There sits a big empty field in Yongsan, central Seoul, overgrown with weeds and littered with trash. One end of the lot has been taken over by temporary structures boasting model homes found in nicer neighborhoods. A sole excavator sits in the middle, moving dirt around with no clear plans for construction.
On this spot seven years ago, six people were killed in the name of urban redevelopment. On Jan. 20, 2009, Korean police initiated a daring operation to break up a rooftop siege in a neighborhood here slated for demolition, lifting a cargo crate full of anti-terrorist cops by crane so they could apprehend the evictee protesters. Things didn't go as either side planned, with a fire resulting in six deaths ― five protesters and one police officer.
Prior to that, the evictees of Yongsan Zone 4 sought refuge from hired goons terrorizing them in their homes and businesses while they beseeched the redevelopment company to negotiate with them. After months of terror they fought back, throwing debris and even molotov cocktails to keep their attackers at bay as 40 evictees holed up in a rooftop fortress.
This exact scene has played out in urban renewal zones nationwide, but Yongsan 4 was unique for three main reasons.
First, this was a mixed commercial-residential area, and evictees stood to lose livelihoods, residences, or both together. Back then, laws guaranteed fair compensation for evicted residents, but business owners had not yet won such consideration.
Secondly, while other such protests tended to unfold further from public view, this one was right by a major road, near a bus stop and Sinyongsan Station exit 2.
Third, the police response was more aggressive than usual. While such evictee sit-ins may drag on for months, this one was busted up on its first day. Some attribute the swift response to the prominent location, while others blame Seoul Police Chief Kim Seok-ki. Kim had been nominated two days earlier by then-President Lee Myung-bak to head the National Police Agency, and was criticized for trying to impress the President.
Police actions and motivations were heavily parsed by the 2011 documentary "Two Doors," but little attention was given to the evictees' plight and actions.
My relationship with Yongsan 4 began in November 2008: when looking to beat the long taxi queue at Yongsan Station, I found myself in front of Namildang, the four-story building where the disaster would occur 66 days later. My passing stirred an old woman in a destroyed market stall. "Is it time to leave?" she asked, then seeing who I was she went back to sleep.
I found the neighborhood systematically bashed up by hired goons, despoiled with the most gruesome graffiti I'd ever seen. Depicting severed hands, hangings, beheadings and castrations ― they were made by the sick sociopaths who would chase the area's evictees up to Namildang's roof where some would meet their death. I often nickname parts of the city; for its hired goon activity, I dubbed this place "Gangsters' Paradise."
Then in January 2009 when news of the catastrophic rooftop clash came out, before I knew of its location, my first thought was "Gotta be Gangsters' Paradise."
The hired goons were largely snubbed subsequent discussions of what went wrong at Yongsan 4, with many in the public citing police brutality, while others blamed the evictees for their own violent actions ― neither entirely without reason but both short-sighted.
Either way, this incident raised much-needed public attention to urban renewal issues and served as a rallying cry among other evictee protests for years to come, possibly forcing mercy from authorities and construction companies.
Meanwhile, chief Kim declined the national nomination, floating between government positions for years. Last month he stepped down as Korea Airports Corp. CEO, intending to run in this year's April elections. Eight protesters who survived the deadly rooftop clash were jailed. The five evictees who died are at Maseok Moran Park, a burial site for political martyrs located in Namyangju, northeast of Seoul, where a memorial was held Wednesday. In the former location of Namildang, there's now a parking lot and the remainder of the area is a brownfield zone visible from the front steps of Yongsan Station.
The protesters may not be heroes, but the forces of redevelopment have emerged as villains. Whether you blame the police, the hired goons, the evictees, or all or none of them, seven years have passed since that tragic winter morning and damningly, no progress has been made on redeveloping the land. Six people died, for what? A big empty wasteland.
On Jan. 23, a rally is scheduled to be held there.
Until all wounds are healed, the Yongsan Disaster cannot be said to have ended.