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South Korea eviction deaths spark protests

Published Feb 5, 2009 7:39 PM

A police attack Jan. 20 on tenants resisting eviction in Seoul, South Korea, led to the death of six people. In response to this atrocity, thousands marched on both Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 demanding that the police chief be fired for this unwarranted use of force to evict people from their homes.

Five people blocking an eviction died
in this blaze.

Disputes involving evictions have become everyday occurrences in Seoul. The struggle is between real estate developers and apartment dwellers whose desire to stay in their homes gets in the way of profiteering. The rightist government now in power in South Korea has lined up with the developers, responding to every legitimate protest with massive use of police. During the weekend demonstrations, 10,000 police surrounded the crowds.

On Jan. 20, about 50 people had tried sitting in to keep from being evicted. Some 1,500 police were called in to remove them. Within 24 hours of the beginning of the protest, the government sent the equivalent of riot police or a SWAT team to storm the four-story building.

As the police charged in, a fire broke out. The police took no safety measures but proceeded with the assault. As a result, five tenants and one police officer died in the fire. (Sarabang Group for Human Rights)

Police claim the protesters threw Molotov cocktails. Progressive groups are demanding that civil organizations be guaranteed participation in the investigation process with the aim of: securing a fair and thorough investigation, punishing those responsible for the incident, reviewing current redevelopment projects that do not guarantee the tenants’ right to housing, and guaranteeing the right to housing as a human right.

The South Korean government has agreed to international human rights rules that protect the right to existing housing if no new housing has been provided. According to the demonstrators, these laws have been violated when the developers evicted tenants under government auspices. These tenants have the right to stay in the old housing if new housing offered them is inadequate, far away from the old area, or both. Tenants complained that the developers harassed them instead of negotiating with them.

Church organizations have joined the protest since the deaths, demanding that forced redevelopment projects be stopped. “The police, who are supposed to protect the socially weak, have violently suppressed them by mobilizing SWAT team and water cannons,” said a statement issued by the Catholic Urban Poor Pastoral Committee of the Seoul Archdiocese on Jan. 22. (Union of Catholic Asian News)

The church committee demanded that any redevelopment projects undertaken without the agreement of existing tenants be stopped. It also demanded that the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency commissioner, who approved the use of the SWAT team, be punished.

The National Council of Churches in Korea also issued a statement expressing deep regret about the tragic deaths: “The tragic affair happened because of the government’s neo-liberal policy, which has deepened the gap between the rich and the poor, and the police’s excessive loyalty to the government.”

Regular police in South Korea are youthful conscripts like the army. SWAT teams, on the other hand, are career riot police trained in repression.