The office building had been slated for demolition, but not like this. A column of flames ripped through its fourth and fifth floors, feeding on paint thinner spilled from Molotov cocktails. The makeshift watchtower built on the roof was consumed. And inside, a handful of protesters were locked in a final stand against police and the destruction of the surrounding neighbourhood.
Only 16 minutes passed between the time the second wave of commandos stormed the rooftop in those cold dawn hours of January 20 — lifted in a shipping container by a crane — and the time the building exploded. But what happened in those moments led to the deaths of six people and dramatically changed the narrative of Seoul’s redevelopment struggles.
Ten months later, the tile and concrete skeleton of the building in Yongsan Ward is still standing. When I arrive, it is sunny and brisk, and a police bus is parked out front next to a huddle of about 20 policemen; all fresh faces, young conscripts serving their mandatory two years as riot guards instead of soldiers.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Around them, banners hang from condemned buildings and decry the actions of the government and the police that January day: ‘Lee Myung-bak regime: apologize and resolve the Yongsan Tragedy!’ and ‘Even if you try to hide the truth, it will come out!’ A fence that surrounds the burned building has been spray-painted in a rainbow of colours with stencils of the five dead protesters’ faces. (The other victim was a police officer.)
The site may be the most recent and visible scar from South Korea’s growing pains, but it is by no means the only one — nor will it likely be the last. According to an evictee group, there are more than 400 development battles taking place around the country. In the capital, development is swift and unsentimental. I once went to grab lunch at a corner diner I had been to just days before only to find the entire block had been levelled.
And the pace seems to be accelerating. At the end of October, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon unveiled his plan to transform this gritty, tangled and blindingly neon metropolis into ‘a city of design and culture.’ His vision to revive the Han River area in a kind of urban ‘renaissance’ and grow a green corridor straight down the heart of the city would entail massive and likely painful changes to its landscape.
South Korea has been reinventing itself since reconstruction first began in the wake of the Korean War. Under the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-hee in the 1960s and 70s, modernization was placed high above preservation; things were simply destroyed and then built anew.
Because of this, much has been lost in terms of the nation’s and the capital’s character. Oh says he hopes to preserve the city’s history while creating a modern and attractive hub. But critics say he is more focused on Seoul’s image than its people.
As part of his ‘renaissance’ vision, Oh wants to pull down many of the apartments currently standing along the Han River — a number of which are over 30 years old — and make way for taller, sleeker residential buildings surrounded by parks. The jewel of this endeavour is the Yongsan International Business District, also called Dreamhub 21, which promises to define Seoul’s nondescript skyline and draw tourism and investment when it is completed in 2016.