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Ye, Mi-sook

[The author is a volunteer attached to the Sarangbang Group for Human Rights. It is a shocking account of how the right to work and right to life are violated in South Korea by redevelopment projects]

Mi-so, studying in the second grade of primary school moved to her present home five years ago. Gradually she became familiar with quite a few of her neighbours in the town. An ¡¥uncle¡¦ running a stationary shop near her school; an old ¡¥aunty¡¦ collecting wastepaper for a living and who from time to time gives her candy; and an ¡¥aunty¡¦ at the supermarket where Mi-so drops by several times a day. Then there is the aunt at the hair saloon next to the small restaurant her mom runs and Ye-rin, Minjeong, Seo-yoen living close to her home.

One day, she heard a big commotion in town. People were saying that her town would be redeveloped. So what is a redevelopment? Her mom said they had to move home and heaved a long sigh. Only us? No. everyone in town had to move including Ye-rin, Min-jeong and old wastepaper ¡¥aunty¡¦. So will the whole town disappear? Mom had just nodded her head. Will we come back later? No, we cannot. Why?

Now Mi-so knew what redevelopment means. It was when the place she lived in and people she has known would be disappeared; removed to an unknown place. One day, Mi-so rushed to Mom¡¦s restaurant after school. In a restaurant,there was an ill-looking man in a black jacket instead of the post office girl who comes to have food at this time.

Mom was pleading ¡§Come on, please get out of here now.¡¨ He had his arms folded across his chest and shouted: ¡§¡§Why the f¡Kk are you telling your customers to get out?¡¨ ¡§Because of you, others come and just go out without having food here.¡¨ Mom replied.

But the ill-looking man continued shouting: ¡§Are others your customers but not me? How dare you deal with customers like this? Why do you choose to suffer instead of making your signature agreeing with the redevelopment project? The verbal abuse continued. ¡§These f¡K king women; how much more money do you want to get?¡¨ and mom was wailing: ¡§What can I do for a living with that money; I have not even paid back the loan for this small restaurant; Where can I go and what can I do¡K¡¨ Mom could not finish her sentence as her grief overtook her.

A few moments later she continued: ¡§Why am I a beggar? Have we ever asked for easy money? We merely need compensation for a small restaurant, the same as we had in this place. No one can push us out suddenly. We are only small shopkeepers selling things to customers whom we have known here for a long time. So we demand to continue here at least temporarily; this is not begging.¡¨ Miso has never seen her Mom shouting at somebody like this.

Unfortunately, this is not a unique story; it is a story that can be repeated many times over in areas that have been earmarked for 'redevelopment¡¦ across South Korea. The following is what a resident had to say about a group of gangsters who were hired to threaten residents and destroy their properties:

". . . Passing by the office of the association for redevelopment, I have witnessed my neighbour being bitten by someone. The moment I stopped it, a group of evillooking men hired by the redevelopment project came out and started swearing at us. It was too shameful and sexually abusive to write down. They insulted us saying that we smelled like excrement. They threatened to kill all the residents. I wondered how human beings could behave like that. In particular, a young man who was about six feet tall and 100 kg in weight pushed me punching my cheek. I was so scared . . .¡¨

Screams at dawn

On 19 January 2009, on a rooftop of an empty building located in street 4#, Young san-dong in Seoul, about thirty people were shouting slogans in the dark.

¡§Where can we go in this cold winter? The association for redevelopment and the construction company must, first of all, provide us with alternatives for a living!¡¨

They were all either residents who rent a house or run a small shop on street 4#. This area had been earmarked for redevelopment in 2003. ¡¥Redevelopment means basically removing the backward area and rebuilding a new town on it. If it was good for the residents, why were they climbing to the rooftop of an empty building?

The answer is found in the decisive process of redevelopment. Firstly, once the local administrative government decides on an area for redevelopment the Association for Redevelopment¡Xwhose members comprise of owners of housing, land, and buildings in the area¡Xand the construction company process the project. Secondly, the Association plans to build apartments and a commercial zone in cooperation with a construction company usually large enough to handle such a project. The Association then takes a loan from the company; making the company more influential in the process.

The construction company along with the Association kicks the tenants out of their houses, and shops, after offering low amounts of compensation¡Xwhich is never agreed by the tenants anyway. As the tenants disagree with the compensation and refuse to leave, the company hires groups of gangsters to threaten them into agreeing to the offered compensation.

In the process many innocent people both men and women are insulted, assaulted and hurt both in body and mind. Not only tenants, but also residents who own small scale housing and land are forced to move since they cannot afford to buy new apartments or shops. As a result, redevelopment is really meant to benefit the owners of housings or lands who are rich enough to invest new buildings as well as the company.

Removed by gangsters

The tenants living in street 4#, Young san in Seoul are resisting being forced to accept the unreasonable and unfair compensation. They do not want to be forcibly removed from the area as they cannot get appropriate and comparable housing or shop premises anywhere else with the pittance they are being offered. As the prices of housing and shops soar in nearby areas, they cannot afford to move close by. They have to look for alternate housing further away and for lower prices.

Mrs. Choi, an old woman running a traditional Korean restaurant and had a small house adjoining the restaurant, lost both premises one night. A group of gangster hired by the company walked up to her house and simply destroyed everything. She says she began her restaurant 15 years ago with a loan of 50 million; she was offered a mere 20 million as compensation for a restaurant¡Xand nothing for the house. This compensation is way too small to purchase another restaurant and a small house to live.

It is more important for the shop managers to have regular customers in a town. If they started their businesses in a new area, it will take a long time before they attract enough customers to cover costs. This is a reason why they demanded temporary market around the area.

Tenants charged as criminals

The Association and the Company have never looked into the situation and tried to reach a compromise with the residents. Instead, their intention seems to be to destroy the properties of those who do not agree to their project and the compensation they offer. Eventually residents who found themselves in the same boat at Mrs. Choi had little choice but to climb to the rooftop of the empty building one cold winter ¡¦s morn, to protect their properties, livelihoods and lives.

But still, they receive no understanding. Contrarily, they were confronted by policemen wielding water cannons and clubs. No. compromised; and no alternative was ever offered by the government authority.

When the residents ask the police to stop the gangsters¡¦ assaults, the police tend to arrive at the scene only after the gangsters depart. However, this time around the arrival of the police was swift, led by Korean National Police 868 (KNP 868).

They, who are entrusted to apprehend  suspected criminals such as terrorists, murderers, kidnappers etc., were seen suppressing the peaceful protests of the residents¡Xfive of whom were eventually killed by the police.

Even after a Mang-ru went on fire, the police did not stop their suppression by brutal means; this caused a conflagration and subsequently residents in a watchtower got killed. Those who escaped from the watchtower also died due to negligence of the authorities.

Yang, Hyu-sung, Lee, Sung-soo, Lee, Sang-lim, Han, Dae-sung, and Yun, Yonghyun: The government has not apologized to the victims¡¦ families. There is neither a proper investigation underway nor punishment.

What is left for the poor in this world? The spring comes and melts everything away, but the distrust, pain and hurt in our minds remain.

Mang-ru is a temporary construction, about five metres in height, and built by evicted residents. The residents who lose their housing due to various redevelopment projects build a Mang-ru on the rooftop of an empty building in the area. This means ¡¥Goliath¡¦ in Korean, and it originates from the trade unions¡¦ labour movement and has been carried out for decades. The TU activists protested whilst staying in this temporary place constructed on their own on the rooftop of their company building.

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SOUTH KOREA: No country for the poor