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Eviction and tragedy in South Korea

Violence in the streets of Seoul. But why?

Squatters are seen on top of a building engulfed in flames where other squatters were protesting as police in a container box approach to suppress them in Seoul early January 20, 2009. Five South Koreans were killed when the five-story building was engulfed in flames during a standoff between police and residents protesting demolition work. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

SEOUL — The five-story building that less than two weeks ago was guarded by Molotov cocktails, slingshot-fired golf balls and scraps of metal still stands in the bustling district of Yongsan in the middle of Seoul.

The windows are shattered, the walls charred from the fire that broke out while the police tried to remove evictees protesting the area's redevelopment. The encounter resulted in six deaths: five protestors and a police commando.

The incident has sparked criticism about the police's handling of the situation, and prosecutors have found the police to have been at some fault. But the incident has also prompted debate about the violent nature of the protest. There has been public sympathy, but also questions following the news that members of a civil group, often fingered for taking extreme measures, were the ones who staged the protest.

More than a week after the tragedy, tenants from the area remained on the site huddled around a fire, mourning their fellow protestors, as people passing by gave them the occasional look of curiosity.

“Evictees with no place to go, fight with blood and tears,” read a ragged hand-written banner at the site, looking out of place amongst the traffic-flooded streets and towering skyscrapers. The tenants at the site all said they did not want to talk about the issue.

This wasn't the first time a violent protest has erupted over redevelopment and compensation issues. Seoul and other South Korean cities periodically pinpoint old districts to redevelop, and the rest of the negotiation is left to the landowners and tenants, many of whom have to relocate.

The Yongsan district redevelopment project began in 2006 and will affect more than 900 households. Deals with almost 800 of those households had been settled when the protest broke out, according to an official from the Yongsan district office.

“They offered an outrageously low amount for compensation, and then had thugs come in and out and threaten the tenants. Most left because they couldn’t bear the threats anymore,” said Ryu Joo-hyung, a member of the national evictees' association that organized the protest.

Ryu added that they had tried to find numerous administrative channels to voice their opinion but kept running into dead ends. The Yongsan district office said no such efforts were made, and that the protest came out of nowhere.

The loss of lives in the protest did turn eyes towards the fate of evictees, a story that is often told but not necessarily noticed here.

“Korea does not really have sufficient policies or procedures to help those like the evictees who are in a more vulnerable position,” said Lee Nae-young, a professor at Korea University’s political science and diplomacy department. For a country that has experienced such rapid growth, the importance or need for social welfare has not been acknowledged until relatively recently.

South Korea has a stable democracy, and has become Asia's fourth-largest economy. As a result, flying Molotov cocktails seem out of place.

“New ways of protesting have to come about. The society has changed, but using the same methods of demonstrating as they did under authoritarianism is a problem. It’s kind of like a mismatch,” Lee said. “But at the same time, for people who are fighting out of desperation, that may be asking for too much,” he added.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/south-korea/090202/eviction-and-tragedy-south-korea