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SOUTH KOREA: The livelihoods of elderly market tenants are in danger due to administrative neglect

More than 50 elderly tenants have struggled to protect their right to livelihood since being evicted on April 30, 2010. All of them were tenants of the Gocheck traditional business market and are currently protesting in front of Guro-gu administration office where many of them, being aged between 50 and 80, face health risks.

More than 50 elderly tenants have struggled to protect their right to livelihood since being evicted on April 30, 2010. All of them were tenants of the Gocheck traditional business market and are currently protesting in front of Guro-gu administration office where many of them, being aged between 50 and 80, face health risks.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) issued an urgent appeal for the case, and received responses from the Seoul Metropolitan City administration, Guro-gu administration, Small & Medium Business Administration, Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Please visit here to see all the letters in Korean.

There are two points to be raised in regards to these responses. First, the responses of the government agencies imply that they are unwilling to proactively intervene in the matter. The letters say that the tenants' right can only be protected under the Special Act on Improvement for Traditional Business Markets or Commercial Areas (Special Act), when the building owner submits a written proposal for reconstruction. However, according to the letter dated on June 1, 2010, from Guro-gu administration, the building owner has submitted a written statement to the administration explaining that they do not intend to reconstruct the market, yet this is in fact contrary to what they have stated in court ?and it is their statement in court upon which the court based its ruling that the tenants could be legally evicted.

Secondly, the Guro-gu administration (administration from here) has asserted that it has been trying to intervene with the building owner and the tenants. However, no actual follow-up action was taken; or action has been taken so late that it has been meaningless. It is proved in the fact that all the tenants were evicted while the building owner has never submitted a written proposal for the plan to the administration.

The question that arises is this: If the administration did not intend to implement its own urban plan with appropriate administrative and legal processes, why did it launch an urban planning project in the first place, instead of letting the urban development proceed by market principles?

The administration has often made the excuse that it cannot intervene in 'private matters' between building owner and the tenants in redevelopment projects. However, all such projects, including the Gocheck traditional business market, are planned by the government; this is not a private issue. Yet the government has not considered the human rights violations or acts that disadvantage the socially weak in these processes. This is a failure to prevent human rights violations as perpetrated by a third party ?the building owner JungSung E&G in this case ?which compounds the government’s neglect of its duty to properly implement its own administrative processes.

The any forms of urban plan should place the needs of the citizens including the tenants and the customers foremost; and it is the obligation of the administration to carry out the proper urban planning and apply the relevant laws and administrative process strictly, or else it will be participating in gross injustice against the socially weak.

The vague and inconsistent reconstruction plan submitted/outlined by the company ignores domestic law
The letter from Guro-gu administration exposes the fact that the building owner gave an uncertain or false statement before the court, whether intentionally or not. The court as well as the administration has allegedly been cheated by the building owner since the building owner testified in court that he planned to reconstruct the market building while currently says that he cannot reconstruct it. The administration is still waiting today for the final plan to be submitted.

It is strongly alleged that the building owner has not yet provided a written proposal for the reconstruction plan in order to avoid its responsibility to protect the tenants' livelihood such as provisions of a temporary market and of priority for renewal of the contract in compliance with the Special Act. Instead, the building owner evicted all the tenants, apparently without any requirement to provide any alternative arrangements for the tenants. This exposes a big loophole in the laws that are supposed to protect tenants from unfair treatment by landlords.

The reconstruction plan was the main justification for the court judgement allowing the tenants?eviction. According to the Act on Lease Contract, a tenant whose lease contract has not exceeded five years can demand its renewal. However, the court (Decision No. 2008Gadan52301) ruled that the owner could refuse a tenant’s demand for lease renewal if the building was the target of reconstruction; and that the tenants could thus be evicted.

On the other hand, the building owner’s oral promises to the tenants were completely ignored. It is testified in the court decision (No. 2008Na9674) that all the tenants who had been working in the land leased from the ex-building owner, Gocheck Development, financially supported the earlier market modernization project, under which Gocheck Development planned to finance construction of the building by increasing the security deposit for shop leases in 1989. At that time, Gocheck Development had provided a temporary market for the tenants during the construction and all the tenants started their market businesses after the construction. The tenants further testified that Gocheck Development and the current building owner verbally guaranteed that the tenants could continue their business until the demolition and resume their business after reconstruction, which the building owner was obliged to do under the Special Act. This guarantee was given to all the tenants, except the ones who entered shop leases later.

Now the building owner claims that it cannot afford to cover the expense of the tenants?'unrealistic' demands, the increase of social economic uncertainty and other financial costs. The tenants?'unrealistic demands?are in fact the ‘legal?demand based on the Special Act: provision of a temporary market during reconstruction and the renewal of the leases to their businesses after reconstruction. The building owner does not have the right to ignore the law.

An inappropriate administrative process
While the building owner has ignored domestic laws and moves on in an inconsistent manner with its reconstruction plan, the administration authority has failed to follow an adequate administrative process.

The letter says that they had a meeting with both parties 13 times, a settlement committee meeting twice, sent an official letter to the building owner 7 times, replied to the inquiry letter 10 times, and had a discussion with relevant officials 13 times. In addition, the administration provided 18 out of 51 tenants with monthly allowances for three months through a special assistance project.

There is evidence that the administration had these meetings, but what did they discuss and what have the results been so far?

The first reply from the Guro-gu administration in regards to the inquiry letter was sent to the tenants on 8 July 2008. The official letter (No. 15861) said that the administration cannot approve the market reconstruction project if the building owner submitted a proposal regarding reconstruction without providing proper alternatives and protection for the tenants in accordance with the Special Act.

When the tenants got a confirmation in December 2008 from Seoul Metropolitan City administration regarding the fact that Gocheck traditional business market is an urban plan facility that the administration should maintain, the Guro-gu administration simply denied this fact, and only admitted it later on February 20, 2009. Despite the tenants?request, while the lawsuit for surrender of property against the tenants was going on, that the relevant officials provide official documents to prove the fact that the Gocheck market building was an urban plan facility, the officials ignored their request.

After being threatened and assaulted by a group of people hired by the building owner, the tenants demanded that the Guro-gu administration withdraw its reconstruction plans for the urban plan facility because they found it difficult to do their business in the market. However, the administration did not take any effective action for intervention; it did nothing more than send an official letter urging the building owner to maintain the proper functioning of the market, three times between February and April 2009. The building owner did not respond to any of those letters, and the administration has not taken further action since then.

On June 17, 2009, the administration contributed further to the problems of the tenant. It refused to provide a temporary market while the building owner and the tenants reached a final agreement for reconstruction, resulting in a breakdown of negotiation that had finally been reached. Moreover, it was only after all the tenants were evicted, that the administration released an official document (Department of Local Economy, No. 15711) on May 12, 2010, saying that it did not plan to make any changes regarding Gocheck market, and that the reconstruction project should be launched in accordance with the Special Act. The settlement committee led by the administration also had been initiated only in April 2010. By then, it was too late to intervene in the situation properly because the tenants were supposed to be evicted under the court decisions of 2008 and April of 2010 respectively.

The neglect of administration narrated above resulted in deprivation of the tenants of their livelihoods for last two and half years. Whether the building owner plans to reconstruct or to renovate the market building, the entire process should be decided on with the administration and the tenants, thoroughly applying domestic law and international human rights laws which the Korean government has already ratified. The right of livelihood is one of the fundamental rights, as a right to work and a right to life with dignity, recognized by the government.

At present, the administration offers loans at low interest to the tenants in order to run their business in other places. Given the fact that the administration has failed to maintain the urban planning facility and traditional business market, the administration should guarantee that the tenants can continue their business under the same working conditions as before. Had the administration carried out its duty from the beginning, the tenants would not have lost their livelihoods without alternatives.

Therefore, the administration should positively intervene and immediately provide a temporary market for the tenants in order to maintain their livelihood. The tenants should be able to restart their work after the building is repaired under the same conditions as before. The building owner should take responsibility for causing confusion and deprivation of tenants?livelihood through their uncertain and false statement to the court and the administration.

From July 1, 2010, the newly elected mayor of Guro-gu has taken over the administration. The tenants stopped protesting on the same day. The AHRC hopes that the new administration will look into the case thoroughly from the beginning and take proper action.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Posted on 2010-07-05

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