Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Burning Yongsan

[Update - The Korea Times has an article on the families of the dead here, while ROK Drop posts some impressive photos taken from one of the tall apartments in the background here.]

Photo from here.

The Joongang Ilbo has an article about the fire that claimed six lives in Yongsan yesterday:
Five protesters and a member of a police SWAT team died and 24 others were hospitalized following a violent standoff at a construction site in central Seoul early yesterday.

According to police, protesters took over a five-story structure near the Kukje building and Yongsan train station at 5:30 a.m. Monday, in opposition to ongoing redevelopment of the area. Some squatters demanded higher compensation for their houses and stores, which are to be demolished for a massive development project by the nation’s construction giants - Samsung C&T Corporation, Daelim and Posco.
Police said the demonstrators built a watchtower on the rooftop and armed themselves with Molotov cocktails, bottles of acid, bricks and slingshots. Police issued an ultimatum to the protesters to move out by Monday night or be forcibly removed. Around 6:45 a.m. yesterday, a crane lifted a container box carrying the SWAT teams [the Korea Times notes that it carried 50 men].
Photo from here.
“When the SWAT teams tried to enter the watchtower around 7:26 a.m., the demonstrators sprayed paint thinner and threw Molotov cocktails,” Baek Dong-san, chief of Yongsan Police who commanded the operation, said during a press briefing. “The watchtower caught fire and police withdrew. We managed to put out the fire by 8 a.m. and found five bodies, including one police officer.” A further search yielded one more body. Yongsan police said that of the 24 others who were injured during the stand-off, 18 were police officers.

Kim Nam-hun, a 30-year-old SWAT team member of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, was killed during the operation, police said. The other bodies were not identified, but the National Institute of Scientific Investigation said fingerprints should allow identification by tomorrow.

[...] The police operation resulted in arrest of 25 squatters, and the prosecution is investigating if the National Alliance of Squatters systemically planned the violent demonstration. Of those arrested, only seven actually live or own stores in the area and are eligible for compensation. The rest were members of the group.
It goes on to explain that the squatters group were planning to hold a candlelight vigil at Yongsan Station, and called for an apology from the president. The police painted the demonstrators as unduly violent and said they had no choice but to intervene. More photos of the confrontation and fire can be found here, while a Korea Times article is here. Here's a photo of the building from behind, showing the remains of the watchtower on top.

I was curious where exactly the building was, and found its location by looking here, and after realizing it was on the other side of Hangangno across from Yongsan Station, I thought I remembered that Jon Dunbar had visited and documented an area to be redeveloped nearby at his site Condemned Seoul, and I remembered correctly. In fact, if you look at this page, the 4th and 6th photos show the building at right, while the 5th photo has a clear shot of the building; a more recent view from a similar angle can be seen here (second photo down). Between Jon's photos and the photo at the top of this post, I was able to figure out the exact location:

As the Joongang Ilbo continues,
According to the Yongsan District Office, the construction site used to be occupied by 434 stores and 456 households. About 80 percent have received compensation and moved out. Plans call for the construction of three skyscrapers for residential and commercial use.
There's lots more going on than just this one little redevelopment site (pointed out here). Here is what is going up between Yongsan Station and Hangangno (goodbye Yongsan red light district):

This is just one of the planned redevelopments in the area, as the map below reveals. More such photos are pointed out at this blog (and this map shows that plans are afoot to redevelop the areas to the west of the redevelopments laid out below).

The large section at right is Yongsan Garrison, set to be vacated by U.S. forces... at some point in the future. The large section on the left is the "Yongsan Dreamhub", which I looked at here, where I posted this map of future plans for Yongsan-gu:

As you might notice, much of the district is set to be redeveloped at some point in the next 10 (or 20) years. When you take into consideration the new town plans (developed under Lee Myung-bak when he was mayor of Seoul), which will redevelop 24 square kilometers of Seoul (or 4.5% of its total land area) as well as this plan to raze Yongsan-gu to the ground, at some point it might seem a little excessive, especially seeing as many of the owners are not able to afford places in the new apartments due to such little compensation. I'd have to say I'm in total agreement with Tom Coyner's comment here, and would add that while you can't agree with the violence the squatters used, little is said about the violence the construction companies use regularly to intimidate and force people to leave their homes. If you look at the rest of Jon Dunbar's photos of the Yongsan area to be redeveloped, you'll see the disturbing graffiti and the smashed storefronts left behind by the gangsters hired by the construction companies. This is no secret, and has been going on for decades - it was documented in Kim Dong-won's "Sanggye-dong Olympic" and has been shown in feature films like Holiday, for example. That people might choose to match violence with violence isn't surprising - it's not for nothing that Cho Se-hui's celebrated book The Dwarf opens with the murder of a developer (in the story "Mobius strip"). If the government is going to give construction companies free reign to raze vast sections of Seoul without paying fair compensation or listening to the voices of people living in these neighborhoods, it shouldn't be surprised when groups who learned to use violence under the thugocracy of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan find desperate people to populate their ranks and lead to tragedies like yesterday.


King Baeksu said...

I like how the police used shipping containers, a symbol of globalization. to storm the rooftop.

The shipping containers, in turn, were briefly engulfed in flames, set off by those resisting development of the area.

As development and globalization continue their relentless assault, a few burnt dead bodies remind us dramatically of the stakes involved, but hardly seem able to slow or stop an inevitable process.

The flames of the local dragon have been quickly and effectively doused. It was never a match for the shipping containers' steely, iron-clad invasion.

Mark Russell said...

Has anyone seen any decent research about how much people get for relocation when their neighborhoods get redeveloped? The few people I know who have been through this were compensated quite handsomely. But anecdotal evidence does not mean much...

Until I can find some decent research about how compensation is determined and distributed, I will probably remain pretty ambivalent about the subject. I really do not trust either side to explain clearly, fully, or honestly on the subject.

dokebi said...

What were the protestors really trying to achieve? There was violence in the national assembly, too, right?

I also read about this man like a month ago who crashed a car to a factory because the general manager would not meet him to hear his complaints.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the reason the Seoul police are so keen on shipping containers these days (cf 명박산성) is that Korea's exports have fallen off the cliff and there are loads more unused ones lying around. Never mind globalisation, world trade is actually declining for the first time in 25 years according to the World Bank.

King Baeksu said...

"What were the protesters really trying to achieve?"

The standard m.o. for many die-hard protesters in Korea seems to go like this:

1. Provoke the police violently.

2. The police respond, since that is their job and who really likes having Molotov cocktails thrown at them, for example?

3. The protesters, who were actually the instigators of the violence, are now victims of "police brutality." Of course they deny all responsibility for their share of any of the violence which ensued.

4. The "progressive" lawmakers and media then proceed to make extravagant political hay out of the incident, and in the case of LMB, the current president, they demand that he step down, people in his administration resign, etc. etc. Of course, the oppo lawmakers themselves are often too corrupt and the progressive media too lazy to have actually tried to investigate the root problems beforehand, and generally take a belated, reactive approach to these controversial issues. But that is really beside the point, since the main intention in such situations is merely to increase one's own political capital and promote one's political agenda, rather than taking a more proactive approach to examining and solving the fundamental problems of this society.

5. Rinse, dry and repeat.

Anonymous said...

You are correct, I visited that area in November, and that is the exact location. I was actually just trying to get a taxi from Yongsan Station in the rain and kept wandering farther and farther until I found myself in front of exactly that building.

The reason I have more sympathy for these people than most comes from my visit back then. The area had been razed by gangsters, who'd left behind graffiti more cruel--and unnecessary--than any other site I'd visited: drawings of lynchings, castrations, decapitations, dismemberments, and Popeye. It was clear that these tenants were up against some sick fucks and I'm not surprised they went to this extreme a few months later.

The compensation issue is complex. I know people--renters, even--who were handsomely compensated. I also know there are certain people who move into districts rumoured to be going down and wait for the payoff. When it goes bad and when people start physically fighting, I can't predict. I have seen plenty of "If you come here, you will die" graffiti and "We will fight to the death for our homes" graffiti, but nothing quite as bad as this area. One difference might be that this area was mainly commercial and I think a lot of the people were business owners rather than residents.

Roboseyo said...

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King Baeksu said...

I was looking at some of the NGOs and civic groups involved in the mad-cow protests last night, and quite a few of them have the Yongsan fire plastered all over the home page of their Web sites. Apparently the 5 guys who died are major heroes now on the left; I also noticed that a number of "ch'ulgomin" groups were registered as members of the umbrella mad-cow association.

Funny that none of these groups seemed to care that my historic neighborhood in Ch'ongjin-dong was being flattened by developers last year right around the time of the mad-cow demos -- and literally a hundred meters from the epicenter of their gatherings. They managed to throw in every single issue they could into their protests EXCEPT development, in fact.

King Baeksu said...

"What happened in Yongsan, Seoul, South Korea January 19-20":