Growing Pains (Page 3 of 4)

Even so, because the development is so large, it would be hard for the developer to move ahead if the residents were opposed. As such, since the project was announced in August 2007, the people of West Ichon have divided into dongeuija — assenters — and bandaeja — dissenters. (Yongsan Development is offering incentives to those who sign agreement papers.)

It is all but finalised that most of the neighbourhood will be demolished and redeveloped. But the project has become snagged on three residential complexes: the Daelim and Sungwon apartments, and the Dongwon apartments. These are relatively new buildings (Dongwon was built in 2005) and on a clear day many of their units have stunning views of the Han River and Mount Gwanak to the far south.

Depending on who you talk to, the number of assenting residents from these apartments has either already surpassed 50 percent or falls short. This is an important distinction, because in August, Mayor Oh said that if the majority are opposed the three complexes will be left standing as Dreamhub goes up around them.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

When I duck into the office of the North Han River Apartments Emergency Action Committee, for a moment there are blank looks — I am a bearded white man speaking Korean, and I have no appointment. But when it’s clear I’m from the press the mood suddenly warms. A cup of instant coffee finds its way into my hand; I settle into a chair, start my recorder and the three men sitting there begin to answer my questions enthusiastically, sometimes interrupting each other.

‘The protection of private property, the freedom to move and live where one wants — these are fundamental citizen rights,’ says Park Han-geun, a 69-year-old retiree who lives in the Sungwon apartments and represents its dissenting residents.

‘“You can’t move there. You can’t live in Seoul.” You can’t just order these kinds of things in a democratic society,’ Park says. ‘But what’s happening in West Ichon is a case where development was already a foregone conclusion.’

He may well have good reason to believe so. When I talk later with a representative from Yongsan Development, he says: ‘Our position is that we have to go forward with comprehensive development [as opposed to partial].’ He adds that the city also seems to have recently shifted away from the idea of leaving the three complexes out of the plan.

Kim Dong-hwan, the emergency committee’s director, says that residents are opposed to the project for a number of reasons. Some simply like where they live; most doubt that compensation will be adequate despite assurances from the developer and the city. They likely won’t know what they’re being offered for certain until next year.

Sungwon’s emergency committee recently put an ad in South Korea’s most-read newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, urging Oh to keep his promise of leaving the apartments untouched.

When I ask what might happen if that promise is not kept, Sung Ji-hoon — also a pensioner in his 70s and a Sungwon resident — leans forward out of his chair and says darkly: ‘I would predict another tragedy like what happened in Yongsan.’


Mistrust of government has deep historical roots in South Korea, according to Nah Yoonkyung, a professor of culture and gender studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University. ‘The government decision-making process has never been democratic. They just decide,’ she says. ‘It’s kind of common [knowledge] that the government has broken all its promises.’

Nah traces this way of thinking back to the Park Chung-hee era. She adds that many South Koreans (herself included) believe the law does not work for the poor — an idea, Nah says, that was highlighted by the aftermath of the Yongsan Tragedy.

On Oct. 28, a Seoul court handed down prison sentences, ranging from two to six years, to seven of the nine surviving protesters from the January clash. The other two were put on probation. The judge convicted them all on a slew of charges including manslaughter, and of starting the deadly blaze.

Their lawyer has maintained their innocence and says the fire could have been ignited by a generator or another appliance. No one denies that the protesters made Molotov cocktails and stockpiled flammable material. But supporters say they were desperate, not suicidal. They blame the police for sending in commandos, which they see as an excessive use of force that worsened an already dangerous situation.

Park Jong-min has more faith in the law and city government, but it wasn’t always so. At the beginning, Park — a Daelim resident who has lived in West Ichon since 1998 and ran an interior design business there — was one of the development’s fiercest opponents. He and a friend, Kim Mun-seon, burst into a February press conference being given by the mayor, shouting and asking where residents were supposed to go. They had to be dragged out.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief