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South Korea redevelopment battles turn deadly

Many say aggressive government policies are hurting poor apartment renters and shopkeepers. Last month, a fire killed six as police stormed a building occupied by squatters and activists.

February 09, 2009|John M. Glionna

SEOUL — The police commandos stormed the building just before dawn. A crane lifted a shipping container onto the rooftop in central Seoul, and scores of officers flooded out like warriors from a Trojan horse.

Activists had holed up at the top of the building to protest forced evictions to make way for new development. They dodged police water cannons and hurled handmade gasoline bombs at some of the 1,400 riot police officers who encircled the building below in the two-pronged attack.

Suddenly the building exploded into flames, killing six people, including one policeman. One body was burned beyond recognition.

The incident last month marked a lethal turn in South Korea's redevelopment wars, heightening public resentment against aggressive government urban renovation policies that many say victimize the poor -- dismissed here as cheol geomin, or squatters.

Prosecutors today are expected to release the results of their inquiry into whether officers used excessive force, but few protesters expected charges to be filed against the police. In fact, authorities have blamed activists for the fire. "They knew it would be dangerous to use Molotov cocktails," one prosecutor said.

Prosecutors have charged six evictees in the incident in the city's Yongsan ward with stockpiling paint thinner and other flammable material, and say two dozen others could be indicted. Investigators say they have videotape of an activist pouring gasoline on a stairway.

In Seoul, where developable land is at a premium, activists have demanded the resignations of President Lee Myung-bak and Kim Seok-ki, the police chief who ordered the deadly crackdown.

Critics accuse the government of allowing business interests to force the poor from their homes and shops, often without adequate compensation, as a way to kick-start the nation's ailing economy.

"They're focusing on profits and just casting these people aside," said Kim Nam-geun, a civil rights activist. "It's a push for development at any cost."

Nationwide, there are 424 cases in which evictees are battling property owners and developers for better compensation.

Most redevelopment projects here are led by private developers and cooperatives of landlords seeking a quick profit with an aggressive schedule of demolition that does not often allow for public discourse, housing advocates say.

And although some of the evictees have an option to move into the redeveloped projects, many are precluded by the high rents in the new buildings. So many opt for a payout.

Officials said there are plans to amend the nation's housing laws to make compensation more equitable.

That may be too late for Choi Sun-kyun, 61, who says she has waited years for fair compensation. She ran a tiny restaurant for 16 years near where the deadly siege took place. Now she and others maintain a vigil at the site of the clash, handing out pamphlets on a busy street next to a memorial to the five dead activists.

Choi knew that the old neighborhood in Yongsan's 4th District, a warren of alleyways filled with restaurants, pubs, shops and apartments, had a date with the wrecking ball.

She's surrounded by swanky high-rise apartments that close in like invading giants. "They're so big and beautiful, and we could never imagine living there," she said. "We were in the way."

In 2007, contractors hired by a collective of 4th District landlords posted bills saying that the area was going to be demolished. Apartment renters in the six-square-block area were offered moving expenses plus a modest government housing allowance.

Shop owners such as Choi who leased their spaces were offered the equivalent of three months' operation profits. Choi had spent tens of thousands of dollars in equipment and the traditional premium paid to the previous tenant -- all of which would be lost.

So the tiny divorcee refused to move. Immediately, she says, the harassment began. Tough-looking men in plain clothes stalked her 10-table restaurant. Some mornings she found trash piled up in front of her shop.

On Nov. 4, the men returned, this time with a court order to destroy the premises. Choi stood outside and watched as cranes smashed the three-story building. But she did not cry.

"I didn't want to look weak," she said. "I didn't want to let them see any emotion."

In January, about 40 activists decided to stage a sit-in atop an abandoned four-story office building. "People were indifferent to our plight, so they wanted to go up there and show our anger," said Noh Han-na, a leader of the 4th District squatters.

She said the protesters brought food for 20 days. They also packed slingshots and gasoline-filled Molotov cocktails.

Soon after activists set up their watchtower, authorities moved in. About 1 a.m. Jan. 20, firefighters first set off warning flares. Then, activists say, the contractors hired by the landlords started a fire with old car tires on a lower floor of the building.

Near dawn, 100 police commandos launched their assault.

"The activists weren't disturbing anyone," said Noh, 51, who used to run a billiard hall in the area. "I don't want to live in Korea if the government is going to act this way."

Housing experts say they expect more violence.

"In Seoul, there are incredible amounts of money at stake for owners and developers, but regular Koreans don't like to be pushed around," said an urban planner who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They'll fight back."

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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