Kyo-yeon, a housewife in her 50s, said that she had hated the smell and unhygienic conditions in the old market. “Have you come to this place in summer? It is disgusting. I really want the merchants to move to the new building.”

But some others expressed regret and worries about scrapping the old market.

“The new building might be clean, polished and shiny, but the smell and mess are what I like about this place. It is traditional. I love this place,” said Jeremy Morris, a musician from England who has visited the fish market four times. “If this market gets demolished, I would be devastated.”

Jung Min-jae, a 29-year-old student, hopes the old market stays as it is. “It seems like we (Koreans) break down everything in the name of modernization. But serving as a fish market for 90 years itself is its identity.”
The fishmongers in the old market stage a protest for 30 minutes every morning and plan to bring the case to Seoul and the central government. Suhyup, on the other hand, is set to file suit against the vendors for eviction and compensation and recruit new tenants at the new building.

The Noryangjin Fish Market is not alone in fighting against the relocation plan.

In eastern Seoul, more than half of the vendors at the Garak Market Seoul are also refusing to move into a new six-story building, saying it cannot function as a wholesale market due to the small space and multiple floors. Its managing company Seoul Agro-Fisheries & Food Corporation also plans to file an eviction suit to expel the tenants.

Cho Myung-rae, an urban planning professor at Dankook University, pointed out that “lack of communication” leads to such dispute surrounding the city’s renovation plan for some traditional locations and neighborhoods.

“Traditional markets are unique in that they are designed and operated without plans,” Cho said. “But this contradicts standardized and modernized way of business operation. That’s why conflicts erupt between vendors sticking to their traditional way of doing business and experts designing the city with reasonable yardsticks.”

Cho suggested that Suhyup and the vendors ask the Board of Audit and Inspection to look into the situation, find wrongdoings, cross-check facts and seek solutions.

“If Suhyup had sufficiently interacted with vendors and had not unilaterally pushed for the scheme, many of the problems would have not occurred,” Cho said. “It takes time, but it is important to seek consensus in development projects.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (